Everybody does it. No one wants to discuss it. But what does your poo say about you? Turns out—quite a bit.
Taking a peek into the throne can actually help us understand what's going on with our bodies. Bowel movements reflect our overall digestive health and are indicators that our diet, exercise routine, stress levels, and water intake are at healthy levels. Links have been made between proper digestive functioning and disease prevention, so it's time to wake up and pay attention to what's happening behind the bathroom door.
The first step is doing a once-over of your doo to assess the situation. Here's a guide to deciphering whether or not your BMs are earning A's, but if you're not satisfied by what you leave behind in the bowl, it's time to start taking action. The question is, how can you improve your poop? We've come up with some tips to help you do just that.
1. Fine tune your fiber.
We've all heard that fiber is the key to the perfect poop, but how do you figure out the best balance? Dietary fiber refers to the parts of plants that don't break down in digestion and is made up of soluble and insoluble fiber.
Soluble fiber absorbs water and swells into a gel-like consistency, while insoluble fiber doesn't break down and passes through the system largely unchanged. Dietary fiber helps us feel satiated, reduces gut inflammation, is linked to preventing chronic digestive diseases and cancers, and helps improve overall immunity.
There are many benefits to consuming a high fiber diet, but don't rush to overhaul your grocery list all at once. Shifting from low- to high-fiber diets too suddenly has been linked to symptoms such as bloating, nausea, and flatulence. Research has also shown that eating too much fiber can sometimes make constipation worse, instead of improving symptoms.
The American Heart Association recommends getting 25 grams of fiber per day in a 2,000-calorie diet. Most Americans aren't hitting that goal, so consider working in more fiber each week until you reach the mark. Art Capperauld, certified clinician of Whole Food Nutrition and founder of Concepts for Health, emphasizes that digestive health is linked to diet. He recommends working salads with carrots and cucumbers into your daily routine to up your intake of soluble fibers, which improve stool form and fight constipation.
2. Bust a move.
Exercise is great for us for a ton of reasons, and its ability to help keep you regular is one of them. Constipation has been linked to sedentary lifestyles, and exercise is often prescribed as a cure, as it has been shown to stimulate intestinal muscle contraction to improve bowel motility.
Capperauld likens it to giving your colon a massage to help get things moving and help break down food faster. One study showed that the transit of food through the body went from 52 hours at rest to about 35 hours when daily exercise was incorporated. So keep your pipes clear with regular physical activity!
3. Don't forego your morning coffee.
There are plenty of horror stories haunting the internet about how bad coffee is for you, but don't pour out your morning cup of joe just yet. There is plenty of evidence out there to prove that coffee is, in fact, full of health benefits, and studies show that coffee is great for powering your poop.
Roshan Razik, M.D., a gastroenterologist with Cleveland Clinic Akron General, explains that the caffeine in coffee relaxes the sphincters in our intestinal tracts, leading to movement in the lower colon, which leads to a good morning No. 2.
In fact, research has pointed to regular coffee's stimulant effect being 60 percent stronger than water and 23 percent stronger than decaf. One study has shown that the stimulation can occur within four minutes of chugging down that first cup. (And of course, we've got some suggestions on how to amp up the health points of your morning cup.)
4. Kick artificial sweeteners to the curb.
Sugar substitutes such as aspartame and stevia are a dieter's dream: They offer the sweetness of sugar without the calories. But these non-nutritive sweeteners have come under fire for potentially altering the gut microbiome, causing glucose intolerance (which can lead to diabetes), and have even been tied to weight gain. The jury is still out—there are conflicting studies on whether there is a negative impact on the gut microbiome—but you may want to choose to avoid these in case.
Razik notes that the short-chain carbohydrates in artificial sweeteners can lead to excess gas production in the gut, resulting in bloating and pain. So even if you're dieting, skip the sweeteners to keep your digestion on track.
5. Mind your PUFAs and MUFAs.
What, you may be asking, are PUFAs and MUFAs? Why, polyunsaturated fatty acids and monounsaturated fatty acids, of course! These are the key players of team "good" fat. You can find them in foods such as nuts, seeds, fish, avocados, and plant-based oils.
One study even showed that eating healthy full-fat dressing on salads helps the body absorb more nutrients from the meal than fat-free or low-fat alternatives. Learn more about the myths surrounding fats and the truth behind them here.
While all fats contain the same amount of calories (9 per gram, to be exact), healthy fats pack many benefits like anti-inflammatory properties, lowering blood pressure, and—you guessed it—aiding digestion.
Razik recommends replacing foods that are high in animal and hydrogenated fat (saturated fats found in foods like margarine) with natural alternatives high in healthy fats. Reach for canola or olive oil when cooking, he advises, as they've been associated with a range of beneficial effects in the digestive system. Links have been made between irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and high-fat diets, so switching to healthier fats will help your colon to keep calm and carry on.
6. Pack in some probiotics.
Probiotics may be all the rage in the health world, but you may be asking what, exactly, they are—and what they actually do. Our gut is filled with bacteria, and the balance of our own personal gut microbiota (the population of microbes living in our guts) is linked to our overall health.
Some "good" bacteria are reported to improve intestinal health, the immune system, food sensitivities (like lactose intolerance), and brain function. Ongoing research is also being done on the use of good bacteria to treat and prevent various diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease and gastrointestinal infection.
Razik explains that ingesting probiotics, which can increase your "good" gut bacteria, are beneficial in four major ways: They suppress the growth of pathogenic (bad) bacteria, improve the barrier function of the intestinal lining, modulate the intestinal immune system, and reduce pain.
So, what are the best ways to get more probiotics? You can take two routes: Incorporate more probiotic-heavy foods into your diet or take over-the-counter supplements.
If you're the type to go au naturel in your health routine, eating probiotics might work better for you. Razik points to fermented foods like kefir, kombucha, tempeh, miso, sauerkraut, and kimchi for a boost of good bacteria. Fermented foods pack health benefits because the very microorganisms that are introduced to milk, cabbage, and other bases in order to ferment them are good for you and alter the bases to bring new health benefits to them as well.
If you want more a no-muss, no-fuss approach, try a probiotic supplement. Studies have shown that taking a pill delivers much more bacteria to your gut than dietary modifications alone. So reach for the probiotic with the most diverse strains of bacteria, as multi-strains have been shown to have the most benefits.
7. Bone up your broth game.
Since the 1930s, studies have shown that slow-cooked broths (those that have been simmering for 24-48 hours, typically) made from animal bones, vegetables, and spices are filled with protein and minerals—so the health benefits of bone broth aren't exactly new.
These days, those who swear by broth point to the benefits of collagen and gelatin, though there isn't enough scientific evidence to link those claims up to digestive health, specifically. We've explored our skepticism of the broth movement, but Capperauld notes that broth is an easy-to-digest food, so it's a great, tummy-friendly way to get in lots of minerals and amino acids.
Maybe don't use it as a cure-all, but what's the harm in drinking down a healthy dose of protein? Here are some recipes to help get your bowels on their way to making a smooth move.