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The Truth About Your Poop


Let's face it, digestion happens. Few of us, however, are able to talk about the end result without embarrassment. It's too bad we're not more willing to pay attention to our stools, because they may be just as useful in diagnosing our health as taking our temperature or our blood pressure.

"People can tell a measure of their health by their bowel movement," says Ted Loftness, M.D., an internist in Litchfield, Minn. "Nothing is so overrated as sex and so underrated as a good bowel movement."

From your stool you may be able to get clues about your diet, your gastrointestinal health, and even whether your stress, anger, or anxiety levels are too high.

How Food Becomes Stool

From the moment food enters your mouth, your body embarks on a campaign to turn it into a soupy mush called chyme. Chewing, saliva, peristalsis (the involuntary contractions of gastrointestinal muscles), bacteria, hydrochloric acid, digestive enzymes, bile, and other secretions all work to give each meal the consistency of split pea soup. While your digestive cells are absorbing sugars, starches, fats, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients, waste products continue traveling down the line. In the colon, all the leftovers are combined, packed together, and partially dehydrated. What remain--our feces--consist of water, indigestible fiber, undigested food (such as corn and small seeds), sloughed-off dead cells, living and dead bacteria, intestinal secretions, and bile. (The worn-out red blood cells in bile give excrement its distinctive brown color.)

If all goes as it should, you'll end up with a healthy bowel movement. Although digestive idiosyncrasies, variations in intestinal bacteria, and other variables can produce different standards for a healthy stool, in general it should be brown to light brown; formed but not hard; cylindrical, not flattened; fairly bulky and full-bodied, not compacted; somewhat textured but not too messy; and very easy to pass. And it shouldn't smell--much. "You're passing methane and bacterial, degraded foodstuffs, so there's always going to be an odor," says Patrick Donovan, N.D., a naturopath in Seattle. "But it shouldn't be a very strong, pungent odor."

Experts disagree on two other stool characteristics: the number of pieces and their buoyancy. Each bowel movement preferably should be in one piece, about the shape and size of a banana and tapered at the end, according to Melanie Ferreira, a nutritionist and instructor at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Food and Health in New York City. Others, however, object. "Stools don't have to be well-formed logs," Donovan says. "They can disperse in the toilet water; they can break down."

As for "floating versus sinking," one school argues that stools should float. Ferreira says buoyancy is a sign that the body has absorbed the minerals in the food and that these nutrients are not contained in the waste. Another camp believes healthy bowel movements should touch bottom because of their bulk and fiber content. Loftness is not impressed with either argument: "Most stools will sink," he says. "Whether it floats or sinks really doesn't seem to make any difference."

An occasional deviation from this total picture is usually considered okay; chronic deviations (or any featuring blood) are not, and should be checked with a doctor. For a list of specific characteristics that may point to health problems, see our chart below.

If Your Stool Looks...
It Could Mean...
BLACK, TARRY,
AND STICKY

Bleeding in your upper digestive tract. The black color comes from digested blood cells.


VERY DARK BROWN

You drank red wine last night or have too much salt or not enough vegetables in your diet.

GLOWING RED OR MAGENTA
You've eaten a lot of reddish foods such as beets.


LIGHT GREEN

You're consuming too much sugar, or too many fruits and vegetables with not enough grains or salt.

PALE OR CLAY-COLORED
Minimal amounts of bile are being excreted, perhaps because of problems with the gallbladder or liver.

BLOODY OR MUCUS-COVERED
Hemorrhoids, an overgrowth of certain bacteria in your gastrointestinal tract, colitis (inflammation of the colon), Crohn's disease (also known as inflammatory bowel disease), or colon cancer. Red blood usually means the ailment is located near the end of your digestive tract, whereas black blood signals partially digested blood coming from an ailment higher up the tract. Seek medical advice promptly.


PENCIL-THIN AND RIBBONLIKE

A polyp or growth in your colon that narrows the passage for stool.

LARGE AND FLOATING, WITH GREASY FILM ON TOILET WATER

Malabsorption--your digestive system isn't getting the full nutritional use of food.
LOOSE AND WATERY, SOMETIMES WITH UNDIGESTED FOODSTUFFS
Diarrhea. Possible causes are food ,poisoning lactose intolerance, antibiotics, antacids, dietary changes, travel, anxiety, stress, inflammatory bowel disease, or irritable bowel syndrome.

SMALL, HARD, ROUND PELLETS
Constipation--even if you're defecating frequently. Possible causes are eating too much dry food, including protein, and not enough vegetables and raw foods; laxative abuse; worries; or irritable bowel syndrome.

ALTERNATING BOUTS OF DIARRHEA AND CONSTIPATION
Irritable bowel syndrome. This chronic condition can be aggravated by red meat, spices, sugar, alcohol, lack of fiber, allergy-causing foods, irregular hours, and chaotic relationships.

REALLY BAD-SMELLING
An imbalance of intestinal bacteria or eating too much animal protein, which can putrefy in your digestive tract.

When Movements Stall

One of the most common gastrointestinal complaints is hard feces and infrequent and difficult elimination --better known as constipation. If chronic, it may contribute to autoimmune diseases and colon or breast cancer. "The longer stool stays in the colon, the more one reabsorbs some of the metabolic products [such as estrogen] that have been excreted in the bile," says Donovan, who treats people with cancer in his naturopathic clinic. "We can see increased risk of breast cancer in women with a history of constipation."

Experts agree that regularity is important, but they disagree sharply how often the average person should eliminate. The National Institute for Diabetes, Kidney, and Digestive Diseases says three times a week is normal and healthy for some people. According to Ayurveda, the Indian healing system, once a day provides an ideal, complete evacuation, says Virender Sodhi, M.D., an Ayurvedic doctor and naturopath in Bellevue, Wash. Ferreira thinks once or twice a day is the right frequency, while Donovan says a person should have a bowel movement within two to three hours of a major meal--or two to three times a day.

Regular bowel movements may contribute to more than better physical health. "The act of digestion and elimination can be seen as a metaphor for our ability to absorb what is useful from our experiences and eliminate what is unnecessary, harmful, or holds us back," Ferreira says. "If you have a healthy bowel movement each day, you're letting go of the past and bringing in the new."

IMPROVING YOUR STOOL The three basics required for healthy bowel movements (and a healthy digestive system) are fiber, fluids, and exercise. If your stool doesn't fit the profile of a healthy bowel movement, the following steps can make it better.

* Eat more dietary fiber found in whole foods, especially grains, vegetables, and fruits. Fiber allows waste to pass through your digestive system smoothly and quickly.

* Drink plenty of fluids (preferably water, as opposed to sugary drinks) to prevent intestinal blockage from excess fiber.

* Exercise daily. Even a walking program, Loftness says, promotes bowel regularity.

* Regularly eat foods that are known to stimulate the flow of digestive enzymes, including brown rice; pungent foods such as garlic, ginger, and onions; and daikon radish, according to Ferreira.

* Eat fermented foods such as miso (soybean paste), tempeh (soybean cakes), high-quality yogurt, and pickles to replenish the beneficial bacteria in your gut.

* Minimize or end your intake of coffee, laxatives, and refined foods, all of which interfere with regular elimination. Be aware that certain prescription drugs, such as antibiotics and birth control pills, can also hamper bowel movements. If you're having trouble with constipation, ask your doctor if you can change or reduce the medications you're taking.

* Pay attention to your food while you eat, says Sodhi. Sit down. Turn off the television. Don't read or listen to the radio. "Look at the food, the aroma, the color. That creates a kind of relationship between you and the food," he says. It will improve your digestion.

* Heed the call of nature. Go to the bathroom when you feel the urge to eliminate, not just when it's convenient. Doing otherwise can encourage constipation.

* Reduce your levels of stress, which can cause constipation, diarrhea, or other less-than-perfect bowel movements. Try a stress-reducing technique such as meditation or yoga.

* If you're daring, consider this: Squat on the rim of the toilet in your bare or stocking feet while you eliminate. "Squatting straightens the recto-anal angle and opens it more fully so elimination is much easier," says yoga practitioner Richard Ravizza, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Pennsylvania State University in Scranton. "You could think of it as straightening a partially kinked garden hose."

Martiga Lohn is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis, Minn.



Reference Sources: findarticles.com

March 10, 2010
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