Unless you’re a potty-trained toddler, we’re going to guess that you don’t spend a lot of time talking about poop. Or even admit that it happened. But here’s why you want to pay attention to #2 before you blush: It’s one of the best signs of your health. “Your bowel movements are the only real indicator of how healthy your G.I. is,” says gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, MD, author of What’s Your Poo Telling You.
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Knowing what’s normal for you will make it easier to spot problems early when they’re easier to deal with. However, “don’t make daily changes,” says Sheth. “But look for consistent change.” Because you may notice a temporary abnormality that lasts a day or two, depending on what you eat. But if you notice changes that last a week or more and aren’t due to recent dietary changes, you should make an appointment with your doctor. Talking about bowel movements might not be your idea of a good time, but it could save your life.
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Check out these seven things your poop can tell you about your health.
If your poop is… Hard and lumpy, you need to strain to get it out
It could mean: You’re constipated, but you probably already knew that. “However, some people believe that they are not constipated if they go to the bathroom every day, but if your stool is constantly hard and comes out in pieces, but it is soft and comes out without much effort, you may be constipated,” said Sheth. The most common culprit is insufficient fiber intake. The average US adult consumes just 15 grams of fiber per day, a fraction of the recommended daily intake of 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men. Read labels and keep a food diary for the week to track how much fiber you’re getting. If you’re lacking, supplement your diet with additional fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds. (Check out the 23 high-fiber winners of our Cleanest Packaged Food Awards.)
It could mean: Something in your G.I. bleeding from the road. “Most of the time, blood in the stool is related to something as benign as hemorrhoids,” says Sheth. It can be caused by stomach ulcers or colon cancer, so it is very important to tell your doctor if you notice blood in the toilet bowl. Some over-the-counter medications, such as Pepto-Bismol, can make your stool black. This causes the sulfur in your digestive tract to combine with bismuth, the drug’s active ingredient, to form bismuth sulfide, a black substance. Discoloration is temporary and harmless and may occur a few days after you stop taking Pepto.
It may mean: You have celiac disease. Although it only affects about 1% of the population, it’s estimated that 83% of Americans who have celiac disease don’t know they have it, according to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness. Signs in your stool may be one of the major—and possibly the only—indications you have it. With celiac disease, your body is unable to tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Eating gluten destroys villi (the tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining your small intestines) and you’re unable to absorb nutrients from the foods you eat. This contributes to the loose stools you could experience several times a day. Talk to your doctor about whether you should be screened for celiac disease. Switching to a gluten-free diet can aid absorption, firm up your stools, and address any other related symptoms such as fatigue, pain, bloating, depression, or rashes.