What is a “normal” bowel movement, anyway? As a nurse, I have asked about, looked at, and discussed bowel movements more than I care to recall. However, it is an invaluable tool to get a sense of how a person’s body and immune system are functioning or not functioning.
What is Normal?
We’re all unique individuals, and so is our poop! What is normal for one person may not be normal for another. A normal bowel movement (BM) pattern can be up to 3 times a day or as little as 3 times a week. What matters the most is what is “regular” to you.
Poop or BMs are the solid or semi-solid remains of food that couldn’t be digested in our small intestine. Our small intestine is where our body absorbs nutrients vital to our survival, and it is our body’s biggest immune organ! This is where the phrase, “You Are What You Eat” comes from.
If you eat a lot of foods that come from the earth such as fresh vegetables, fruits and seeds, your body and immune system will reflect this. This is what humans are designed to eat. This diet feeds our nervous system (brain and spinal cord), skin, muscle, bones, joints, and digestive system.
If you eat a lot of packaged and processed foods high in carbohydrates, especially if you’re chronically ill, your body will reflect this in the form of inflammation. These foods are high in processed wheat, corn ,and other bulk grains, which actually digest in our body just like processed sugar and lead to an overgrowth of microbes like candida.
While natural sugars do exist in nature, as in fruits and vegetables, refined or processed sugar does not and is highly inflammatory to our bodies. Our body does not recognize these sugars as a food source.
Our stool is formed as nerves and muscles work together to create movement called “peristalsis” which allows food and liquid to be mixed together well and move through the digestive tract for absorption and elimination.
What Goes In Must Come Out
Our BMs are composed of about 75% water, with the rest being a combo of fiber, dead and live bacteria, other cells and mucus. This combo forms a gel-like substance that becomes a part of our stool and is also what causes the “stinky” odor.
Some important clues about a person’s overall health can be found in noting the shape, color consistency, frequency and smell of bowel movements. This information is very helpful in recognizing a body that is working well or recognizing serious disease.
Having BMs should come easily and naturally, without having to think about it. This is as natural to the body as breathing! If a person needs to push or strain, something is off — this should take no more effort than urinating or passing gas.
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There are many factors that can affect a person’s “pooping pattern” such as diet, travel, medications, hormonal fluctuations, sleep patterns, exercise, illness, surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, and stress
Normal adult stool is generally brown, soft-to-firm in consistency with a sausage like shape, as this is the shape of our intestine. A bowel movement passed in one single, long piece or a few smaller pieces is generally considered to be a sign of a healthy bowel.
According to the Bristol Stool Scale, an ideal BM is type 3, 4 or 5 with 4 being the most ideal.
Guidelines for a Healthy Stool
- Medium to light brown in color
- Smooth and soft in one long piece
- 1-2” in diameter and up to 18” long
- S shaped or curled
- Quiet, gentle dive into the water, not a large splash or cannonball drop
- Natural smell that is not repulsive or especially foul
- Uniform texture
- Should sink in water slowly
Abnormal or Concerning Stool
- Constipation (hard, dry stools that are a strain to move) and occur less than 3 days a week
- Straining or incomplete elimination
- Bloating, cramping, gassiness or sluggishness after a BM
- Sudden increase or decrease in number of stools per day or week
- Pasty and hard or difficult to clean off
- Watery or diarrhea stool
- Presence of undigested food, froth or mucus in stools
- White, pale gray or yellow stools
- Black (tar looking) or bloody stools
- Stool that is narrow or pencil like
If you are experiencing abnormal or concerning stool patterns, please contact your medical doctor or healthcare practitioner for further evaluation.
Promoting Healthy Bowel Movements
Here are some tips to promote healthy bowel movements and overall wellbeing.
- Include fresh vegetables, nuts and seeds in your daily meals and work toward a goal of at least 32 grams of fiber per day that does not come from grains like gluten! Many (most) grains in our country (such as wheat, barley and rye) actually create irritation and cause constipation!
- Limit natural sugar and avoid all artificial sweeteners. These are all inflammatory to our digestive system.
- Avoid processed foods with chemical additives such as preservatives, artificial colors and flavors. Our body does not recognize these substances as food and therefore responds to them as foreign by creating inflammation or an allergic response. This is very damaging to our immune system and digestive tract.
- Stay hydrated daily with pure water. Ideally, we should consume at least ½ of our body weight in ounces of water each day. More water should be consumed if you are ill or if you exercise or sweat a lot. Remember, 75% of our stool is water!
- Exercise or intentionally move your body on a daily basis! We are not designed to sit, and walking or movement encourages peristalsis (natural movement in our intestines).
- Be aware of and manage mental and emotional upset. These states create the flight or fight response in our body, which slows or shuts down digestion and elimination.
- Choose a squatting position while having a BM rather than a sitting position. This is actually our natural stance. Children do this naturally as well as most of the world’s population! Squatting causes a little muscle called the puborectalis to relax and straighten the rectum. This allows for complete emptying without straining, which prevents fecal stagnation (constipation, bloating, gassiness) and the accumulation of toxins in our gastrointestinal tract. Modern toilets put our knees at a 90-degree angle to our abdomen. The squatting position places our knees much closer to our torso, and this angle optimizes ease in the forces involved (muscles and organs) in elimination. Devices like Squatty Potty can help (as can placing yoga blocks under your feet).
So whenever doodie calls, I highly recommend changing your stance from sitting to “squatting” today! Also, remember that you are what you eat and your intestines are your biggest immune organ — treat them well!
This article was first published on ProHealth.com on October 18, 2018 and was updated on January 21, 2021.