Understanding Your Stool

by LAWRENCE LIEM

The color of fingernails, the strength of one’s hair, or the lines under one’s eyes are aspects of the human body that can serve as indicators of whether a person’s body is in good condition. However, one important indicator of health that may be overlooked is the stool.

Stool (also known as feces) is waste eliminated from bowel movements. People often delay seeking treatment even after they detect abnormal stool because doing so can lead to embarrassing, awkward conversations. However, if the abnormalities are due to serious medical conditions such as colorectal cancer, early detection can be essential and even life-saving

Excretion is a natural part of any living organism, but abnormal feces can be an indication of a serious health condition. Understanding one’s stool is a useful tool one can utilize to detect and to prevent any potential medical conditions.

 

Color of Stool

Noting the color of one’s stool is one of the easiest ways to tell if there are any problems. According to Bernard Aserkoff, MD, a physician in the GI Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, the product of bowel movements is generally brown in color because of bile, a compound produced in the liver that is important to the digestion process. Usually, shades of brown and green are considered normal colors for feces. Here is a chart that details different stool colors and what they can mean:

pale-yellow, greasy, foul-smelling stool

When these conditions appear, there is probably excess fat in the bowel, which means the fat is not being properly absorbed in the body. It can indicate a serious medical condition and one should seek a physician immediately.

red but not bloody stool

This can come from food items that contain red coloring. These items include beets, strawberry ice cream, red velvet cake, chili peppers, and many more. However, it is difficult to be certain whether the red coloring is a result of food colorings or blood without a professional medical opinion. Contact a physician if stool looks like it may contain blood.

bloody stool

This warrants concern as it can be a sign of cancer or an injury to the digestive tract. A doctor should be contacted immediately.

pale grey stool

This can suggest that something is wrong with the digestive tract. Since bile gives stool its natural brown color, a blockage of it may leave the feces pale in color.

black stool

This can be dried blood that results from bleedings in the esophagus or stomach. A visit to the doctor is recommended if this occurs. Black stool may also be a result of ingesting iron supplements.

green stool

Normally, green stool is caused by food items that are rich in chlorophyll(such as spinach). Taking certain medications can also result in this coloring. Thus, for the most part, green stool is not a cause for concern.

 

Note: Food coloring can affect one’s stool, so if one were to eat a blue cake or drink blue Kool-Aid, blue stool can emerge. After a few days, it should return to normal.

 

Hard vs. Soft

According to Robynne Chutkan, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Georgetown University Hospital, stool should come out in one large piece instead of many small pieces. Common causes for breakage in feces include lack of fiber in diet, bowel spasms, and excessive straining. Bodily waste that does not come out in one piece can cause additional stress during elimination. Moreover, excreted stool should have a certain density. It should be dense enough to sink but not so hard that it causes painful elimination. Here is what happens when it is on either end of this spectrum:

too watery (diarrhea)

Diarrhea occurs when the colon is not absorbing enough water from the waste materials. This leads to watery, loose stool. Most diarrhea is caused by a virus that infects the gut. Other causes of watery stool can be adverse reactions to certain foods. For instance, this condition can be caused by lactose intolerance. In rare cases, illnesses like Celiac disease can also create watery stool.

too dry (constipation)

Constipation is defined as infrequent movement of the bowels, leading to difficulty in elimination. Consuming a diet high in fat or processed foods can increase stool transit time, allowing more water to be absorbed from the stool, further exacerbating constipation. Fiber when combined with fluid will create bulk and help soften stool. On the other hand, lack of fiber combined with dehydration hardens the stool and can lead to painful excretion.

 

What can be done?

to address diarrhea

The most common cause for diarrhea is a viral infection of the gut received from unclean foods or water. It is better known as the stomach flu or food poisoning. Though medications such as Imodium can be used to alleviate the symptoms, most cases of diarrhea will go away in a few days. Since diarrhea often leaves a person dehydrated, it is recommended that people drink plenty of fluids and make certain the food consumed is clean. Proper hygiene such frequent washing is also highly recommended.

to address constipation

Constipation is often caused by lack of fiber in diet, lack of physical activity, or dehydration. If constipation persists, stool will become larger and harder to pass. This can cause a tear in the anus and result in an anal fissure.

For this condition, it is suggested that one eats plenty of fiber-rich foods and drinks plenty of fluids. Additionally, regular exercise can promote healthy bowel movements. If needed, a stool softener can be used, but always consult a doctor before starting any medication or supplement use.

 

To keep a healthy GI tract in general

To keep a healthy GI tract, consume high-fiber diet combined with plenty of water and regular exercise. Additionally, practicing food safety and proper food hygiene can help with digestive health.

high fiber

Fiber provides bulk to waste by absorbing water. Whole grain foods, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables can provide an easier trip to the restroom. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends eating at least nine servings (about two cups) of fiber-filled fruits a day.

water

Plenty of water is needed to help move feces throughout the body at a regular pace. Water provides bulk and prevents the stool from becoming too hard.

exercise

Exercise can stimulate peristalsis, the rhythmic contraction in the digestive tract, which helps to propel feces through the colon and alleviate constipation.

cleanliness

Foods should be cleaned, cooked, and stored at proper temperatures to prevent bacterial or viral infection. When traveling to underdeveloped countries, drink only bottled water and freshly cooked foods. Frequent hand washing can also prevent digestive problems.

 

BOTTOM LINE
 

Stool is a natural part of daily living and can be used as a simple preliminary measure to determine whether one has any digestive problems. However, certain medical conditions may escape the untrained eyes. It is therefore important to consult your primary care provider if you notice any abnormalities in your stool. To catch potentially serious problems in their early stages, attend your routine physical exam and pay attention to the quality of your stool. The hardness, color, and shape are all cues to the simple, yet crucial characteristics of human wastes. A healthy diet, routine exercise, high fiber intake, and proper hydration can lead to a healthier lifestyle and easier trips to the restroom.   

 

Winter 2013 | Vol. 13 | Issue 3