What is a Healthy Bowel Movement?
Not exactly a topic of conversation on a girls’ night out, is it?! Poo is definitely not the most glamorous of topics, so we can end up going through our lives and never really talking about it. This can mean we go for years and years either not really thinking about our bowel habits, or thinking they’re normal. This isn’t good as we could be missing an opportunity to improve how we’re feeling!
If you’ve been struggling with IBS for years, you might have totally lost track and be wondering what on earth a normal poo actually looks like. It’s really important to take the time to assess your poo, because you can learn so much about your specific type of IBS and what’s going on in your digestive system by what your poo is like.
Now, we are all unique and our bowel movements are too. So, what’s normal for your friends might be totally different to what’s normal for you. Despite that, there are some guidelines around what a healthy poo looks like.
The first, and probably most talked about tool is looking at the form of your poo, which means the shape and the consistency. The Bristol Stool Chart is the go-to guide to helping you understand what a healthy poo looks like and, therefore, what your IBS sub-type is.
When they devised the Bristol Stool Chart, they determined that the shape of your poo varies depending on your transit time (how long it takes your food to move through your body). This is because, the longer it takes to move through your intestines, the more water is drawn out of it, and the harder the poo is.
Each type on the chart tells you something about your digestion:
Type 1 - Hard lumps - This is a sign of a very slow transit time and constipation. Food is staying in your intestines for a long time, so the intestines are soaking up all the water in it, making it hard to pass without straining. This can be caused by dehydration, antibiotics wiping out good bacteria or a low fibre diet.
Type 2 - Sausage-shaped but lumpy - This is also a sign of a very slow transit time and constipation, which could be for the same reasons as above. The difference is that, in this instance, adding more fibre probably won’t help.
Type 3 - Sausage-shaped with cracks - This is a sign of mild constipation, but still in the ‘normal’ range.
Type 4 - Long, smooth, soft sausage - This is the ideal bowel movement! It shows that you’re going regularly, have a good transit time and have enough good bacteria and water in your gut. The holy grail of bowel movements!
Type 5 - Soft blobs with clear cut edges - This could be an ideal stool for a fast digester or it could be a sign of mild diarrhoea. This normally happens if you go more than once a day and the compaction needed to make a long one doesn’t have time to occur. It can also be caused by a lack of fibre to bulk it up.
Type 6 - Fluffy pieces with ragged edges - This is a sign of diarrhoea. These will be hard to keep in and when they’re ready, they’re ready. It’s a sign that the poo is moving through you too quickly which can be caused by stress, laxatives, spices or fatty meals.
Type 7 - Entirely liquid - This is severe diarrhoea and is dangerous because you lose lots of fluid, so can lead to dehydration and nutrient malabsorption. This could be caused by food poisoning, a parasite or antibiotics, as the body is trying to quickly get rid of any invaders.
As you can see, there is a huge range in possible bowel movements. However, the ‘ideal’ is to have soft, well-formed poos which are easily passed (between type 3 and 5).
How often are you going?
As a general guide, it is normal to go anywhere from 1-3 times a day to 3 times a week. The ideal would be to go at least once a day, though. Diarrhoea is clinically defined as going more than 3 times a day. Constipation is clinically defined as going less than 3 times a week. However, it can make you feel really uncomfortable if you miss one day.
It’s also quite normal to want to poo after a meal, thanks to something called the gastrocolic reflex. When you eat, you trigger this, which is just the movement of food through your system to make room for the next meal, which can lead to a bowel movement.
Also, your bowel movements should be smooth and painless. You shouldn’t have to push or strain and they shouldn’t make you feel ill or flu-like.
We normally just assume our bowel movements are brown, but there are a whole range of other colours that can get in there too, and each one means something different.
BROWN - this is normal and healthy. Poo is normally brown because of the bile that the liver produces.
GREEN or YELLOW - this is a sign of too much bile. If the poo moved through your system too quickly and the bacteria in the gut didn’t have time to break down the bile, this can happen. It can then make it hard for your body to absorb fats properly (as it needs the bile to do that). Herbal digestive bitters can really help with this!
GREEN - this could happen if you suddenly add in a spirulina supplement to your diet or you start eating loads of green veggies, which obviously isn’t a cause for concern.
RED - if your poo looks red, first, check if you’ve eaten beets/beetroot or dragon fruit (I’ve made the mistake of freaking out too soon before). If you haven’t, then the red might be blood so you should contact a doctor immediately.
BLACK - if you’ve just started taking iron supplements or prenatals, you might notice your poo looking more black, so this isn’t a cause for concern. However, if you haven’t then, again, talk to your doctor immediately, as it could be old blood in your poo.
MUCUS/CLEAR, FOGGY SUBSTANCE - this might be a sign of constipation or diarrhoea or inflammation in your body. If you have to wipe more than 3 times, it implies there’s too much mucus in your poo.
How is your poo acting? Do you ever look at your poo once it’s in the toilet bowl? This might seem totally gross but it can really help you to spot any problems with your digestion.
Here are a few things to look out for:
FLOATING POOS - floaters can be a sign of high fat content. This could be down to a lot of fat in your diet or it could be down to fat malabsorption. The other potential cause is gas. Your poo could be filled with gas from bacteria or trapped air. A healthy poo should sink straight down to the bottom.
BITS OF UNDIGESTED FOOD - this is normal with things like corn and seeds. However, if it’s happening regularly with all different types of food, it can be a signal that your digestion isn’t working properly and therefore you’re not absorbing those nutrients. If you find this, I’d recommend speaking to a doctor.
SMELL - this isn’t something to worry about. Smell is totally unique and varies depending on food and person.
GAS - gas is a totally normal, healthy bodily function. However, if it is constant and uncomfortable it could be a sign of an overgrowth of bad bacteria, eating too quickly or intolerance to some foods, e.g. FODMAPs.
WHAT IF SOMETHING CHANGES?
If you see a sudden change in your bowel habits, it’s a sign that your digestion has changed. This could be due to diet, bacteria, or emotions such as stress. Have a think about whether any of these things may have changed. If not, it might be a good idea to speak to a doctor and see if you can find out why your bowel habits have changed.
You might have totally lost track and be wondering what on earth a normal poo actually looks like.
It’s really important to take the time to assess your poo, because you can learn so much about your specific type of IBS and what’s going on in your digestive system by what your poo is like.
We are all unique and our bowel movements are too, but there are some guidelines around what a healthy poo looks like:
Form - the ‘ideal’ is to have soft, well-formed poos which are easily passed (between type 3 and 5)
Frequency - it is ideal to go 1-3 times a day
Colour - a brown poo is normal and healthy
Behaviour - a normal poo should sink straight down to the bottom, without too much gas or bits of undigested food
WHAT TO DO
If you’re struggling with IBS and have no idea if your bowel movement are healthy, it’s time to start tracking. If you want to gain some insight into what’s going on with your digestion and what you can do to improve it, tracking your bowel movements is a great place to start.
The best way to do this is through a poo diary. This is as simple as noting down when you open your bowels and what your poo looks like (Bristol Stool Chart type, colour and behaviour). You should record every time you go, no matter how small.
I’d recommend keeping one for a week and then taking a few minutes to go through this article and compare your habits against the recommendations here. Once you’ve done that, you can also use it to work out your IBS sub-type with this post.
Have you ever done a poo diary? Let me know in the comments below.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this and letting me be a part of your journey in taking control of your gut, eating well and living your life.