An Important Topic of Conversation: Healthy Poop
By Claudia Anrig, DC
Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, recently wrote that it's time for psychologists to stop ignoring excrement. A U.K. survey in 2010 ranked the flushing toilet as the 9th greatest invention of all time (sliced bread ranked 70th). Granted, it's not the best topic of conversation and often patients do not discuss it with their doctor. That's a mistake because this may be a way you can gauge how your body is functioning every day if you know how to interpret the signs.
Anish Sheth, MD, a Yale gastroenterologist and the author of What's Your Poo Telling You? says, "What comes out tells you a lot about what's going on inside." Dr. Craig Maxwell, who is board certified in family medicine, integrative medicine and osteopathic medicine, says people who quickly flush, clean up and leave the room are missing some vital clues about the state of their health.1 For many people, this may seem disgusting or embarrassing, but taking a moment to look before flushing can be quite informative.
Texture / Consistency
The texture and consistency of poop may be a sign of what's going on inside:2-3
The only shape or consistency that could be a concern is pencil-thin stools for more than a week. Skinny bowel movements can indicate a serious problem, especially if they become thinner over several weeks. If this occurs, ask your doctor if a colonoscopy may be wise.
Something else to consider: a stool that is floating. This is typically harmless, but may be a sign of either too much gas, a gastrointestinal infection or malabsorption. Floating stool is not a reason to contact a primary care provider unless it is accompanied by sudden weight loss, dizziness or fever.4
In most cases, excrement should be brown. While diet may sometimes result in a change of color (for instance, blueberries may turn bowels blue and beets will frequently cause a red tint), poop is supposed to be brown. Colors other than brown may indicate a health issue:3
As with adults and children, baby poop can be a sign of how the body is functioning, but it is different for breastfed as opposed to bottlefed infants.5 Breastfed babies typically have yellow poop speckled with tiny "seeds" (like fancy mustard) and will poop more than once a day – usually after they are fed. Bottlefed babies have tan, yellow or greenish poop and will typically need a diaper changed once a day.
Be aware that a breastfed baby may absorb the nutrients in their mother's milk more completely, so it's not completely uncommon for a breastfed baby to go a few days without a bowel movement. However, if they're straining or uncomfortable, this could be a sign of constipation. Babies that have bloody stools or mucus in their stools should be taken to their primary care provider.5
Studies in the fields of psychosomatic medicine and gastroenterology suggest many bowel complaints have a large psychological component. One example is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This common condition is characterized by chronic or alternating diarrhea and constipation, sometimes accompanied by bloating, discomfort and abdominal pain. Studies have shown it's difficult to confirm a cause, but those with IBS tend to score high when tested for neuroticism, and find many of their health issues have a basis in anxiety and depression. Sufferers of IBS may have problems with self-assertion and often report histories of abuse.6-7
Studies in neurogastroenterology are beginning to uncover some of the roots of IBS, suggesting it may be tied to the enteric nervous system – the "second brain" that controls the internal organs, especially the intestines.6,8
The Impact of Medication
Constipation and other bowel issues have been linked to some prescription and OTC medications. For instance, opioid-based pain relievers may cause constipation. Antibiotics may destroy the good bacteria in the bowels while going after the bad bacteria, so consider taking probiotics after any course of antibiotics.9
A bigger concern, however, may be over-the-counter laxatives used for constipation. Oral laxatives may interfere with absorption of nutrients, but that's not as worrisome as what happens when they're taken in excess. Eventually, the body becomes dependent upon them and they must be taken even more frequently; however, with greater use, the body can become immune to the drug.
Before you begin taking any laxative, try lifestyle changes first: eating more fiber-rich foods, drinking more water and exercising regularly. Even going for a 20-minute walk once a day for a week can help regulate bowel movements.10
The Chiropractic Factor
Since the central nervous system controls all of the systems including digestion and elimination, bowel issues may be related to vertebral subluxation. Many parents of children and newborns have reported that after a few gentle adjustments, their little ones were able to have normal, healthy bowel movements. And it's not unusual in my practice to have a constipated baby fill their diaper immediately following an adjustment.
Claudia Anrig, DC, practices in Fresno, Calif., and is on the board of directors of the International Chiropractic Pediatric Association, an organization that can answer your questions regarding the value of chiropractic care during and after pregnancy.