The importance of good gut health is preached on the reg, but knowing what’s “normal” isn’t so easily understood—especially since most people don’t tend to talk about their bathroom habits out in the open. Asking a colleague or even a friend if it’s “normal” to have poop that’s soft instead of formed, or if you should be worried that you feel a little gassy every day after you eat lunch, typically doesn’t happen. Often, people learn to live with symptoms they should really see a G.I. doc about.
Speaking of, gastroenterologists have heard and seen it all when it comes to poop (and other factors related to the gut). No question is too big, too small, or too weird for them to give a straightforward answer. Here, gastroenterologists Niket Sonpal, MD and Will Bulsiewicz, MD—whose book, Fiber Fueled, comes out this upcoming spring—reveal eight signs of bad gut health that many people often overlook.
Keep reading to find out what’s really normal—and what’s not.
1. Having any sort of discomfort after eating on a regular basis
Sure, once in a while something in your salad may give you heartburn or leave you feeling constipated, but Dr. Bulsiewicz says if you feel bloated, constipated, or have diarrhea after eating on a regular basis, you should see a specialist. “Generally what’s going on here is that there’s been damage to the gut,” he says. “This could be due to infection, antibiotics, over-the-counter pain-relieving drugs, poor diet, lifestyle, or stress—all of which contribute to leaky gut.”
Dr. Bulsiewicz says that people with leaky gut have trouble digesting foods such as high-fiber fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. “When your gut is damaged, it’s impaired in its ability to do its job,” he says. “The irony is that the foods that may be the most difficult to digest and process are actually the most important for healing the gut. If we eliminate them entirely, our gut will actually become weaker. But if we slowly introduce them over time, we can improve our ability to digest them over time and get our gut back to where it’s supposed to be.” Healing the gut can be tricky, which is why it’s a good idea to book yourself a doctor’s appointment for professional advice.
2. You have to strain to poop
Popping a squat shouldn’t require straining so hard that the weird vein in your forehead stars to surface. “To me, proper bowel habits include effortless, complete, and regular evacuation of your stool—and as a result, the absence of symptoms that would suggest digestive distress,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says.
What you shouldn’t worry about: having more than one bowel movement a day (as long as it’s well-formed). “Heck, if we were all getting enough fiber, we’d all be having two to three daily BMs as our norm,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says. But in the United States, he adds, people tend to be fiber-deficient, so the collective belief is that one daily BM is normal. Still, it’s better to think quality over quantity. “Again, it’s not frequency,” he says. “It’s that you are in a rhythm and are completely emptying your bowels on a regular basis, and therefore have no symptoms of digestive distress.”
3. You regularly see undigested food in your stool
Some foods, like corn and peanuts, are notorious for coming out the other end fully formed. But Dr. Sonpal says if you can routinely tell what you ate by looking in the toilet bowl, it’s a sign your food isn’t getting digested properly and your body isn’t absorbing the nutrients. “It could be a hallmark of a gastrointestinal disease or disorder, such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease,” he says.
4. Your poop floats
According to Dr. Sonpal, poop that floats is a sign that a person has too much fat in their diet. (And no, not the good type of fat we love avocados for.) “It could mean that your intestines are potentially damaged,” he says. If it’s a one-off experience, don’t freak out. It could simply mean you ate something high in fat. But if your poop floats on a regular basis, do your due diligence and see your doctor to make sure there’s nothing more sinister going on.
5. Your stomach hurts somewhere specific
A stabbing pain somewhere in your abdomen could mean that you have gallstones, which Dr. Sonpal says typically start in the upper right portion of the abdomen. If you have pain around your belly button, it could be a sign of appendicitis (or it could be another sign of gallstones). Dr. Bulsiewicz says lower abdominal pain shouldn’t be ignored, either, as it could be a sign of diverticulitis (aka intestinal inflammation). In any case, stabbing stomach pain is no good, so don’t wait to get it checked out.
6. You have diarrhea regularly
Simply put, having regular bouts of diarrhea isn’t normal. “Chronic diarrhea or diarrhea that occurs at night often suggests either an infectious or inflammatory source for the problem,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says. It may take a little investigating to figure out exactly what the cause is, which is more reason to work with an MD to figure it out and not just deal with it on your own.
7. Feeling super fatigued all.The.Time.
Unless you can point to a specific reason why you’re feeling so damn tired—like you have a new baby or your partner snores—there could be something going on with your body. “Excessive fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath with exertion could indicate underlying anemia,” Dr. Bulsiewicz says. “Whether you have symptoms from anemia, or your blood test says you’re anemic, either way it suggests a larger problem and many times it can be due to slow, undetected bleeding somewhere in the intestines.” Many people learn to live with low energy levels when it’s really an indicator of a larger health problem. Don’t ignore it.
8. There’s blood in your stool
Both doctors say having blood in your stool should definitely raise an eyebrow. “It could be a telltale sign of hemorrhoids or anal fissures, but this symptom could also signal more serious gastrointestinal issues, including colon cancer,” Dr. Sonpal says. Adds Dr. Bulsiewicz: “If it’s red, it’s probably coming from your lower intestine. If it’s black, it’s likely from your upper intestine. It can be easy to dismiss as ‘nothing’ or ‘just hemorrhoids,’ but many times it’s more serious than that.”
People don’t really talk about their bathroom habits, so it can be tricky to know what’s NBD and what you should actually see a doctor about. But here’s the thing: If there’s a symptom related to digestion that’s frustrating you or causing you distress, you don’t have to live with it—whether you find your symptoms on this list or not. Whatever it is that’s on your mind, a G.I. doc is ready to listen. Don’t worry—they’ve heard it all.
Check out the video below to see what a dietitian says about foods for gut health:
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