There are so many ways that bodies can inform us about various aspects of our overall health and wellness. From the more obvious (like a grumbling stomach when you forgot to eat breakfast) to the more niche (like weak fingernails signaling you might need more calcium in your diet), our bodies are pretty apt at making their needs known.
Ready for another another facet of information your body gives you on the (hopefully) daily? Believe it or not, what you see when you go number two, aka your stool texture, can tell you a lot about your health and wellbeing.
But before we jump in, a couple of important caveats. First, any assumptions you're making about your stool texture need to be paired with insight into what else is going on in your life, because there could be another explanation. (For instance, black stool can indicate internal bleeding and require emergency medicine, but the active ingredient in Pepto Bismol can also turn your stool a dark black color.) Next, it's important to keep in mind that everyone is different, so remember to take all of these stool texture signs with a slight grain of salt.
All of the above being said, we asked some experts who regularly deal with patient concerns about bowel movements break down what your stool texture can tell you about your health.
The range of stool textures
Believe it or not, there's actually a certified scale to define the texture of people's stool called the Bristol Stool Chart. This scale, according to Karla Robinson, MD, medical editor at GoodRX, ranges from one (being the most firm, constipation-causing texture) to seven (being the most liquid, diarrhea-like texture).
"The Bristol Stool Chart is a helpful tool to classify your stool by its form and consistency," says Dr. Robinson. "Healthy stool types are type three, which are sausage-shaped with cracks on the surface, and type four stools, which are sausage-shaped but smooth and soft like a snake. These are soft and easy to pass. If your stool is similar to type one—meaning separate, pellet-like hard lumps that are hard to pass—or type two—meaning lumpy, sausage-shaped stools—you may have constipation. Stool types five, six, and seven, which go from soft to mushy, may mean that you have diarrhea."
The thing about this chart is that it represents a very common scale that all humans likely find themselves on at some point or another. "The thing that is important to pay attention to in your stool is a pattern that has been going on for any extended period of time," says Mike Hoaglin, MD, medical director of New York State-based urgent care and telehealth provider Dr. House. While even one bout of diarrhea is a concern and clearly telling you something is very off, do keep an eye on the other less obvious stool textures that may also signal something is up with your digestive system, especially if they happen more than once or twice. "If you regularly find yourself at either extreme end of the scale, that's when it's time to start looking at your diet, behaviors, medications, and talk with a care provider," Dr. Hoaglin says.
What it means when your stool is too firm
"The texture of the stool reflects the 'transit time' of fecal matter in the colon. When fecal matter moves too slowly through the bowel, too much water is removed from the stool, making it hard and lumpy. This is constipation. Medications, as well as neurologic and psychiatric conditions, can slow down the bowel, making transit time too long," says Dr. Hoaglin. Basically, this is why a lot of metaphors related to constipation focus on "keeping things moving" or "traffic jams"—when you have constipation or a firm stool, the lack of lubrication is often what's slowing things down.
"Inadequate fiber and fluid intake certainly cause an irregular pooping schedule," says Kate Gerweck, RD, a dietitian specializing in gut health at Begin Health. "It is also worth examining whether or not you may have a food intolerance if you feel you eat enough fiber and drink enough fluids on a daily basis but cannot remain regular." Getting more regular water and fiber in your diet can help your digestive tract stay moist and lubricated, and the fiber in your stool can give it the "bulk" it needs to be moved along.
What it means when your stool is too soft or loose
"When your body wants to evacuate something you ate quickly—such as contaminated food or a toxic substance—it cuts digestion short and speeds up intestinal transit time, so you may need to suddenly use the toilet. This is diarrhea. When the fecal matter doesn't spend enough time drying out in the colon, it comes out, water and all," says. Dr. Robinson. "This is sometimes caused by a bacteria your body wants to get rid of, or something your system is intolerant to."
Either way, when this happens, it's important to hydrate because the looser your stool is, the more water you lose in the process.
"There are a few common foods and beverages that can affect how our stools form: water, fiber, caffeine, and sugar-free foods," says Gerweck. You can track what foods might cause a loose stool response by keeping a diary and consulting with a professional.
What it means if your stool floats
Stool texture and consistency aren't a binary between hard and loose. There are a lot of other factors that experts take into account as well: think color, smell, and buoyancy. "For example, stool that floats can indicate an absorption issue," says Dr. Hoaglin. Sometimes this can be a sign of a condition like celiac disease, so it's best to ask a provider about such a feature if you experience it often.
How can you set yourself up for gut health success
"Frequent constipation and diarrhea should be properly evaluated by your doctor. Before assuming anything or settling on a diagnosis of 'IBS', other concerning gastrointestinal disorders should be ruled out first," says Dr. Hoaglin.
TL; DR? Paying attention to patterns and repeated symptoms is super important. A stray strange bowel movement isn't cause to sound the alarm, though—but paying attention to these stool texture details can certainly help keep you informed about your overall health.
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