OK, so poo is really not the most pleasant, or indeed sexiest of things to think about, but paying a bit more attention to our bathroom throne ‘accomplishments’ gives us more insight into our gut health than we know. This is because poo is essentially showing us how effectively (or not, as the case may be) we are eliminating waste and other toxic substances as well as how much we are absorbing our food and even signs of more serious conditions.
We take it for granted that our body just gets rid of ‘stuff’ but actually what happens in the process of digestion and elimination is much more magical than that… yes, I said it, folks, poo is magical! I’m not suggesting you need to check your number twos obsessively, but noticing even subtle changes can give distinct clues to any imbalances in the gut and our health overall.
So I’m going to try to help you understand a bit more about what makes up poo and how to score yours. You’ll also see some of my basic pointers on how to try to alleviate symptoms that might be making your daily visits not so pleasant and hopefully have yours become a much more enjoyable experience.
you should experience a sense of elimination ‘euphoria’ and finish with a smile on your face
So let’s start with the basics: what is poo (or a stool to use its official name)? Contrary to what many people believe, it is not simply the remnants of the food that we have eaten. It’s much more interesting than that. Our stools are mostly made up of water (which is why constipation is often simply the result of dehydration), with the remainder being a combination of indigestible fibre, additional toxic substances that the body needs to get rid of (such as medications or cholesterol) and gut bacteria that have come to the end of their natural life. In fact, it is thought that just one gram of a stool contains more bacteria than there are stars in the universe.
To ensure everything is moving as it should, I recommend doing these five checks daily.
Your 5-a-day poo checks
A normal poo is a mid-brown colour, which comes from old blood cells transported out of the body via the stool. If a yellow hue or a clay colour is evident, it can be indicative of an imbalance of bacteria in the gut or it could be liver and gall bladder issues, in which case you should see your GP for further investigation. Bright red specks of colour can be caused by haemorrhoids while darker red or black stools are ‘red flag symptoms’ that should be checked out by your doctor. If you experience pain with your movements or bowels more generally then you should definitely seek further investigation.
Once to twice a day spent on the bathroom throne is ideal. Any more or less than that means things are possibly not moving through the gut as they should be.
This is a good indicator of gut health. Ideally, it should look like a long soft log that is like an ice cream in texture. It should be fully formed and should not have too many cracks or be too mushy. Hard little lumps and watery liquid would be the extremes of this. The Bristol Stool Scale is an excellent reference and illustrates perfectly how your poo should look.
Movements should be smooth, quick and pain-free. Taking a book into the bathroom should not be a prerequisite!
When you have fully evacuated you should experience a sense of elimination ‘euphoria’ and finish with a smile on your face (not with the feeling that you’ll be back on the throne in 10 minutes).
This is what we are ideally looking to achieve but it seems to be a rare experience for many people.
Common poo problems
Infrequent and/or hard to pass movements are said to affect one in seven of us and while a major cause is dehydration, it can be caused by many other factors such as stress.
While we focus on the ideal of a daily poo, we need to be more aware of efficiency, and that means a quick, smooth and easy process. It is the job of the nervous system to trigger an evacuation and if this is not working harmoniously with the other systems in the gut then the whole ‘orchestra’ can go out of sync. Stressful situations and long-distance travel can put bowel movements temporarily on hold. In the case of stress, the bowels tend to ‘hold’ as the body reverts to that knee-jerk, ‘fight or flight’ stress response.
Travel-related constipation is often caused by the excitability of the trip and dehydration – aeroplanes are great at sucking moisture out of the body, and the bowel needs plenty of water for the simple act of elimination.
Ongoing constipation requires deeper analysis. Look into potential gut dysbiosis or undiagnosed thyroid issues, for example, with the help of your GP and a nutritional therapist.
It is always best to try to avoid laxatives because long-term use can disrupt the process of digestion and absorption.
Tick the following three simple things off your list first if you need gentle help with nudging the process.
1. Are you drinking enough fluid? We need on average two litres per day and the bowels use a lot of this, so upping your water consumption can make things a little easier. We also need water to enable fibre to do its job properly, which leads nicely on to the next point.
2. Are you eating enough fibre? We need both insoluble and soluble forms, as they have different benefits in supporting the bowels. Luckily nature has made many fruits and veggies bountiful in both so try to eat a wide variety. Ground linseed or flaxseed can be particularly effective for ‘slow movers’. And lightly stewed apples, which contain pectin, can also be a good bowel regulator.
However, don’t go overboard and suddenly start eating loads of fibre, particularly if your body is not used to it, as you may create other unpleasant symptoms - your aim is to increase movements, not to have a brass band playing down there! Government guidelines say that our dietary fibre intake should be around 30g per day and if you are achieving your five to ten portions of fruit and veg, with some sprouted or fermented grains as well as nuts and seeds, then you should meet your quota.
If you experience more problems when you increase your fibre intake, consider functional testing (a blood, saliva, urine or stool test with a nutritional therapist to gauge how the body is functioning), as you may have bacterial imbalances that need to be isolated and addressed first.
3. Are you stressed? Holding tension in your body means you are holding it in your gut, too. Try including practices such as yoga or meditation in your daily routine to help support relaxation. Fennel tea can act as a nice bowel relaxer so try steeping some seeds in hot water and seeing if that helps.
With that in mind, the recipes and foods in the section of my book Be Good to Your Gut, entitled ‘When it goes out of whack’ can help when the going gets tough – dishes such as Spicy Parsnip Satay Soup, which is a delicious and easily digestible hug for the gut, and Carrot Cake ‘Porridge’ which will help keep things moving along
Urgency and/or diarrhoea is an issue for many people. Sometimes there can be a specific reason for having to find a loo pretty swiftly: for example, severe bacterial or parasitic infections, often in the form of food or water poisoning; too much alcohol; laxative abuse; certain medications; or a flare-up of an intestinal disease such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. However, there can be reasons that are seemingly inexplicable and the phrase ‘one man’s food is another man’s poison’ often applies here.
Undiagnosed food sensitivities or intolerances can be another reason for erratic, rapid bowel movements. There may also be underlying imbalances in the microflora of the gut that are shifting the balance towards urgency.
If you suffer from constipation or diarrhoea (some people swing between the two) on a regular basis, and have ruled out other more serious gastrointestinal conditions, my ‘Weed, Seed and Feed’ programme in my book Be Good to Your Gut, helps to reduce or remove triggers and generally support the microbial landscape of the gut and hence better bowel habits.
For more health checks read our article on the health checks to book in for even if you think you're healthy .