You probably don’t spend much time thinking about your poo. While that’s perfectly understandable, there’s a very good reason to give the toilet a quick glance before you flush.
Chances are, you probably don’t spend much time thinking about your poo. While that’s perfectly understandable, there’s a very good reason to pay more attention to your digestion and give the toilet a quick glance before you flush.
In this blog, we’ll look at what changes in your poo can mean for your health and how these problems can be caused. We’ll also advise you on the best course of action to take when you notice these changes.
What's a 'Normal' Poo?
First things first, how do you know if there’s anything wrong?
The Bristol Stool Scale was created by doctors at the University of Bristol in 1997 and is now the widely accepted standard for identifying problems with your poo.
As you can see, a ‘normal’ poo is a smooth, sausage shape, perhaps with a few cracks on the surface.
Either side of this, we start to see stools that are less healthy. You’re probably familiar with both constipation and diarrhoea, but do you know what causes them, or how they can be treated?
The first two examples from the Bristol Stool Scale show what your poo can look like if you’re constipated. You might notice your bowel movements appear in separate, hard lumps, or these can be clustered together. Either way, they’ll lack the smooth appearance of numbers three and four and will likely be difficult to pass without straining.
It’s worth noting here that constipation is often wrongly defined as an inability to defecate, while it actually covers any difficulty in moving your bowels. In fact, if you are going to the toilet regularly but are consistently seeing hard or lumpy stools, you are likely to be suffering from constipation.
The primary cause of constipation is a lack of fibre in your diet. Fibre is found in many plant-based foods and helps keep your gut healthy by allowing food to pass through your digestive system more easily. Fortunately, fibre deficiency is a relatively easy problem to solve.
However, it’s not quite as simple as just filling your plate with brown bread, wholegrain rice and cereal. The government amended its nutritional guidelines in July 2015 to recommend that adults consume 30g of fibre per day to maintain a healthy gut, but according to the British Nutrition Foundation, most of actually eat around 18g.
Additionally, there are two different types of fibre, soluble and insoluble, and it’s the former that offers your best chance of constipation relief. Soluble fibre is digested by your body and help to keep your stools soft. In contrast, insoluble fibre isn’t digested or broken down on its way through the gut.
Foods that are high in soluble fibre include:
- Cereals and grains
- Root vegetables
As well as watching what you eat, it’s also advisable to drink plenty of water, eat three meals a day and take regular exercise.
If these things don’t help relieve your constipation, a doctor might prescribe laxatives.
The last three examples from the Bristol School Scale are stools that show signs of diarrhoea. If your bowel movements are softer than usual, or even entirely liquid, there’s a chance you are suffering from diarrhoea.
This is often a short-term problem, with causes including viruses, food poisoning and parasites, such as the waterborne giardiasis, which generally clear up of their own accord after around a week. Some medicines also cause side effects that can include diarrhoea.
If none of these are to blame, there could be a more serious reason for your diarrhoea. For example, you might be suffering from irritable bowel syndrome, coeliac disease (wheat intolerance), Crohn’s disease or pancreatitis. All of these conditions will require treatment, so consult your doctor if your diarrhoea persists longer than a week.
To help treat short-term diarrhoea and get your gut back to normal as quickly as possible, there are a number of easy steps you can take.
Hydration is important, as diarrhoea can cause you to lose a lot of water. While it probably won’t taste great, a salt water solution will help too, as the salt will help you absorb the nutrients you need into your gut. Salt actually plays an important role throughout the digestion process, from triggering saliva as you eat to creating hydrochloric acid in the stomach that helps break down your food.
When it comes to mealtimes, diarrhoea might mean you don’t feel all that hungry. However, you should try to eat small amounts if you can - just avoid foods that are high in fat or overly spicy as these will potentially make the problem worse.
Of course, if your diarrhoea has a more serious underlying cause, you will need to commence treatment for that illness straight away. Your doctor will advise you what this will entail.
What Does The Colour of Your Poo Mean?
We’ve seen how your poo’s consistency can make you aware of when something’s wrong, but what about if the colour changes?
There’s no doubt that this can be quite alarming. While in some cases the change is an innocent one-off related to something you’ve digested recently, there are some changes that you absolutely mustn’t ignore and should alert a doctor even if it happens just once.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
Black or Red
Black or red stools can be an indicator that there is blood in your poo, which is of course something you should take very seriously. This is one of those occasions where the safest option is to talk to a doctor and make sure it’s nothing serious.
If your poo is bright red, this indicates that the blood is fresh. That means you’re likely suffering from a bleed in the gastrointestinal tract, which can have a number of possible causes, for example piles or a tear in the rectum. While unpleasant, this is less likely to be an indicator of a serious or long term issue.
If your poo is a darker red, or black, that can be cause for concern, as it suggests the bleeding is occurring higher up in your gastrointestinal tract.
The biggest worry here is that this could be a sign of bowel cancer. This is far from certain, so while it’s difficult not to worry, seek clarification from your doctor to rule this out.
Often, this sort of stool can be attributed to lumps in the bowel called polyps. According to Cancer Research UK, these affect 15-20 per cent of the population and are particularly prevalent among over-60s. However, polyps are usually benign, with only 10 per cent of cases resulting in cancer.
Bowel cancer has the second highest mortality rate of all cancers in the UK. One of the biggest reasons for this is that people simply don’t get checked out as early as they should. There are screenings available that can provide the answers you’re looking for, so don’t delay.
There are other potential causes, including:
- Stomach/peptic ulcer
- Cirrhosis, e.g. if blood isn’t able to flow properly through the liver
- The side effects of certain types of medication
There are a few reasons why your poo might be green, so as ever, it’s best not to jump to any conclusions.
A common problem is that food is passing through your gut more quickly than it should. This prevents your body from absorbing all the nutrients it needs from food such as green vegetables.
This can occur for a number of reasons, including food poisoning, infections, gastroenteritis, irritable bowel syndrome or coeliac disease. That’s quite a wide range of options, all of which require very different treatments, so getting clarification from your doctor will help you identify the reason for these changes and deal with the symptoms.
Another possible cause of green poo is the clostridium difficile bacteria. While this is often found in the gut, some patients who are placed on antibiotics experience an imbalance in their bowels that allows clostridium difficile to become more dominant than normal.
Often, this clears up when you stop taking the antibiotics, while a doctor may also prescribe a separate medicine to help deal with the problem.
If your poo looks yellow, once again, there are a number of possible reasons. A high-fat diet could have something to do with it, particularly if this nutrient is not processed properly in your digestive system.
It’s been mentioned a lot in this post, but coeliac disease is another possibility here. If your body can’t deal with gluten properly, it can result in yellow stools.
If it’s not your diet, then you may be experiencing the early stages of a potentially serious liver, pancreas or gallbladder issue. As such, if your poo stays yellow for longer than a week, it’s probably best to get it checked out.
White or pale
If your poo is white or very pale, this could indicate that your body is having problems producing bile. Bile is a substance found in your liver that helps you digest certain foods, particularly fats. It is also one of the substances that gives your poo its natural brown colour.
A lack of bile is a potentially serious issue. It could indicate a problem with your liver, gallbladder, pancreas or the ducts between these organs. There may be a blockage such as a gallstone, or it could be an early sign of a liver problem, such as jaundice.
This is certainly something you need to investigate further, so make an appointment with a doctor and explain your symptoms to them.
What To Do If You're Concerned?
Your gut is a complicated place. With so much going on, most of us will notice some changes from time-to-time. In the vast majority of cases, these are only temporary and will pass after a few days.
But if you’ve noticed any long-term changes in your bowel movements, this could be a sign of a condition like coeliac disease or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you’re concerned, speak to one of our doctors today: