Your poop can tell you a lot about your health. Red in the bowl—which can signal anything from hemorrhoids to colon cancer—is a known red flag. But what if the color is just fine, but it doesn’t exactly sink to the bottom of the bowl like normal poop does?
It’s not exactly common, but we’ve all probably experienced the floating turd. So what exactly does it mean if your stool is not sinking?
“A floating stool is simply less dense than a sinking stool,” says gastroenterologist Neil Stollman, M.D. Doctors used to think this resulted from excess fat in the feces, but one study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests it’s actually extra air. Dr. Stollman says it could probably be either, though air is more likely.
Extra air in the stool could come from unabsorbed carbohydrates, like lactose or fiber, which ferment in the colon and release gas, says Dr. Stollman. This may be more likely to happen if you’re lactose intolerant or have just consumed a lot of dairy or fiber all at once. Sugary alcoholic drinks and artificial sweeteners can also make your poop gassier, says gastroenterologist Kenneth Brown, M.D.
Related: Why Drinking Booze Gives You Diarrhea
And if your poop contains more air or gas than normal, it will make it lighter—thus more likely to float on top of the water than sink to the bottom of it, like denser turds do.
Still, it’s possible that extra fat in your feces can cause it to float, too. In this case, eating more fatty food than normal is likely the culprit, says Dr. Stollman. When your intestines can’t absorb all that fat, it’s excreted through your poop.
In rarer cases, fatty, floating stools—officially known as steatorrhea—can signal that your body is unable to digest and absorb nutrients, like fat, properly. This is called malabsorption.
If there are also drops of oil in the toilet, your pancreas might not be working properly to absorb the fat you eat, says Dr. Brown. And oil in the poop itself might mean the bacteria from your small intestine are growing outside it, breaking it down before you can.
Doctors can diagnose malabsorption through a fecal fat test, which literally measures the amount of fat excreted in your stool. If your floating poop is caused by malabsorption, you will probably have other signs as well, like frequent loose stool, extremely foul-smelling stools, abdominal cramps, and gas.
Save Your Own Ass!
That said, in most cases, floating poop on its own probably doesn’t indicate any problem. “Very few people have consistent bowels,” says Dr. Stollman. Most changes are simply due to diet or medications. But if you notice a change for a month or more, talk to your doctor just to be safe (For more health stories like this, sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter).
Suzannah Weiss Suzannah Weiss is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, The Washington Post, Playboy and more.
- What Do Floating Stools Mean?
- Healthy Bowel Habits
- Are you more forest or desert?Canyon Ranch® Wellness Resorts
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- What causes floating poop?
- Floating stools — What do they say about my health?
What Do Floating Stools Mean?
Q1. I was watching a program about pancreatic cancer that stated that stools that float are not absorbing fat, which is a sign of a pancreatic problem. Is frequent passing of stools that float something that should be checked out? What else can cause floating stools?
— Arlene, Florida
Since fat is lighter than water, floating stools are most commonly an indication of a high fat content in the stool. Floating stools can occur normally depending on the fat content of the diet we ingest; each of us has only a certain amount of capacity to digest fats. However, any condition that impairs fat absorption may lead to more floating stools due to high fat content. These conditions include celiac disease, bacterial overgrowth, and chronic pancreatitis. While pancreatic cancer can develop in people with chronic pancreatitis, floating stools would be an unusual way for this disease to present.
If you have seen a recent increase in the number of passed stools that float, you may want to see your doctor to measure the amount of fat actually present in your stools. If this is high, he should perform tests to see if you have any of the common causes of fat malabsorption, such as those noted above.
Q2. What are the possible reasons for passing mucus in your bowel movements?
— Arthur, Ohio
Mucus normally lines the large intestine and is a normal component of bowel contents. While most people do not notice the passage of small amounts of mucus, certain conditions lead to increased mucus passage with bowel movements. Of these, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which affects approximately 15 percent of the U.S. population, can be accompanied by visible mucus along with other symptoms of abdominal bloating and changes in the frequency of bowel movements. The inflammatory bowel diseases ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease, bacterial infections, anal fissures, and the very uncommon condition called solitary rectal ulcer syndrome are also frequently associated with visible mucus.
The mucus itself is not harmful, but I would recommend consulting your physician if you note an increase of mucus with your bowel movements.
Q3. I noticed a little bit of blood in my stool; should I worry now or wait and see if it continues? I have a history of hemorrhoids.
— Crystal, Tennessee
While hemorrhoids are by far the most common cause of bright red blood in the stool, you should see your doctor if this is the first time that you’ve noticed blood. Hemorrhoids that bleed are often the result of swollen blood vessels inside the rectum, so you may not be able to detect them when you are wiping.
Hemorrhoids are very common during and after pregnancy, and in people who are constipated or have liver disease or any condition that increases pressure in the abdomen, or who engage in an activity such as weight lifting. Nevertheless, bleeding may represent something more serious, so you should see your doctor to find out whether you need further testing.
Q4. I have had bleeding from hemorrhoids and anal fissures for four years because of constipation. What do you think is the best treatment for this condition?
Hemorrhoids, remarkably common in Western countries, are swollen blood vessels in the area of the anus. They are typically associated with conditions that increase abdominal pressure, including constipation, pregnancy, heavy weight lifting, and even obesity. Anal fissures (small tears in the anal verge) are less common but are associated with the same conditions.
The best way to treat your hemorrhoids and fissures is to treat your constipation. If routine measures such as increasing fluid intake, engaging in aerobic exercise, and increasing dietary fiber are not sufficient, you should see a gastroenterologist to consider medications such as lactulose or Miralax (now available over the counter). If this does not improve the bleeding, you may need to have your hemorrhoids surgically treated.
Learn more in the Everyday Health Digestive Health Center.
Healthy Bowel Habits
You’ve been taught not to bring it up in polite conversation and certainly never to discuss it at the dinner table, but understanding (and, yes, talking about) your bathroom habits is an important first step in maintaining healthy bowels.
Though your bowels help rid your body of waste, there’s so much more to them than that. They are an important part of your immune system, and they help your body regulate fluids and produce vitamins. Your colon, in particular, houses trillions of bacteria that affect metabolism and digestion. So keeping quiet about any bowel trouble you experience may have more repercussions than you ever expected. It can not only prevent you from enjoying life to the fullest, but even put you at risk for further complications or disease, like colorectal cancer.
What’s a Normal Bowel Movement?
Ideally, you should have one or two bowel movements every day. If you go less often than that, your diet may be low in fiber.
Feces should generally be smooth, soft and well-formed with a chocolate brown hue. Bowel movements should look more like a bananas than thin pencils, and while they sometimes smell, the odor shouldn’t been strongly unpleasant. You should not see any blood or mucus in the toilet or on your toilet paper after wiping, and you shouldn’t feel pain when you go.
Stools may float or sink, but ones that float tend to be indicative of healthy bowels. A high-fiber diet can make feces float, which is a good thing, but so can fat in the stool—good if you’re trying to lose weight, but not if it’s a result of malabsorption or if you don’t want to lose weight. Swallowing too much air, which is usually triggered by anxiety, can also cause stools to float.
What Can I Do to Get Regular?
If your typical behaviors fall outside of these guidelines, try the following tips to get back on track. Be patient: It may take days or weeks before you notice improvement. And speak to your doctor before trying anything that involves drastic changes to your regular routine. Embarrassed? Don’t be. Your physician hears about these issues all the time and only wants to help you feel your best.
- Stick to a Schedule, but Don’t Force It Always respond quickly to your bathroom urges, since putting them off can cause constipation. It may be useful for people with chronic constipation to create a routine time to use the bathroom. For some, the ideal is 30 to 60 minutes after breakfast or lunch, when the intestines are in motion. Don’t rush yourself, but try not to linger on the toilet too often either, as you may risk developing hemorrhoids. Straining or pushing during a bowel movement can damage pelvic floor muscles; instead, try relaxing and opening your jaw and mouth, breathing deeply, putting your feet up on a stool or leaning forward and grasping your ankles.
- Eat More Fiber Fiber moves through your digestive system, for the most part, as is. Once it makes it to your intestines, fiber gives stool a gel-like texture, as well as some bulk, helping it better form and pass more easily. Adults should aim for 21 to 38 grams of fiber each day, or 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories of food consumed. Reach for options like whole grain cereals and breads, produce and nuts. If you fall short, try eating more high-fiber foods such as legumes and bran, or leaving the skins and peels on vegetables and fruits. Introduce more fiber gradually to your diet to help prevent gas or bloating that you may experience if you add too much, too fast.
- Forego Trigger Foods Try keeping a food journal to track any uncomfortable digestive symptoms and the foods that may trigger them. Common culprits include gluten, dairy, cabbage or coleslaw, fructose (a type of sugar), sorbitol (an artificial sweetener) and carbonated beverages. Once you determine which foods you react to, you can avoid them or indulge in them sparingly.
- Drink Fluids Staying hydrated also helps soften stool, making bowel movements easier to pass. The average adult should aim for a minimum of 64 ounces (about eight glasses) of fluids each day—that can come from water, tea and even water-rich fruits, such as oranges and grapes. Naturally-sweetened juices are also good choices, just be mindful of the calories. In Ayurvedic medicine, practitioners recommend drinking warm water to promote healthy bowel movements, which you may want to try. Some people experience variations in bowel movements based on their caffeine and alcohol consumption, so just be aware of that possibility if you choose to drink either.
- Be Predictable When it comes to your diet, there’s a benefit to being boring. Because your bowels respond best to a regular schedule, it’s helpful to have similar-size meals and snacks consistently each day. Smaller meals eaten several times daily are easier to digest than large, infrequent meals, as is food that’s eaten slowly and chewed thoroughly. Don’t eat past the point of feeling full, and avoid late-night snacking.
- Stay Fit Regular exercise stimulates the muscles in your digestive tract, keeping food moving through your intestine at a healthy pace so you aren’t backed up. It also is an important part of maintaining a healthy weight, which helps reduce your risk of colon cancer. Aim for 30 minutes of aerobic exercise on most days of the week. Working out at roughly the same time each day will also help your body stay regular.
- Find Ways to Relax Neurotransmitters, chemicals that transport messages throughout the body, are found in your intestines, just as they are in your brain. It makes sense, then, that anxiety and stress can play critical roles in bowel problems. Getting plenty of sleep and practicing stress management and relaxation techniques—such as deep breathing, meditation and massage—are good strategies for both a sound mind and a calm, peaceful digestive system.
- Try Probiotics Probiotics are live microorganisms found in fermented foods like yogurt; they are also available in supplement form. They can help restore friendly bacteria in the intestines that people who suffer from diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome may lack. Probiotics may also benefit people who get the runs while taking antibiotics, since the drugs can unintentionally kill good bacteria while destroying the bad.
- Choose OTC Remedies Wisely Laxatives, stool softeners or other over-the-counter products may help with constipation, but overuse can actually worsen your condition or lead to dependence. Instead, ask your doctor if you should try bulk-forming fiber substitutes, such as psyllium (Metamucil), polycarbophil (FiberCon) and methylcellulose (Citrucel). These may be used daily and could be especially helpful if your diet lacks proper amounts of dietary fiber.
When Should I Be Concerned?
Any sudden or persistent change in bowel habits is a good reason to see your doctor. These warning signs, in particular, can indicate that something serious may be at play:
• Difficult or infrequent bowel movements for three weeks or more
• Frequent loose stools, often with an urgent need to move the bowels, for more than two days
• A chronic feeling that your bowels do not empty completely
• Stools that are oddly shaped, such as narrow like a pencil
• Frequent abdominal discomfort, such as gas, cramping or bloating
• Unexplained weight loss
• Pain before, during or after bowel movements
• Blood or mucus in your stool
• Chronic bowel leakage or lack of bowel control
Whether you experience bowel troubles or not, make sure that you are screened for colorectal cancer starting at age 50 (or earlier if you are at increased risk).
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Are you more forest or desert?Canyon Ranch® Wellness Resorts
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
While our knowledge is still incomplete about the function and malfunction of the large bowel, some facts are well-known. Certain foods, such as coffee, alcohol, spices, raw fruits, vegetables, and even milk, can cause the colon to malfunction. In these instances avoidance of these substances is the simplest treatment.
Infections, illnesses and even changes in the weather somehow can be associated with a flare-up in symptoms. The premenstrual cycle in females can also cause changes in the intestinal tract. By far, the most common factor associated with the symptoms of IBS are the interactions between the brain and the gut. The bowel has a rich supply of nerves that are in communication with the brain. Virtually everyone has had, at one time or another, some alteration in bowel function when under intense stress, such as before an important athletic event, school examination, or a family conflict.
People with IBS seem to have an overly sensitive bowel, and perhaps a super abundance of nerve impulses flowing to the gut, so that the ordinary stresses and strains of living somehow result in colon malfunction.
These exaggerated contractions can be demonstrated experimentally by placing pressure- sensing devices in the colon. Even at rest, with no obvious stress, the pressures tend to be higher than normal. With the routine interactions of daily living, these pressures tend to rise dramatically. When an emotionally charged situation is discussed, they can reach extreme levels not attained in people without IBS. These symptoms are due to real physiologic changes in the gut — a gut that tends to be inherently overly sensitive, and one that overreacts to the stresses and strains of ordinary living.
The diagnosis of IBS often can be suspected just by a review of the patient’s medical history. In the end it is a diagnosis of exclusion; that is, other conditions of the bowel need to be ruled out before a firm diagnosis of IBS can be made.
A number of diseases of the gut, such as inflammation, cancer, and infection, can mimic some or all of the IBS symptoms. Certain medical tests are helpful in making this diagnosis, including blood, urine and stool exams, x-rays of the intestinal tract and a lighted tube exam of the lower intestine. This exam is called endoscopy, sigmoidoscopy or colonoscopy.
Additional tests often are required depending on the specific circumstances in each case. If the proper medical history is obtained and if other diseases are ruled out, a firm diagnosis of IBS then can usually be made.
The treatment of IBS is directed to both the gut and the psyche. The diet requires review, with those foods that aggravate symptoms being avoided.
Current medical thinking about diet has changed a great deal in recent years. There is good evidence to suggest that, where tolerated, a high roughage and bran diet is helpful. This diet can result in larger, softer stools which seem to reduce the pressures generated in the colon.
Large amounts of beneficial fiber can be obtained by taking over-the-counter bulking agents such as psyllium mucilloid (Metamucil, Konsyl) or methylcellulose (Citrucel). You can also mix up your own fiber supplement.
As many people have already discovered, the simple act of eating may, at times, activate the colon. This action is a normal reflex, although in IBS patients it tends to be exaggerated. It is sometimes helpful to eat smaller, more frequent meals to block this reflex.
There are certain medications that help the colon by relaxing the muscles in the wall of the colon, thereby reducing the bowel pressure. These drugs are called antispasmodics. Since stress and anxiety may play a role in these symptoms, it can at times be helpful to use a mild sedative or antidepressant, sometimes in combination with an antispasmodic. No one drug is consistently effective in all people with IBS and treatment is often tailored to the patient and their symptoms. Antidepressant class of medications such as Serotonin blockers are particularly helpful for tough cases.
Physical exercise, too, is helpful. During exercise, the bowel typically quiets down. If exercise is used regularly and if physical fitness or conditioning develops, the bowel may tend to relax even during non-exercise periods. The invigorating effects of conditioning, of course, extend far beyond the intestine and can be recommended for general health maintenance.
As important as anything else in controlling IBS is learning stress reduction, or at least how to control the body’s response to stress. It certainly is well-known that the brain can exert controlling effects over many organs in the body, including the intestine.
Patients with IBS can be assured that nothing serious is wrong with the bowel. Prevention and treatment may involve a simple change in certain daily habits, reduction of stressful situations, eating better and exercising regularly.
Perhaps the most important aspect of treatment is reassurance. For most patients, just knowing that there is nothing seriously wrong is the best treatment of all, especially if they can learn to deal with their symptoms on their own.
What causes floating poop?
Floating poop is rarely a cause for concern. In many cases, a person might not be able to identify a cause for their floating poop.
As long as there are no other symptoms and their stool returns to normal over time, it is not usually necessary to see a doctor.
Some possible causes of floating poop include:
1. Fiber consumption
Share on PinterestPoop that floats is rarely an indication that anything is wrong.
A stool is less likely to float when it is dense. Foods rich in fiber, especially insoluble fiber, make poop less dense.
Fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, form a vital part of a healthful diet, so floating stool due to fiber consumption may actually signal good health.
As many as 95% of adults and children in the United States do not consume enough fiber. Recommendations for fiber intake vary by age and sex.
Women aged 19 to 50 should consume at least 25 grams (g) of fiber per day, while men in the same age group need at least 38 g of daily fiber.
Gas lowers the density of poop, causing it to float. Many high-fiber foods, such as beans, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower, can cause gas.
Some people also develop gas when they change their diet. If poop floats after eating a new food or when switching to a new diet, gas could be the culprit.
3. Stomach infection
An infection in the gastrointestinal tract, such as from E. coli, Salmonella, or norovirus, may cause the poop to float.
Sometimes, these infections also cause gas, which lowers the density of poop. In other cases, they change the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, leading to malabsorption or a fatty stool.
Most stomach infections are temporary and go away without treatment. A person should drink plenty of fluids and rest while they are recovering from a stomach infection. If the symptoms get worse or do not improve with time, see a doctor.
4. Gastrointestinal disorders
Share on PinterestGastrointestinal disorders can cause pain and bloating.
Some gastrointestinal disorders can cause poop to float. A 2015 study found that 26% of people with functional bowel disorders — conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and functional dyspepsia — had floating stools.
Additionally, 3% of those with functional gastrointestinal disorders — a group of disorders that affect movement in the digestive tract — had floating stools.
For some people, floating poop may be the first warning sign of a gastrointestinal or bowel problem. When floating stool occurs alongside other symptoms, such as pain, diarrhea, bloating, or constipation, it may signal an underlying gastrointestinal issue.
When the stool is very fatty, it may float. The medical term for this is steatorrhea. A fatty stool that floats may mean that a person is not adequately absorbing nutrients from food.
Some conditions that can cause malabsorption include:
- Lactose intolerance: Lactose intolerance is an allergy to a type of sugar mainly found in milk and other dairy products. It is also the most common cause of malabsorption. People with lactose intolerance may experience bloating and diarrhea when they consume milk, cheese, or other dairy products.
- Small intestine disorders: Disorders that affect the small intestine can cause malabsorption. People who have had a portion of their small intestine surgically removed, such as to treat Crohn’s disease, may also experience malabsorption.
- Liver and biliary disease: The liver produces bile, which helps the body digest food. When little or no bile reaches the intestines, it may result in a fatty stool. A person may also lose weight or develop diarrhea. Liver disease, blocked bile ducts, and gallstones may cause a fatty stool.
6. Problems with the pancreas
Diseases of the pancreas can cause a fatty stool due to malabsorption. Malabsorption can occur when the pancreatic enzymes or bile do not travel in sufficient quantities to the small intestine.
The result is a fatty stool that may float or be difficult to flush. The stool may also be white or very pale. A person may also notice that they have very dark urine.
The most serious pancreas disorder is pancreatic cancer. Other conditions of the pancreas, such as pancreatitis, may also cause a floating stool.
It is not possible to diagnose diseases of the pancreas based on a person’s symptoms alone. Pancreatic disorders are serious, so it is essential to get treatment as soon as possible.
We get it: Talking about bathroom issues is embarrassing. But anyone who’s ever seen a copy of What’s Your Poo Telling You? knows that the type of thing that goes down in the toilet says a lot about what’s going on in your gut. Some issues are NBD and are probably just the result of what you had for breakfast. But other issues can be the sign of something more serious.
RELATED: 4 Reasons Why You Might See Blood in Your Poo
So what the heck does it mean when your poop floats? “Most of the time it’s normal,” says Niket Sonpal, M.D., assistant clinical professor of gastroenterology at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. “But it could be a signal that something is starting to brew. Normally, stool is a solid thing—and it shouldn’t really float or stick to the toilet.”
Sonpal says your diet is the number one reason you might notice poop that stays afloat in the bowl. Insoluble fibers, like bran, or foods that can cause gas, like artificial sweeteners or starch, are tough for the body to digest and can affect the quality of your poop, he says. These types of foods can cause your poop to contain excess gas, and it’s that extra air that will make it lighter, causing it to float.
Lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity are also fairly normal causes of poop that floats. If you’re prone to either of these things, there’s likely no reason to worry, though. That’s because the majority of time in these cases, floating stool is caused by an inocuous diet choice (like eating bran) that won’t negatively affect your health. If you know you have either lactose intolerance or gluten sensitivity, once you go back to eating foods that you know won’t bother you, your poop should return to normal pretty quickly.
RELATED: Holding in Your Poop for Too Long Can Actually Be Deadly
But there could be a more serious cause behind the floating phenomenon, says Henry Binder, M.D., professor emeritus at Yale School of Medicine. It could actually be caused by an increase of fat in your poop, which is an indication that your body isn’t processing nutrients properly.
If this is the case, the floating issue is the result of what doctors call malabsorption, or your body’s inability to process a certain nutrient.
RELATED: Curious Why Coffee Gives You the Runs? (You Know You Are)
To figure out what’s making your poop stick to the top of the toilet bowl, Sonpal suggests trying a basic elimination diet to get your gut in check. Slowly remove one or two foods from your diet that could be causing the gas in your poop until the issue stops. “Most of the time, a simple change in diet can go a long way,” he says.
If that doesn’t work, you may have a malabsorption issue—and you should have your doc check things out.
Macaela MacKenize is a writer, runner, and (aspiring) yogi. Thanks to her inner nerd, she’s researched everything from the weirdest health and fitness trends, to the behavioral economics of our love lives, to what happens when we donate our bodies to science. When she’s not writing, you might find her singing in a rock ‘n’ roll cover band.
Macaela Mackenzie Macaela Mackenzie is a freelance journalist specializing in health, culture, and tech, and she regularly contributes to outlets like Prevention, Women’s Health, Shape, Allure, Men’s Health, the John Hopkins Health Review, and more.
Floating stools — What do they say about my health?
The color, consistency, and smell of stools say a lot about our health, and, of course, our diet. According to the National Institutes of Health, healthy stools typically sink. However, floating stools do not necessarily mean that there is a problem. Usually, floating stools result from nutrient malabsorption that can lead to excess flatus (a.k.a. gas), which makes the stool less dense and thus allows it to float.
Nutrient malabsorption occurs when the body does not completely digest and absorb nutrients from the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. According to MedicineNet.com, normal intestinal bacteria digest foods (typically sugars and polysaccharides) that have not already been digested in the small intestine. These bacteria, in turn, produce excess gas (in the form of hydrogen and/or methane). When more food is digested by bacteria in the lower intestine, more gas is produced that needs to find a way out either via farting or via floating stools.
Having diarrhea and floating stools for more than two weeks may be a sign of nutrient malabsorption. Alternative explanations for floating stools include a change in diet, diarrhea, acute GI infections, and diseases such as celiac disease.
It may be helpful to keep track of any changes to your diet and see whether removing certain foods causes symptoms to disappear. However, see a health care provider if you notice a change in stool characteristics lasting over two weeks, or if these symptoms are accompanied by blood, weight loss, fever, or dizziness. Make an appointment with a health care provider, who may possibly refer you to a gastroenterologist. To learn more about digestion, check out the slide show on the Mayo Clinic’s website.
Here’s hoping this answer floats your, er… boat.