The most obvious sign of how healthy we are on the inside is what comes out of us – our poo. This is your expert-led guide to smell, texture and colour (and what that all means).
Poo isn’t something that we tend to talk about much, even – or especially – when we’re experiencing difficulties down there. But with so much focus lately on gut health, experts are clear about the fact that our excrement holds the answer to lots of our health-related issues. It’s no good being squeamish: you’ve got to get comfy with knowing what’s normal for your poo – in terms of frequency, texture and more.
“Our poo isn’t just indigestible food,” explains nutritional therapist and functional medicine practitioner Nicola Shubrook. “Up to 50% of it is actually what’s called ‘bacterial biomass’ – essentially, dead and living organisms that live in our gut.Hormones such as oestrogen are also excreted via our stools, so being alert to our poo is important for more than just digestive health.”
What are the different types of poo?
“We use the Bristol Stool Chart to classify different types of poo,” explains Anna Mapson, a registered nutritional therapist and founder of Goodness Me Nutrition. “This really helps when people are a little squeamish about describing the differences between different stools because it provides a chart with images and descriptions.”
There are seven official types of poo, ranging from type 1 – hard, pebbly-type poos that are difficult to pass – through to watery diarrhoea at type 7. For perfectionist types, the ‘perfect’ poo is a type 3-4 on the scale, so this is what to aim for.
Fascinatingly, along with the undigested food we’ve eaten, Mapson reveals that “around 30% of poo is actually dead gut bacteria – that is a lot! So, the health of our gut microbes can play an important role in how healthy your poo is.”
What does our poo type tell us about our overall health?
Our poos are, essentially, a smelly little porthole into our inner health and wellbeing. Changes to our stools can often be the first signs of something being out of balance, and it’s not just about being constipated or having diarrhoea – different types of poo can indicate a range of health issues.
“If your poo floats that can sometimes indicate you aren’t breaking down your food properly,” explains Mapson. “This might be due to a lack of digestive enzymes or not producing enough stomach acid. This might be down to genetics, chronic stress, damage to the small intestine lining, or an overgrowth of microbes in the small intestine.”
“You may notice the occasional floater, which is normal,” Shubrook notes, “but if they float all the time or are hard to flush it can be a sign you are not absorbing fats in your diet properly.”
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Hard, dry stools
“Small hard dry poos might cause constipation,” explains Mapson. “This could be due to a slow transit time. When food is sitting in the colon for a long time, more liquid will be reabsorbed out of the poo by the body, leading to dry harder poos.
“Slow transit time could be down to lack of movement such as a very sedentary lifestyle, a lack of fibre in the diet (which reduces the amount of bulk in the stool so it doesn’t trigger the urge to go) or dehydration.”
“One of the main causes of constipation is dehydration,” agrees Shubrook, “but other causes can be a lack of fibre in the diet, stress, an imbalanced microbiome (gut bacteria) or may be due to food intolerances.”
Seeing whole food in your poo
“Regularly seeing undigested food in your poo normally indicates you are not chewing your food properly,” reveals Mapson. “Slow down, sit at a table to eat your main meals and chew your food until it’s well mashed up before swallowing. It sounds basic, but this really helps with digestion and healthier stools.”
I know I’m not alone in experiencing a nervous belly. “Loose stools are often linked to stress or anxiety,” agreed Mapson. “Our stress response is our body’s way of preparing for fight or flight, and evacuating the bowels can be a part of that.”
“Causes of diarrhoea can include too much alcohol, poor diet (processed foods and sugar), stress, food intolerances or an imbalanced microbiome (gut bacteria),” agrees Shubrook.
More persistent diarrhoea can be caused by a bacterial infection, parasite or other health conditions such as coeliac disease, so it’s important to get checked out by a doctor if your excrement regularly tends to be on the watery side.
“Very smelly gas or stools could indicate a bacterial overgrowth in the gut or a food intolerance,” explains Mapson. Eggy-smelling gas or a cabbage-like smell could be linked to specific bacteria that produce hydrogen sulphide or methane gas.
What is the perfect poo?
While it’s considered medically normal to go anywhere between three times a day and three times a week, the experts agree one one thing: in an ideal world, you should be pooing every single day. “Remember that dead organisms live in our gut, so we want to make sure that we are pooing daily to prevent a build-up of bacteria and toxins in the body,” advises Shubrook.
“I like clients to work towards going once or twice a day,” agrees Mapson, “because this indicates there is a good amount of bulk coming through from fibre and it’s not sitting too long in the colon.”
“The goal is to have a sausage or snake-shaped stool that is easy to pass,” says Shubrook. “It may be smooth or have a few cracks in the surface. If it’s shaped like rabbit pellets or a lumpy sausage, or you have to strain at all, then this is a sign you are constipated.
“On the other hand, if your stools are very soft-like blobs, mushy, watery or even explosive then this is classed as diarrhoea.”
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“Brown indicates a normal stool colour,” explains Shubrook, “while black or very dark stool may indicate bleeding. Bright red may also indicate bleeding in the gut.
“Green stools can be due to certain foods (like green leafy vegetables) but may also be due to excess bile, which is released by the liver and stored in the gallbladder.It is a digestive fluid that helps to break down fats in the diet. And yellow can indicate that fat is being poorly absorbed from your food.”
How can we achieve perfect poos?
Test your transit time
“You can test your transit time by eating either a portion (80g) of sweetcorn, beetroot or two tablespoons of white sesame seeds,” advises Mapson. “All these foods should be visible in your poo as they show up in the toilet. Note the time you eat the food and when you see it in the toilet. A good transit time is around 24-36 hours.”
Eat more fibre
“To achieve healthy regular bowel movements, eat different types of fibre, and lots of it,” advises Mapson. “We should be aiming for between 25-30g of fibre a day, and most people could eat more fruits and vegetables. Aiming for five a day is a good start.”
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Hydration is key
Ensure you stay hydrated so more liquid than necessary isn’t reabsorbed from your poo,” warns Mapson. “Increasing fibre should also be accompanied by ensuring sufficient hydration to avoid constipation.”
Fermented foods can add healthy bacteria to the gut. Think yoghurt, sauerkraut or kefir – anything ‘live’ will support gut bacteria, which help us digest our food and support the gut lining, which all contribute to a healthy poo.
What are poo red flags?
You should talk to a doctor about regular blood or mucus in your poo because this could indicate more serious conditions such as colon cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or coeliac disease.
“If your stools are black or red, you have excess blood on wiping or you have additional symptoms like stomach pain, then go to your GP as soon as possible,” advises Shubrook.
If you’re concerned about a change in your bowel habits, do see your GP to rule out anything serious.
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