Let’s head to the bathroom for a moment, particularly at the time you need to relieve your bowels. Feeling a bit uncomfortable? It’s okay, you’re not alone—but we should all be mindful, because what goes on in your stool can help you know more about what is going on in your body.
Perhaps you have a preferred moniker for relieving yourself? Maybe you veer to the “comfort room” language, or “go number two,” or even “drop a deuce.” No matter how you term it, this is obviously something we all do and is a kind of whisperer as to the inner workings of your digestive system.
What goes on down there?
So, now that we’ve gone to the bathroom, it seems reasonable to ask: do you look inside the toilet? Do you turn and take a quick peek before you hit the flush?
It’s fine to admit that you do and probably built into each of us to take an interest in our feces. As animals, the instinct to look is primal. We look to see what is coming out because at an almost instinctive level we “know” that matter has things to tell us about our body.
The stats in a study conducted by gastroenterologists and reported over at Discover provide some insight into our behavior on this subject. They found that only 27% of participants looked at every stool and wipe, and that 6% never looked at their feces or toilet paper. The extreme ends of this study are significant.
Do you look every time? Or do you never take a look? Most of us fall in the other 67% of this population and at least look now and then. To see why periodic stool inspection matters, it’s important to have a layman’s understanding of what goes on in the digestive process.
The story of digestion starts when you take a bite. You masticate (a fancy word for chew) and introduce saliva to the food to help break down sugars and assist it toward your throat and into your esophagus.
The food moves down your esophagus by means of peristalsis, which are wavelike contractions of the muscles in the digestive pathway, until it is sent to your stomach. There, the food is showered in gastric juices so that the proteins break down.
The food then passes through the small intestine where it is bathed in bile—which digests fats—and pancreatic juices—which contain enzymes to digest carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.
The walls of the small intestine also release enzymes to help with digestion on this massive journey of five meters in length. Once the food finishes its path through the small intestine, nearly all the nutrients of the food have been absorbed.
The food then moves into the large intestine where the main function is to absorb water, remaining nutrients, and salts, and convert waste products into a more solid form to be excreted from the body. The colon ends in the rectum and anal canal where the fecal material is ready to be expelled from the body through the anus. The IBD clinic provides this wonderful video of the process described here.
Your body is a well-ordered combination of systems that all take place mostly inside of us, so when we emit anything it affords us a chance to at least pick up a clue as to what is happening inside.
Go ahead and look
If you are going to take a look at what you’ve dropped in the bowl, then it will help if you know a few things about what is normal in the first place. You’ll be inspecting your stool for color, consistency, and timing to compare with your baseline in the future.
What will be noteworthy are those instances of continued anomalies in your bowel function. So, as you go, keep track to report to healthcare professionals when there are any significant changes. One such person would be your in-home healthcare professional, such as those of Home Health Companions. These are people who see you regularly and will be part of the team to keep you on target with your health needs and concerns.
Now let’s break down each of these categories with the terminology and information that will make your inspection more useful.
Color: The typical color of your stool is likely in the medium brown range. If you produce something quite light or nearly black, then keep an eye for color should the trend continue. And what can other colors mean?
- Per Penn Medicine states that an especially light-colored stool could indicate infection, inflammation, or the blockage of bile ducts.
- Blood in your stool could mean several things, including bleeding in the rectum or anus (hemorrhoids commonly cause this) to swelling in the lining of your stomach.
- Black stool could be associated with something you’ve eaten or bleeding taking place somewhere along your digestive tract. If you find your stools are black after several voids, you’ll want to report the change to your doctor.
Consistency: Once you’ve established what is your “regular,” pay attention to any stool that is too hard or too mushy or difficult to clean away with toilet paper. Specifically, you are looking for variations of shape and texture don’t go away in a few days.
Over at Healthline they detail a system called the Bristol Stool Scale based on a study of 2,000 people, through which they determined seven types of stool with associated grades. We’ll hit on just a few of the points on the scale here:
- Type I, appearance of marbles, this indicates constipation. This is something you’ll also have realized based on your length of time spent on the toilet.
- Type 3, log or hot dog shapes, are considered normal stool.
- Type 7, a watery mess that’s hard to clean with wiping, indicates full-on diarrhea. Of course, you most likely knew something was off if you had stomach cramping prior to going to the bathroom in the first place.
With any of these variations on the scale, there is usually nothing to do if you have a one-off incident. But make note if the how long any outlier continues, as this will be information to share with your doctor.
Timing: How often do you go? Whether it is once a day, or once every couple, you know your standard.
A lot is made of regularity, and for good reason. Someone dealing with constipation feels the discomfort akin to carting around an anvil. Per a report on GI health over at U.S. News if you go (or don’t in this case) longer than three days, it’s time to let a medical professional know. Constipation is most often caused by lack of water or fiber, but could also be associated with other issues such as a change in medications.
On the other side of the stool spectrum, a bout of diarrhea is awful and makes you feel uncertain you can even leave your home safely. A significant factor for this, especially as we age, can be a change in food sensitivity. Food allergies have become a hot topic in recent decades with many hypersensitive to the lactose and gluten in foods, for example.
But aging and food sensitivity have become more prevalent now that more people live longer. It is possible that foods you once ate when you were younger suddenly turn on you as you age. In Today’s Dietitian, Larissa Brophy explains how food sensitivities come on with age as our immune systems change or undergo “immunosenescence.”
Our innate and adaptive immune systems are impacted as we grow older, causing specific alterations of the various cell types of the immune system. Mast cells, for example, are key to food allergy reaction, and as we age their reactions in the digestion process are altered.
Everybody’s doing it…
It’s not that we want to gravitate to bathroom humor on this topic—we just want to make sure you benefit from knowing as much as you can about reading your overall health. Keep your eye out for changes in stool color, consistency and timing that persist for longer than a few days.
If you still feel a bit squeamish about the subject of “number two” and taking a glance in the bowl, consider the Groom of Stool as described over at Historic UK. Back during the 15th century, Henry VIII designated the first “grooms” for the role of royal poop inspection. Grooms of stool were an honored breed, and considered a position generally assigned to the sons of noblemen or members of the gentry. After Henry, the tradition of royal fecal inspection persisted for several centuries, because change in stool can be the window to what is going on inside. So, think of yourself as being rather regal, and go ahead and take a look!