Do you ever turn around after going number two, to see what’s left in the toilet bowl?
You may not care to see what your poop looks like, and it’s hardly dinner conversation material— but I highly encourage you to start looking at your poop, even if you’d rather not. Your poop is an excellent teacher, and can tell you a lot about your health. You know what they say: eyes are the window to your soul, and poop is the window to your health.
Why Your Poop Health Should Matter to You
The size, color, frequency, shape, smell, texture, and even the sound your poop makes when it hits the toilet bowl, all indicate whether or not your digestive system is healthy. Since your gut influences all areas of your health, from cognitive function to immunity, having the 4-1-1 on your pee-oh-oh is crucial for improving and maintaining your overall wellness (1)(2).
In just a moment, I’ll tell you exactly what to look for in the toilet bowl, including what constitutes a good poop, and which signs raise warning bells. Before we get to that, I’m going to explain how to judge your poop health using a simple test called “The Bowel Transit Time Test”.
Bowel Transit Time Test: “A Sluggish Colon is a Toxic Colon”
When you hear the words “bowel transit time,” it may sound like your poop is riding the subway. And in a strange way, it kind of is. You see, your bowel transit time is like an “ETA” (estimated time of arrival) of the average time it takes food to pass through your digestive tract and leave your body in the form of a bowel movement.
Knowing your bowel transit time is important because it can be an early indicator of health problems, many of which begin in the digestive tract and spread throughout the body (such as an autoimmune disease, or cancer)(3). Your bowel transit time gives you an idea of how long waste is sitting in your digestive tract, and whether this length of time is a threat to your health (4).
When waste accumulates for an extended period of time in your large intestine, rather than being promptly eliminated, it begins to ferment and putrefy (5).
This sludgy waste attracts bad bacteria like bees to pollen, allowing them to “feast,” grow, and overpopulate your large intestine. These bad bacteria not only deplete your natural stores of good gut bacteria, they also produce toxins that can cause inflammation, and allow your body to reabsorb metabolic waste products (such as hormones) back into your bloodstream (6)(7).
There’s a saying that goes: “a sluggish colon is a toxic colon,” which is not only true, but downright alarming, as the average American is said to be carrying around 20 pounds of fecal matter. To find out if you’re one of them, give the Bowel Transit Time Test a try.
How to Take the Bowel Transit Time Test
I have good news: the BTT test doesn’t involve white latex gloves, long creepy tubes, or uncomfortable poking. Nope. You can do it in the comfort of your own home for less than $5.
Here’s how to do it:
Step 1– Gather a “bowel transit time food marker.” Choose between 3 beets, 4 capsules of activated charcoal, or 2 tablespoons of liquid chlorophyll. You can find all of these ingredients at your local health food store in the supplements section.
If you opt for beets, eat them however you’d like: steamed, roasted, boiled, baked, juiced, blended— it’s entirely up to you.
Step 2- Eat (or drink) your bowel transit time marker in one sitting, right after your first bowel movement of the day. Write down the exact time you consumed them.
Step 3- If you don’t already, now’s the time to start looking at your poop! To find out your bowel transit time, you’ll need to check your poop each time you have a BM, to see if your transit marker has come out the other end.
If you used beets, you’re looking for red poop. Activated charcoal, black poop. Liquid chlorophyll, green poop.
Step 4- Once you spot your transit marker for the first time, make note of the time you passed it. Now just calculate the time between the time of eating and the first sighting in the toilet bowel and you have your transit time!
What’s a Normal Bowel Transit Time?
If your transit time was within the 12-24 hour range, give yourself a round of applause— waste is leaving your body in a timely manner! Woo-hoo!
Anywhere between 12-24 hours is considered a normal transit time, while less than 12 hours is too fast, and over 24 hours is too slow (8).
Now, we’ve covered the dangers of sluggish digestion and waste accumulation, but if your transit time is too fast (under 12 hours), this also presents a problem. When food passes through you too quickly, you’re at a greater risk for nutrient deficiencies because essential nutrients aren’t being properly digested— which leads to a whole other host of health problems, and prevents your body from functioning optimally (8).
If your transit time wasn’t within the ideal time 12-24 hour time frame, don’t worry— that’s what this article is for! I’m going to give you the lowdown on how to poop like a champ and improve your transit time, and before you know it, you’ll be a pooping pro. However, there are certain factors that can temporarily influence your bowel transit time such as:
- A lack of fiber
- High stress levels
- Hidden food sensitivities or intolerances
- Too much or too little exercise
- Intestinal inflammation and/or leaky gut syndrome
How Often Should You Take the Bowel Transit Test?
Since your bowel transit time is critical to your digestive function and overall health, it’s important to test your transit time at least every few months. This way, you can correct and prevent any potential health concerns early on, before they lead to more serious health conditions in the future (hypothyroidism, leaky gut, autoimmune conditions, and even anxiety and depression have links to compromised gut health)(9)(10)(11).
If you have existing digestive symptoms or conditions, it’s a good idea to test your transit time once a month. The good news is: all you have to do is chase back a few charcoal supplements, or roast a few beets— it doesn’t get easier than that!
Alright, now that we’ve covered the importance of the BTT test, let’s talk poop aesthetics.
The Healthy Poop Checklist
What makes poop good or bad? From a visual standpoint, The Bristol Chart explains everything you need to know.
The Bristol Chart illustrates 7 different poop-types, categorized by size, shape and texture. Ideally you’ll want your poop to look like contestant number four: smooth and soft like a sausage, or big-brown-banana-esque.
✓ Healthy Poop is Easy to Pass.
No straining or pushing, as if you’re in “poop labor.”
✓ Healthy Poop is Solid.
Well formed, no rabbit pellets.
✓ Healthy Poop is Smooth and Soft.
It should gently slide to the bottom of the toilet bowl, rather than causing a heavy, loud splash.
✓ Healthy Bowel Movements Occur 1-3 Times Per Day.
✓ Healthy Poop is Free From Undigested Food Particles.
Corn, nuts, and seeds are the most common foods to pass through the GI tract undigested.
✓ Healthy Poop is Light Brown in Color.
Healthy poop is light brown due to bilirubin, an orange-yellow pigment produced by your liver, which breaks down red blood cells during digestion (12). As it travels through your GI tract and gets mixed with fiber, bile and other sludgy colored waste products, the orange-yellow pigment gives it a lighter brown hue.
Note: if your poop is green, I’ll address why that could be (and what to do about it) under the “bad poop” section— coming up in just a few.
✓ Healthy Poop Doesn’t Have a Foul Odor.
Poop has an odor— there’s no getting around that. Since it’s made up of undigested fiber, bacteria, toxins and metabolic waste products, poop won’t come out smelling like a bouquet of daisies, but it shouldn’t smell totally putrid, either.
Healthy poop should have an “earthy” scent (I’m not saying it will be pleasant). If it has a foul odor, this suggests an overgrowth of bad bacteria is present, and may be an indication of inflammatory bowel disease (13)(14).
✓ Healthy Poop Doesn’t Float.
As we covered above, your poop should gently slide to the bottom of the toilet bowl. If it floats, you may not be digesting fats properly. If your poop lands with a big splash, your stool is heavy and hard, which means you may be lacking fiber in your diet (but more on “bad poop” in a moment).
✓ Healthy Poop is Satisfying.
Going to the bathroom should be satisfying: no pain, no strain, and somewhat like reaching a state of nirvana. It should pass easily, and provide a sense of lightness and relief.
Oh, and of course: wiping..
Healthy poop shouldn’t leave red blood behind on the TP, or need to be wiped more than 3 times. While there’s limited research to back this up, some sources suggest having to wipe multiple times indicates excess mucous is present in the large intestine, which is caused by refined sugar, wheat, dairy and other food intolerances.
So, you’ve got the scoop on good poop. Now let’s look at the signs that suggest your BM’s have room for improvement.
As Mark Sisson, author of the popular primal lifestyle blog, Mark’s Daily Apple, points out:
“Your bowels are sensitive and contain important nerve endings and beneficial bacteria. If these become stressed or out of balance, you’ll know just by looking at your feces (and you’ll likely feel this, as well, with bloating, cramping, or discomfort).”
If you refer back to the Bristol Stool Chart above, pretty much any poop that isn’t #4 can be considered a less-than-perfect-poo. Lumpy, hard, rabbit-pellet-like, off colored and runny— all of these poops suggest intestinal irritation, and/or inflammation is present.
So, as you’ve likely gathered, bad poop has all the qualities good poop does not: it may be chalky, have mucus or undigested food particles in it, float to the top, or be a tar-black color. Having green poop is also a concern, and may need immediate attention from a doctor (Learn more about what having green poop means, and when it’s a serious health issue right here).
All of these “bad poop” factors suggest your body isn’t breaking down food properly (especially fats), and that you’re not digesting and absorbing the nutrients from what you’re eating. (And I don’t know about you, but I feel ripped off by an improper poo. It makes for an unsatisfying bathroom trip where it’s all pain, strain and zero gain.)
As we mentioned under the “healthy poop checklist” , bowel movements should also be occurring daily, and under no circumstance should your poop be runny enough to drink out of a straw (gaaah!!). You may be familiar with the names these two poops go by: constipation and diarrhea.
Constipation: Where’s My Poop?
First up, we have constipation.
For poop to qualify as “constipated”, it’s generally agreed that it’s infrequent and of poor form. Some health practitioners suggest you’re constipated if you aren’t pooping out three smooth sausages per day, but it’s generally agreed that constipation looks like this:
Mild constipation: going every other day.
Moderate constipation: going every third day.
Severe constipation: going once per week.
When it comes to the consistency of “constipated” poop, bowel movements will generally fall between a 1-3 on the Bristol Stool Chart, which aren’t as well formed and involve pain and strain.
So, whaddya do when you can’t poo?
How to Poop When Constipated
To get things moving smoothly, here are some tips to help you “lube up” your internal pipes and say goodbye to intestinal traffic jams.
Step 1: Eat More Fat (But Make Sure it’s The Good Kind)
The oil in healthy fats helps to lubricate your intestines, which speeds up the elimination process and makes stools easier to pass. The fats you want to be focusing on are mostly omega-3s and 6s, those found in avocado, wild salmon, olive oil, fermented cod liver oil, organic grass-fed meat and butter, coconut oil, nuts and seeds.
In fact, many of my clients who are prone to constipation find relief by adding 1 tbsp of coconut oil to warm herbal tea before bed.
The fats you want to steer clear from are refined vegetable oils, hydrogenated oils, and trans-fats from deep fried foods. These fats are pro-inflammatory, and can cause or worsen existing digestive issues by promoting inflammation in your GI tract (15).
Step 2: Supplement with Triphala
Triphala is a supplement used widely in Ayurveda (ancient Indian medicine) for improving digestive disorders. It acts as a gentle laxative to relieve constipation by moistening the gut lining (16).
Triphala is made from three exotic fruits: amalaki, bibhitaki, and haritaki, which have been studied for their synergistic ability to support liver function and strengthen immunity (17).
While triphala supplements are considered generally safe to use, it’s always best to check with your healthcare practitioner before introducing any new supplements to your routine, especially since each person may require a different dosage for best results.
Step 3: Drink Smooth Move Tea Before Bed
Traditional Medicinals makes an herbal tea for constipation relief, called Smooth Move, which can be found at your local health food store and ordered online through Amazon. Smooth Move combines senna, fennel, coriander and ginger to help relieve cramping and nausea, while stimulating your body’s natural elimination process (18).
Since Smooth Move has mild laxative properties, it’s recommended to drink it at night before bed, to promote elimination first thing in the AM.
Step 4: Drink Bone Broth
Better yet, get yourself a warm mug of bone broth.
Bone broth is rich in the amino acid, glycine, an anti-inflammatory nutrient which can help promote fat digestion (19). Additionally, bone broth is one of the only food sources to contain collagen and gelatin, which are two proteins that help “seal and heal” the gut lining, and repair damage to the intestinal wall that’s present in conditions such as leaky gut (20).
Bone broth is a savory treat on its own, but if you’re looking for other ways to enjoy it, here are 26 delicious ways to get bone broth’s goodness in your diet.
Step 5: Start Squatting
Now, I’m not suggesting to get on your Nikes and book it to Crossfit (although, moderate exercise would get things flowing in the right direction)- I’m talking about getting squatty on the potty.
We’re accustomed to sitting on the toilet hunched over, but that’s not actually the natural position we’re meant to poop in. Toilets weren’t even invented until the 1500s! What did our ancestors do? They squatted, and they had healthy poop because of it.
Squatting with a slight arch in your back allows your anal sphincter to open up, to allow fudge to flow more freely— rather than assuming a hunched over position, which causes congestion and “kinks up” your colon. Just picture a bent straw versus a straight straw: which on allows more liquid to pass through?
Since we’re past the caveman era of squatting in caves and shrubs, you can get your squat on at home by using a Squatty Potty. You can also assume a squatting position by placing a foot stool in front of your porcelain throne and leaning slightly forward.
Step 6: Eliminate Foods That Promote Constipation
The foods listed below are proinflammatory, which can irritate your digestive tract and lead to constipation. Foods such as dairy and gluten are also common food sensitivities, which further irritate your gut.
- Refined sugar
- Refined flour (processed carbs such as muffins, white bread, pastries)
- Caffeine *
- Alcohol *
*Caffeine and alcohol are also dehydrating, which is a primary cause of constipation.
Step 7: Increase Your Movement and Exercise Time
Moving and shaking in the gym: there’s no better way to loosen things up in your digestive tract.
In fact, some forms of gentle exercise like yoga can massage the organs and muscles involved in elimination, which helps relieve constipation. A quick Google search will tell you which poses are best for digestion, and you can do them in the comfort of your own home any time of day.
Exercise also helps relieve emotional stress, which is another major cause of sluggish bowels (21).
Step 8: Take a Probiotic Supplement
We’ve covered the importance of fermented foods for digestive health, but you can also take a probiotic supplement for a more therapeutic dose of good bacteria. Increasing your healthy gut bacteria is particularly effective for constipation as it helps reduce inflammation and prevents bad bacteria from accumulating (22).
In particular, two strains of probiotics have been studied for reducing constipation and diarrhea: lactobacillus plantarum and bifidobacterium longum (23)(24). Based on these findings, the best probiotic supplements for IBS symptoms should contain one (or both) of these strains.
Again, lacto-fermented foods such as sauerkraut, beet kvass, and coconut milk yogurt are also good sources of beneficial bacteria.
Step 9: Add Anti-Inflammatory Carbs to Your Diet (Gluten-Free and Grain-Free)
Thanks to the diet trends of the 90s, many of us still see carbs as the enemy. However, a low carb diet may actually leave you more prone to constipation, and here’s why. 1) Carbs provide fiber to bulk up your stool, 2) Certain carbs contain prebiotics, which act as food to feed your healthy gut bacteria, and 3) Restricting carbs can actually decrease your thyroid hormone production (25).
Now, when we’re talking about carbs here, I’m referring mostly to root vegetables and small amounts of gluten free grains, such as sweet potato, quinoa, wild rice, turnips, squash, plantains, and root veggies. The sweet spot for optimal digestion and hormone balance seems to be between 75-150 grams daily.
*A note on fiber: while fiber is a critical nutrient for healthy digestion and well-formed BMs, it also requires plenty of water to keep it moving through your digestive tract (it is know to be a “bulking agent” after all). So, always make sure to increase your water and fiber consumption simultaneously to prevent and relieve constipation.
If you’re wondering how much water you need each day for optimal digestion, here’s a simple equation that can give you a general guideline of how much water to drink each day:
Your body weight in pounds / 2 = _______ oz of water*
*plus an extra for each coffee or alcoholic beverage consumed, or if you’ve done intense exercise.
For example, let’s say you weigh 150 lbs. You’ll divide 150 by 2, which equals 75 oz, or roughly 9 cups.
Alright, now that we’ve covered constipation, let’s discuss its opposite: diarrhea.
Diarrhea: Who Opened the Floodgates?
Diarrhea is defined as runny, liquid bowel movements (see type 6 and 7 on the Bristol Stool Chart), which are typically— but not always— frequently discharged from your body (Yes, there’s a reason they call diarrhea the “runs”).
Like constipation, diarrhea presents itself in varying degrees:
- Mild diarrhea: happens once per week
- Moderate diarrhea: happens every third day
- Severe diarrhea: every day
- Extremely severe diarrhea: going multiple times a day, every day
There are a few reasons why you shouldn’t ignore diarrhea, especially if it’s happening for more than a day or two. Diarrhea is a sign of major inflammation in your digestive tract and may be a symptom of an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis (26). Chronic diarrhea is also a common symptom of Celiac disease (in fact, it’s estimated 83% of people with Celiac disease are undiagnosed (27)).
You’ll also remember from above, diarrhea suggests food is moving through your system too quickly, preventing your body from absorbing essential nutrients for optimal health.
Note: if you’re experiencing severe diarrhea, please close your browser and get to a doctor’s office ASAP! Otherwise, read on to learn what causes diarrhea and how to be done with the runs.
What Causes Diarrhea?
Diarrhea shares many of the same causes as constipation. I’ve narrowed it down to the top 11:
- SIBO (small intestinal bacterial overgrowth).
- Food and Drinks: alcohol, caffeine, grains (they contain a protein called prolamins, which are known to cause diarrhea in people with compromised gut health (28)).
- Candida (yeast overgrowth).
- Leaky gut (also known as hyper intestinal permeability).
- Emotional stress.
- Blood sugar imbalances.
- Overexercising. Exercise promotes blood to flow away from the intestines. Fluids and electrolytes needed for healthy digestion are also lost through sweating and rigorous exercise (29).
- Hormonal imbalances. As we briefly mentioned above, hypothyroidism is a common cause of constipation, and that’s partially because it slows down your metabolism (30). Hyperthyroidism, on the other hand, results when your thyroid is overactive, which can speed up your digestion and metabolism, and cause mild diarrhea (31).
- Side effects of antibiotics.
- Bacterial infections such as salmonella, parasites, and viral infections.
- Menstrual cycles in females.
Females also tend to be more prone to diarrhea right before, or during menstruation. In this phase of a woman’s cycle, the sex hormone progesterone tells the uterine lining to shed, which releases compounds called prostaglandins (32). Prostaglandins have hormone-like effects, which stimulate muscle contractions in the uterus and can lead to overactivity (read: faster digestion) of the GI tract.
So, ladies: if you only experience mild diarrhea around the time of your period, it’s generally not a cause for concern.
How to Get Rid of Diarrhea
When it comes to closing those floodgates, the first (and most important) thing to do is improve the consistency of your stool by eating more fiber. Many of the constipation remedies listed above work for diarrhea too— such as:
- Drinking bone broth
- Taking probiotic supplements and eating fermented foods
- Reducing stress
- Gentle exercise to “massage” smooth muscle tissue
- Considering hidden food allergies and sensitivities
- Staying hydrated
Once you’ve implemented, and/or ruled out these factors, here are some other natural ways to get rid of diarrhea.
Turmeric is a bright orange, pungent herb, known for being a powerful anti-inflammatory. Turmeric’s active ingredient, curcumin, may help soothe and reduce inflammation in the intestinal tract, and prevent bouts of diarrhea (33).
You can add turmeric to your diet in fresh or powdered form (the fresh form looks exactly like ginger root, and can be used in place of ginger for teas, soups, stir fries, and other recipes). You can also take turmeric supplements in capsule form.
Bananas (and plantains) are one of the most common remedies for diarrhea because they’re easy to digest, contain fiber to help solidify your stool, and are rich in potassium, an important electrolyte for maintaining the fluid balance in your body (34). Potassium also plays a role in regulating muscle contractions, which can help prevent food from passing through too quickly (35).
The Connection Between Poop and Your Emotions
The relationship between poop (or lack thereof) and emotional stress deserves a paragraph of its own because our digestive systems are highly sensitive to emotion (36).
You may have heard that your gut is your “second brain.” This is because it houses your enteric nervous system, which makes it programmed to perceive and respond to stress— the exact same way your “first” (or actual) brain does. Ever had butterflies in your tummy? Then you’ve felt your enteric nervous system at work.
Now, when your nervous system gets overstimulated, it can cause hypermotility in your GI tract, which means things start moving at a much quicker pace than usual. For example, have you ever felt the sudden need to poop when you get nervous? Some people even need to run to the toilet when they get excited. This is all your enteric nervous system responding to your emotion.
But as you can likely guess, being in an overexcited, or high stress state all the time, is not a good thing for your enteric nervous system, and being located at the site of digestion, it has a direct impact on your gut.
High stress situations can also cause muscle tension, which prevents muscle contractions from happening. Since your digestive tract is essentially one big muscle, irregular contractions mean food won’t move as efficiently through your intestines to your colon. This is when taking extra electrolytes, such as magnesium, can be extremely helpful. Magnesium is known to relax the nervous system and regulate muscle contractions, which gives it mild laxative properties.
Coconut water is a good source of magnesium and potassium (two nutrients for optimal digestion and muscle function), but you can also take a magnesium supplement in powder or capsule form.
On a conscious level, here are some ways to start reducing emotional stress to improve your digestion:
- Look at your calendar and cut out the non-essentials
- Free write your thoughts in your journal first thing in the morning and before you go to bed (this is a good brain “dump” — oh, the poop puns..)
- Declutter your work and living environment
- Prioritize 8 hours of restful sleep each night
- Take up a yoga and/or meditation practice
- Spend time in the sunshine (even if it’s just 10 minutes on your lunch break)
- Ask yourself “What do I love?” and add more of that into your life
As you can see, healthy poop is the byproduct of a healthy body. Although it may not be the most pleasant thing to observe at first, eventually, you’ll begin to view it for what it is: a tell-tale sign of your current state of health, and whether you’re headed towards balance or disease. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.