We all know that blood in our stools is a sign that something is probably wrong - but most of us don’t pay attention to our changing bowel movements, and fail to question what they may be trying to tell us. In fact, the colour, consistency and texture of our stools can give us a pretty good idea about what’s going on inside our digestive tract, and some of these characteristics may even point towards more serious health conditions.
Overall, figuring out what may be hampering our digestive health can help make us more aware of potential food intolerances or how certain activities impact our body. It may also help us figure out when it’s time to see a doctor.
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Now, what does a “normal” stool look like? To navigate the various types of bowel movements, scientists have come up with a chart, The Bristol Stool Chart, to us identify various types of bowel movements. On a scale of 1-7, this chart ranges from constipation to diarrhoea. Type 1 stools are classified as hard to pass hard lumps, and type 2 are lumpy sausage-shaped stools - and both are signs of constipation. Types 3, 4 and 5 are classified as ‘normal’ stools and they are respectively described as sausage-shaped with cracks, sausage-shaped but smooth and soft blobs with clear-cut edges. Finally, Type 6 & 7 indicate diarrhoea - either fluffy pieces with ragged edges or entirely liquid stools. In general, a healthy digestive tract will usually produce a daily passage of medium brown and pain-free stools. And, in case you’re wondering, it’s also perfectly normal for it to be foul-smelling.
However, while this may be the “normal” standard for healthy bowel habits, our stools are likely to be constantly changing. Just one day of slight dehydration can result in mild constipation, the same way a particularly spicy meal can result in watery stools the following morning. If your stools are white, yellow, green, red or brown, they could respectively signal liver issues, malabsorption, bile overproduction, intestinal bleeding and hemorrhoids. The rule of thumb is that if you notice consistent changes beyond just basic changes in texture to your bowel movements that last for more than a few days, it’s worth investigating with a doctor what’s causing it. In addition, if you are experiencing chronic constipation or diarrhoea, it might be time to have a chat with a doctor or gastroenterologist to find out what you may be doing wrong or if there are any underlying conditions.
Overall, the key to healthy gut health is to incorporate a diversity of whole plant foods into our meals, thus ensuring a densely populated microbiome packed with trillions of bacteria, fungi and viruses. To make sure your good gut bacteria are thriving and multiplying, feeding them prebiotic-rich foods can be a great idea. Think apples, onions, garlic, banana, oats, whole grains and asparagus - these foods are rich in the gut-loving fibres Inulin, Pectin and Beta Glucan that have been shown to boost the growth of friendly bacteria in the digestive tract, lower LDL cholesterol, and promote overall digestive health. Probiotic-rich foods include kimchi, sauerkraut, miso & tempeh - add these to your plate for a boost in flavour and probiotics.
As for probiotic supplements, there is insufficient evidence that popping a pill can do our gut any good - and it is hypothesised that most of it just passes right through our digestive tract, making for a very expensive bowel movement.
Lastly, eating a fibre-rich diet with plenty of vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruit is your best bet against an unhappy gut. In ways, fibre acts as an ‘intestinal cleanser’ by moving waste quickly through our colon and helping our body increase the size and frequency of our bowel movements, thus favouring healthy gut and bowel health. In fact, fibre has been shown to be protective against constipation, Diverticular disease, Haemorrhoids and Bowel cancer. Beyond our gut health, it has also been shown to be cardioprotective, leading to a 15–30% decrease in all-cause and cardiovascular related mortality.
The bottom line is that while most of us will experience changes in our bowel habits from time to time, sustained disruptions that last for more than a few days may be an indicator that something is wrong. To prevent digestive issues and to build a strong, resilient and healthy gut, focusing on a diversity of whole plant foods rich in fibre, prebiotics and probiotics is a great idea. When in doubt, refer back to the Bristol Stool Chart for help to identify what may be going on with your bowel movements - and remember that on most days you’d ideally like to be in the range of Type 3-5.