“Dehydration can also play a role in constipation,” Stephanie Dunne, R.D., an integrative and functional nutrition certified practitioner, tells SELF, “This is because the intestines pull water into the bowels to make the stool softer and easier to pass.” Food sensitivies, overgrowth of bacteria or yeast in the small intestine, and excessive intake of red meat or alcohol are other contributors.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, many people have diarrhea on a regular basis, and far more often than they realize. According to Dunne, “If you’re experiencing loose, mushy, or watery stools at least 75 percent of the time, you have chronic diarrhea.” The consistency may be soft separate blobs, fluffy pieces with ragged edges, or be completely watery with no solid pieces at all. As with constipation, fiber plays an important role when you’re suffering from diarrhea for many of the same reasons previously mentioned. “Fiber is like a sponge that expands to help firm up loose stools,” she says.
Other potential causes for chronic diarrhea “include an overgrowth of bacteria and yeast in the large intestine, food sensitivities, excess intake of high fat or greasy foods, the inability to sufficiently digest and absorb nutrients, and chronic stress or anxiety due to the strong gut-brain connection,” Dunne tells SELF.
The color of your poop can also tell you a lot about what’s going on with your body.
“If your stool is a color besides brown, it’s typically due to whatever you recently ate,” says Massarat Zutshi, M.D., a colorectal surgeon with Cleveland Clinic. “Leafy greens, red fruits and veggies, artificial food coloring, and some medicines and supplements can also change the color.” In some cases, color changes can indicate something more serious. Here’s a color-based guide to what your poop says about your health:
If you didn’t take Pepto Bismol (which pretty much always changes your poop to black), dark-colored stool can indicate bleeding from higher in your GI tract that changed color as it passed through the intestines. “Outside of Bismuth (Pepto Bismol), darker bowels can be a result of a stomach ulcer or high levels of iron,” Dr. Zutshi tells SELF.
Medicines like Kaopectate can sometimes cause pale and clay-colored stools. “White stools can also be due to problems with bile getting into your GI tract, or if the liver is not making enough bile,” says Jennifer Inra, M.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Division of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Endoscopy. “If the bile duct is blocked due to a stone or a tumor, bile is not able to reach the intestine and the stool turns white. This is common with liver diseases like hepatitis and cirrhosis.”
Let’s say you poop (or pee) a tint of red. Before you panic, think about what you’ve eaten recently. “The deep red color in beets comes from a plant compound called betacyanin,” Laura Cipullo, R.D., a nutritionist based in New York City, tells SELF. “This can color both your urine and your poop for up to two days after consuming them.” If you didn’t eat the root vegetable, the culprits could be tomatoes, food coloring, or even cranberries. If you’re positive the red tint didn’t come from any food, you may have blood in your stool, which is actually fresh blood from the intestines. This definitely warrants a visit to the doctor. “Bright red blood in the stool can indicate a polyp, inflammation, diverticulitis, or even colon cancer,” says Dr. Zutshi.
If you notice yellow poop that floats, you might have issues digesting fat. This can be the result of having your gallbladder removed, taking weight-loss medications, or from a variety of surgeries. “Yellow, greasy and fatty stools may indicate chronic pancreatitis or celiac disease,” says Dr. Inra.
The human body is an amazing machine, but admittedly, it can do some gross things. For example, bowel movements. Nasty, right? However, it’s a part of a living creature’s normal process, and everyone does it—your dog, your cat, your fish, your baby. Yet, you might be surprised to know your poop can tell a lot about your health.
Kandarp Patel, DO, is a gastroenterologist who sees patients at Banner Estrella Medical Center in Phoenix, AZ. He has been practicing for 10 years and says your bowel movements can be an indicator to your health.
- The basics about poop
- Poop and your health
- What Your Poop Is Telling You
- Changes in Bowel Habits
- 5 Signs of Bowel Trouble
- Better Lifestyle, Better Bowels
- Coping with cancer
- What is the bowel?
- What affects the bowel
- What is a normal bowel habit?
- How cancer treatment affects the bowel
- 7. You’re overdoing it on the coffee.
- 8. You have an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
- 9. You’re on medication.
- How can you tell your poop issues aren’t something more serious?
- Frequent Bowel Movements
- What are frequent bowel movements?
- What other symptoms might occur with frequent bowel movements?
- What causes frequent bowel movements?
- What are the potential complications of frequent bowel movements?
- Color change in bowel habits
- Changes in consistency of bowel habits
- Changes in frequency of bowel movements
- Odor changes in bowel habits
- How to diagnose and treat the changes in bowel habits
The basics about poop
For a lot of people, talking about their bowel movements can be embarrassing. However, the first thing you must remember is it’s totally normal.
First, let’s focus on frequency. You may wonder how often you should have to go. Well, it really depends on the person.
Dr. Patel says frequency can really vary from person to person with some having as few as 3 bowel movements a week. Other people may need to make 4 to 5 pit stops a day. Does frequency indicate there is a problem in the digestive system? Not necessarily.
“Frequency by itself is not an indicator as long as it is within your normal pattern,” Dr. Patel said. “A concerning sign is if there is a change from this normal pattern.”
We all know what is expected, but Dr. Patel explains there are a few different things that go into what makes it that color. For example, the food you ate, any medications you may have taken or any other things you might have ingested all go into making up the color. Additionally, the color can change by intestinal enzymes, the sloughing of normal gastrointestinal mucous membranes and the composition of your gut bacteria. When there becomes an imbalance in these things, the color of the stool changes.
Dr. Patel says you should be concerned if you have any red or black or very dark-colored stools, which can indicate gastrointestinal bleeding. Additionally, clay-colored stools could be a sign of an obstruction in your pancreas or bile duct.
Believe it or not, there is a scale to identify the consistency of your stool. It’s called the Bristol Stool Chart, and it ranges from 1 to 7. One indicates severe constipation, and 7 indicates diarrhea. A normal or “good” consistency would be either a 3 or 4, which would be sausage shaped and either smooth or have small cracks in it.
Now, surely, the consistency of the stool would be a sign that there is something wrong in the old digestive tract, right? Well, again, Dr. Patel says you can’t judge by consistency alone.
“Loose, watery stools or hard stools that are new in onset could signify a host of GI problems, and it is best to get these symptoms evaluated by your doctor,” Dr. Patel said. However, if either is your normal bowel pattern, it may mean your bowels move waste through either quickly or slowly.
Again, doctors generally do not worry too much about consistently loose or hard stools. What matters is if you have sudden onset of diarrhea or are constipated. Then, it’s probably a good time to check in with your doctor.
And, if you’ve ever wondered about the smell, Dr. Patel says it all depends on what you eat and the gas that forms related to that food. Some foods tend to form these gases more, including milk and dairy products. Also, beans, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage can cause gas. Wheat, oats and corn are also known contributors.
When do you need to worry?
Again, any time your stool has red on it or is a dark color, you’ll want to get it checked out by a doctor. There are other cases where you should talk to a doctor, too.
If you have any blood on the toilet paper, it’s a good idea to get checked out. Dr. Patel says finding blood on the paper would suggest something wrong in the distal colon or rectum. Blood in the stool itself would suggest problems in the proximal colon, small bowel, stomach or esophagus.
“We are most concerned if we see rectal bleeding in association with abdominal pain, weight loss, anemia and a change in bowel habits,” Dr. Patel said. “These could be signs of an underlying colon cancer.”
To find out what the problem might be, gastroenterologists can order a series of tests including stool studies or schedule for a direct examination with an endoscopy or colonoscopy. Dr. Patel says stool tests can help doctors look for infections from bacteria or parasites, and they can help find blood, signs of inflammation and clues to suggest your body isn’t absorbing nutrients.
While there is no one test that can find everything wrong in a stool sample, your doctor will order the most appropriate tests, depending on your symptoms.
Keeping the bowels happy
So, what can you do to make sure your bowel movements are easy and healthy? It shouldn’t surprise you: Dr. Patel says it’s a combination of making sure you’re exercising, getting enough fluids and eating a high-fiber diet.
Keeping your GI tract happy is basically what doctors recommend every day as part of an overall healthy diet and lifestyle including: not smoking, managing your weight, exercising, minimizing alcohol and a diet rich in plant-based foods.
“And, get your screening examinations at the recommended intervals,” Dr. Patel said.
Talk to your doctor about the screenings you may need, when you should have them done and a diet to keep your GI tract happy. For help finding a doctor, visit: doctors.bannerhealth.com.
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Poop and your health
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A person’s poop can say a lot about his or her health. How often you go to the bathroom, and how much waste you expel, can indicate your general digestive health.
“The digestive tract contains more bacterial cells than there are cells in the entire body,” said Dr. Jean-Pierre Raufman, a gastroenterologist at University of Maryland School of Medicine. “It’s very important that our bowels work well to absorb necessary nutrients but also keep out any foods, chemicals and germs that could do us harm.”
While most people probably don’t want to put much thought into pooping, it’s an essential body function that can tell them if something is wrong. A change in bowel movements could be due merely to a change in diet, but it could also mean the body is fighting an infection or dealing with a serious condition.
Here are five hints that your poop could be giving you about your health.
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Stool color is often a reflection of what you eat. While various shades of brown are considered normal, some colors like black or yellow are not.
“Black stool could indicate bleeding in the stomach or the first part of the small intestine,” Raufman said.
Iron supplements can darken the stool to more of a dark green, he added. Taking bismuth-containing medicines, such as Pepto-Bismol, or eating black licorice or blueberries also may cause black stools.
Bright red stool usually suggests that blood is coming from the lower part of the digestive system, such as the large intestine, rectum or anus.
Pale white or yellow stool also can mean a problem.
“The reason why stool is brown is because of our normal production of bile,” Raufman said. “If there’s a problem with bile flow, that may mean a problem like cancer of the bile ducts, or pancreatic cancer or hepatitis.”
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A change in stool shape also could be cause for concern. Stools that are narrow and pencil-thin are thought by some experts to be a symptom of colon cancer.
“It could be a sign of obstruction in the lower part of the colon,” which means the bowel is partially blocked, getting in the way of the fecal matter that is passing through, Raufman said.
Another sign of a potential problem is soft stool. Stool that sticks to the side of the toilet bowl, or is difficult to flush, could indicate the presence of too much oil.
“Oil floats, so you’ll see it in the water,” Raufman said. “They look like fat droplets, which can mean the body isn’t absorbing the fats properly.” Diseases such as chronic pancreatitis block the body from properly absorbing fat.
Whether stool floats depends on how much gas is in it. “Generally, stool that sinks or floats don’t mean there’s a problem,” he said.
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Though the smell of poop can be rather unpleasant, smells that are particularly strange or foul shouldn’t be ignored.
“It’s hard to tell people that stool can smell even worse, but it can,” Raufman said. “If there is a change in your stool that persists or is unusual, you should see your doctor.”
Stool is made up of undigested food, bacteria, mucus and dead cells. It usually smells bad because of the bacteria and parasites, but it also can have compounds that produce an especially unpleasant smell.
“If you have blood in your stool, that usually comes with a particular strange odor,” he said. “Also, stool with a lot of fat can smell particularly bad.”
Reasons for a foul smell could include certain medications, having food that’s been stuck in the colon for too long, or having an infection, he said.
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Dry, hard stools that are hard to eliminate are a sign of constipation. People who are constipated may have bowel movements fewer than three times a week.
Constipation is a common complaint, and most people experience it at least once in their lives. More than 4 million Americans have frequent constipation, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.
Constipation could be caused by a number of factors, including a poor diet, lack of exercise, certain medications, lack of fluids or various bowel disorders.
If ignored, constipation could lead to complications such as hemorrhoids or rectal bleeding. The best way to relieve symptoms is to follow a well-balanced high-fiber diet, drink plenty of water, try to exercise regularly and go to the bathroom when you feel the urge.
(Image credit: Piotr Marcinski/)
Diarrhea happens when loose, watery stools pass through your bowels too quickly. Generally it lasts one or two days and goes away on its own.
“It’s a normal way for the body to get rid of toxic substances, like bacteria or viral infections,” but it also can lead to dehydration, Raufman said.
Parasites found in water and food can enter the body and disrupt the digestive system, causing diarrhea that can last several days.
Diarrhea also can suggest a more serious problem. Diarrhea that lasts for at least four weeks may be a sign of a chronic disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn’s disease.
But diarrhea also could be a sign of chewing gum that contains sugar alcohol, such Xylitol or sorbitol. Raufman said, “Someone who chews one or two packs of sugar-free gum a day could also get diarrhea.”
What Your Poop Is Telling You
By Vasudha Dhar, MD, Special to Everyday Health
As a gastroenterologist, I am somewhat surprised that people don’t pay more attention to their bathroom habits. While it’s not the most pleasant topic, there really is no easier way to discover what’s happening inside your body than seeing what comes out of it.
One of the biggest misconceptions about our bowel movements is the common belief there is an ideal result. A few years ago, a well-known doctor suggested that we should all strive to see a “perfect S” and that anything else could indicate some kind of problem.
After this announcement, my appointment calendar was booked solid for weeks. I explained to worried patients that, in fact, the famous doctor’s blanket statement was incorrect. Everyone’s GI tract operates differently based on a combination of constant and changing factors – genetics, hydration, dietary habits, medication use, and ongoing health issues.
Think about it – sometimes certain foods just don’t agree with you, and occasionally you don’t drink enough water. Or perhaps you are taking a new medication. These factors can change the consistency and caliber of your stool for a short time but things usually revert back to normal in a few days.
The frequency of bowel movements also varies. Not everyone is wired to have a bowel movement every day. Some people have one every few days while other people go more than once a day. Regardless, both are normal.
Changes in Bowel Habits
What’s important to be aware of is how your GI tract normally functions and what typical bowel activity is for you. If you notice a prolonged change, that’s when you need to closely monitor what’s happening. In addition, if you are feeling pain or other pronounced symptoms, it’s time to call your doctor.
Keep in mind, if your stool changes for a week or longer, it doesn’t necessarily mean the medical issue lies in your GI tract. Recently, I saw a female patient in her mid-forties who was concerned her stools had changed from regular to much looser consistency and the frequency had increased. She was also losing weight.
After running her blood work and conducting other diagnostic tests, we learned she had hyperthyroidism (an overactive thyroid), a condition where the thyroid gland produces too much of the thyroid hormone, which causes symptoms including accelerated metabolism (causing sudden weight loss), heart rate increase, sweating, and changes in bowel movements.
5 Signs of Bowel Trouble
The body has a way of expressing itself when there is trouble inside by changing your bowel movements. Here are five warning signs you shouldn’t ignore:
- Blood in your stool. If you see even a small amount of blood in your feces on a recurring basis, see a doctor. Blood can be a sign of hemorrhoids or anal fissures, pre-cancerous colon polyps, or an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). In the worst case scenario, it could be a sign of cancer.
- Change in stool consistency. Everyone has bouts of diarrhea from time to time. But if you used to have solid bowel movements and now have diarrhea frequently, it could be a sign of ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s disease, two types of IBD – especially if you also have abdominal pain, bleeding, and weight loss.
- Color change. Bowel movements are generally brown in color because of bile, which is produced in the liver. If the stool is black, it can be a sign of internal bleeding. Green stool is usually nothing to be concerned about. Stool color also changes depending on the kinds of food you eat.
- Continual diarrhea. Diarrhea can be sign of infection or food intolerance. Ulcerative colitis and some other microscopic colon disorders can cause changes in frequency of the stool as well. It can also be a result of a change of medications or irritable bowel disease.
- Constipation. If you have a new onset of constipation, it can be due to lack of proper hydration or side effects from a medication. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may also be a consideration. If your symptoms don’t improve in a few days after an increase in fluids, see your doctor.
Better Lifestyle, Better Bowels
People who deal with chronic bathroom issues should be evaluated by a doctor. Most conditions can be treated with medication and lifestyle changes. Irritable bowel disease is one of the most common conditions affecting the large intestine (colon). It causes cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, and constipation. It is a chronic condition that you will need to manage for the long-term with diet, exercise, stress management, and medication.
Most gastrointestinal problems can be resolved by making simple changes to your diet and lifestyle. For less severe cases, the following nutrition and exercise changes may prove helpful:
- Eat unprocessed, natural foods including fiber-rich vegetables.
- Avoid artificial sweeteners, fructose, chemical additives, MSG, excessive caffeine.
- Boost your intestinal flora by adding naturally fermented foods to your diet – sauerkraut, pickles, and kefir, for example.
- Add a probiotic supplement if you’re not getting enough good bacteria from your diet.
- Strive to drink two quarts of water daily.
- Exercise regularly.
- If you use medication every day, ask your prescribing doctor if it could be affecting your bowel movements.
- Take action to minimize chronic stress.
Be sure to talk to your doctor before making any changes to your healthcare routine. Pay attention to your bowel movements the same way you watch your weight, get your blood pressure monitored, and have your heart rate evaluated. Your bathroom habits can offer warning signs that something may not be quite right, and that you need to be checked out by a medical professional.
Vasudha Dhar, MD, is a board-certified gastroenterologist on staff at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, New Jersey. She maintains a private medical practice and also serves as assistant professor of clinical medicine at Columbia University in New York City.
Coping with cancer
Find out about the bowel and problems that can sometimes occur with the bowel when you have cancer.
What is the bowel?
The bowel is the lower part of the digestive system. The digestive system is also called the gut or gastrointestinal tract (or the GI tract or GIT for short).
The bowel goes from the stomach to the back passage (anus). It is a hollow muscular tube. It processes all the food we eat and breaks it down into nutrients for the body to use. It also gets rid of any solid waste matter from the body as poo (also called faeces or stools).
The bowel is divided into the small bowel (or small intestine) and the large bowel (colon and rectum).
Most of the bowel problems caused by cancer are related to the large bowel. It is less common to get problems related to the small bowel.
What affects the bowel
How your bowel works is affected by a number of different things:
Muscles and nerves
The nerves and muscles in your back passage help you have normal bowel movements. So if treatment or illness damages these nerves or muscles, you might have some difficulty passing your poo.
The muscles in your tummy (abdomen) and your intestinal muscles also play a part in moving the poo down into your rectum.
Eating and drinking
What you eat affects your bowel motions. Eating a diet high in fibre with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables helps to keep your poo soft and regular.
Remember to drink plenty of water if you are eating more fibre. Fibre draws water into the bowel so you could get dehydrated if you don’t drink enough.
You need a certain amount of fluid in your body for your bowel to work properly. If you don’t have enough fluid you can get dehydrated. This can make it difficult to pass poo. So it is important to drink plenty of water (about 6 to 8 glasses) of water each day.
A lack of daily exercise can reduce the muscle tone in your abdomen and bowel (intestines). This slows down the movement of poo through the gut. So taking regular exercise helps to keep your bowel working properly.
Ways of increasing daily exercise could include using the stairs rather than the lift, or getting off the bus one or two stops early.
As we get older, the way our bowel works tends to change. Bowel problems are more common in older people. As we age we can become less active and our diet may change. This can have an impact on bowel function.
Conditions other than cancer can change the way your bowels work. This can include inflammatory bowel disease, piles (haemorrhoids) and infections. With the right treatment, your doctor can usually help control these conditions.
What is a normal bowel habit?
How often you have a bowel movement can vary from person to person. Normal for some people can mean having a poo a few times a day, for others it might mean having a poo a few times a week.
You can usually think of your bowel habit as normal if you:
- have regular bowel movements (not necessarily once a day)
- don’t have ongoing symptoms of constipation or diarrhoea
- can have a bowel movement without straining or using laxatives
How cancer treatment affects the bowel
Constipation and diarrhoea are common side effects of many drugs used as cancer treatments. Your doctor or nurse will talk to you about the side effects of any new drugs they prescribe for you.
Radiotherapy to the pelvic area or to the back passage (rectum) can cause diarrhoea. This usually comes on shortly after the treatment starts and lasts for a few weeks after the course of treatment ends. Your doctor or nurse might give you medicines to slow down your bowel and try to prevent diarrhoea.
Let your medical team know if you notice any of these side effects. They will be able to give you advice about how to treat them.
Everybody poops—it’s a simple fact of life. Maybe you usually go right when you get up or an hour after you have coffee in the morning, or you regularly take a mid-afternoon poo. Whatever it is, you probably have some kind of routine. So it’s completely understandable that you’d get a bit freaked out when you suddenly start going more.
While going number-two more than usual can be a sign that something is off, it’s not usually a reason for an otherwise healthy young women to freak out, says Kyle Staller, MD, a gastroenterologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “Probably one of the most common things would be dietary intolerances—you ate something that doesn’t agree with you,” says Dr. Staller. This is especially true if you have a change for a few days and then it goes back to normal.
Beyond that, these are the biggest reasons why your two-a-days may suddenly have increased.
1. You started eating healthier.
One of the most common reasons why young women start pooping more is because they increased their fiber intake, says Rudy Bedford, MD, a gastroenterologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. So, if you suddenly started pooping more around the time you started adding more vegetables to your diet, that’s likely why.
2. You got an infection.
Viral and bacterial infections (think: everything from the flu to E. coli) can cause excessive pooping and diarrhea, says Dr. Staller. While this is normal, if you have bloody poop or a fever with it, you should get it checked out.
3. You increased your workouts.
Stepping up your exercise routine can make you go more than usual, says Dr. Bedford. Here’s why: Exercise increases muscle contractions in your colon, working number two out of your body faster than it did before. That’s why doctors may encourage you to work out more if you’re constipated.
4. You have IBS.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is no joke, and Dr. Staller says it’s common in young women. The condition, an intestinal disorder that causes pain in your stomach, gas, and cramping, can also make you poop a lot. “The classic patient gets sudden abdominal pain and cramping associated with constipation or diarrhea,” says Dr. Staller. If you notice you have these other symptoms in addition to a high frequency of pooping, see your doctor about it.
5. You’re stressed out.
For people who already have gastro issues like IBS, stress can be a poop trigger. “Many people have more loose bowel movements when they’re under stress,” says Dr. Staller. When your stress subsides, so should the number of times you need to use the potty.
6. You’re on your period.
Many women who are just about to get their periods or already have their periods will have looser or more frequent BMs. It’s likely due to a shift in hormones around your cycle (specifically progesterone), and is “very normal,” says Dr. Staller. If you only have to go more often (or have diarrhea) around your time of the month, that’s likely the cause—and totally normal.
7. You’re overdoing it on the coffee.
Coffee acts as a pro-motility agent, as WH reported previously. That’s because the caffeine stimulates muscle contractions in your intestines, causing you to have to go to the bathroom. And the more caffeine you drink, the more of a laxative effect it will have. So the easy fix? If you’re chugging cups of Joe every day and are running to the bathroom a lot, try scaling back the amount you consume.
8. You have an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
IBD is different than IBS and includes Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. These conditions cause chronic inflammation in the digestive tract, as the name suggests. If you have IBD, it can cause permanent damage to the digestive tract over time, so you definitely want to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.
The thing is, if you’re just having regular poops multiple times a day, you probably aren’t dealing with IBD. Other symptoms of IBD include bloody stools, fatigue, severe abdominal pain and persistent diarrhea, even weight loss, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So if this sounds like your sitch, that warrants a trip to a gastroenterologist STAT.
9. You’re on medication.
Some medications, like certain antibiotics, may change what’s happening in your GI tract, including the bacteria makeup in your system, according to Harvard Health. In turn, you may have more bowel movements or diarrhea. This should subside when you’re done taking the antibiotic or Rx. And any time you’re prescribed medication, your doc should let you know if this is a possible side effect (and you can ask as well!).
One note: If you have abdominal pain or notice blood in your stools, call your doctor. This could be a sign of a more serious problem, like an infection or IBD.
How can you tell your poop issues aren’t something more serious?
Dr. Bedford says abdominal pain, bloody stool, and mucus in your poop are clues that something isn’t right, and you should see a doctor.
Dr. Staller says the way your bowel movements are impacting your life is also a big tip-off. If you really don’t give it another thought, you’re probably fine. But if you find that you’re changing your routine or avoiding some social situations because you’re worried about pooping, you need to see a doctor.
“I see plenty of young women who are worried about being on dates,” says Dr. Staller. “If it’s a common thing where you’re always on the lookout for a bathroom, you should go and get evaluated.”
Korin Miller Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. Kristin Canning Kristin Canning is the health editor at Women’s Health, where she assigns, edits and reports stories on emerging health research and technology, women’s health conditions, psychology, mental health, wellness entrepreneurs, and the intersection of health and culture for both print and digital.
Frequent Bowel Movements
What are frequent bowel movements?
Bowel habits, including the number of times a person passes stool each day, their volume, and their consistency vary from individual to individual. Because of this, precise criteria for frequent bowel movements do not exist. Having frequent bowel movements means that you are having more bowel movements than is normal for you.
Often, frequent bowel movements are accompanied by diarrhea, the passage of loosely formed stool. Diarrhea is a common condition. Adults in the United States average one episode of diarrhea per year, and children average two bouts per year (Source: NDDIC).
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Frequent bowel movements may be accompanied by other symptoms in addition to diarrhea, including cramping, bloating, abdominal discomfort, urgency, and possibly nausea and vomiting. Certain foods, some medications, food poisoning, infections, and inflammatory conditions of the digestive tract can all contribute to frequent bowel movements. If an infection is to blame, you may also experience fevers, muscle aches, and a general ill feeling.
Sometimes, reviewing your food or medication intake may help you identify the cause of frequent bowel movements, particularly if you have added something new to your diet, have recently started a new medication, or tend to have frequent bowel movements after eating specific foods. If you have eaten food that may have been contaminated or have traveled to another country, you may have food poisoning or traveler’s diarrhea. If you have had long-term trouble with frequent bowel movements, particularly if the stool is oily, bulky, unusually foul smelling, or bloody, you may have an inflammatory condition of the digestive tract.
Often, frequent bowel movements resolve on their own. However, if they persist or if you experience severe symptoms, medical treatment may be necessary. Also, diarrhea can lead to dehydration, so it is important to make sure you are drinking plenty of clear fluids if you have diarrhea.
In some cases, frequent bowel movements can be associated with conditions that require emergency treatment. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you have bloody stool, black or tarry stool, stool with pus, severe abdominal pain, or high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit). Also, diarrhea increases the risk of dehydration, which can have significant complications. Symptoms of severe dehydration require immediate medical care, including decreased urination, dark urine, increased thirst, decreased elasticity of the skin, fatigue, and change in level of consciousness or alertness (such as passing out or unresponsiveness).
If your frequent bowel movements are persistent, worsen instead of improve, or cause you concern, seek prompt medical care.
What other symptoms might occur with frequent bowel movements?
Frequent bowel movements may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that frequently affect the digestive tract may also involve other body systems.
Digestive system symptoms that may occur along with frequent bowel movements
Frequent bowel movements may accompany other symptoms affecting the digestive tract including:
Abdominal pain or cramping
Abdominal swelling, distension or bloating
Abnormally foul-smelling stools
Bloody stool (blood may be red, black, or tarry in texture)
Changes in stool color or consistency
Fecal incontinence (inability to control stools)
Nausea with or without vomiting
Painful bowel movements
Urgent need to pass stool
Other symptoms that may occur along with frequent bowel movements
Frequent bowel movements may accompany symptoms related to other body systems including:
General ill feeling
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, frequent bowel movements may be a symptom of a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
Bloody stool (the blood may be red, black, or tarry in texture)
Change in level of consciousness or alertness, such as passing out or unresponsiveness
Change in mental status or sudden behavior change, such as confusion, delirium, lethargy, hallucinations and delusions
High fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit)
Not producing any urine, or an infant who does not produce the usual amount of wet diapers
Pus in the stool
Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
Severe rectal or abdominal pain
Vomiting blood or rectal bleeding
What causes frequent bowel movements?
A variety of conditions can cause frequent bowel movements. They may also be related to certain foods or medications.
Digestive tract causes of frequent bowel movements
Frequent bowel movements may be caused by conditions of the digestive tract including:
Bacterial gastrointestinal infection, such as Salmonella food poisoning, Campylobacter infection, or traveler’s diarrhea
Cancer of the digestive tract
Celiac disease (severe sensitivity to gluten from wheat and other grains that causes intestinal damage)
Diverticulitis (inflammation of an abnormal pocket in the colon)
Food allergies (allergic reaction to certain foods)
Gallbladder disease or stones
Inflammatory bowel disease (including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS; digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease)
Lactose intolerance (inability to digest lactose, the sugar in dairy products)
Parasite infections such as Giardia infection
Surgical removal of any portion of the intestinal tract
Viral gastroenteritis (viral infection of the digestive tract, also called stomach flu or intestinal flu)
Whipple’s disease (bacterial infection affecting small intestine)
Serious or life-threatening causes of frequent bowel movements
In some cases, frequent bowel movements may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These include:
Pancreatitis (inflammation of the pancreas)
Questions for diagnosing the cause of frequent bowel movements
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your frequent bowel movements including:
When did you first notice an increase in the frequency of your bowel movements?
Has the color or consistency of your stool changed?
Have you noticed any blood, mucus, oil or pus in your stool?
Have you recently eaten or drunk anything unusual for you?
Is there any possibility you may have eaten spoiled food?
Do you have symptoms more frequently when you eat certain types of foods?
Have you traveled recently?
Do you have any other symptoms?
What medications are you taking?
What are the potential complications of frequent bowel movements?
Because frequent bowel movements can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:
Anemia (low red blood cell count)
Dehydration and electrolyte imbalance due to long-term diarrhea
Intestinal obstruction and rupture of the intestinal wall
Poor nutrition due to vomiting, diarrhea, or a decreased desire to eat
Spread of cancer
Spread of infection
Surgery to remove parts of the digestive tract due to obstruction, rupture, serious infection, or malignant condition
Experiencing a change in bowel habits is a huge inconvenience. We normally have some control over when we choose to go to the bathroom, and our body gives us some time to hold it in before we get there. But sometimes we experience a sudden change in bowel habits that make us desperately search for the nearest toilet, or unfortunately, not make it there in time.
Everyone goes about their basic need to expel waste from the body in their own way, with there being a commonality between them. Having one or two bowel movements on a daily basis is normal, but there are instances where this does not hold true.
In this article, we will discuss what a change in bowel habits mean and how you can recognize subtle changes in your stools.
Color change in bowel habits
Often a sign of internal bleeding somewhere along the digestive tract. The color black is a major clue to where the bleeding might have occurred, as blood tends to become darker in color the longer it is out of its normal environment. Knowing this, doctors are confident that the bleeding has originated somewhere in the upper digestive tract, which includes the esophagus, stomach, and first part of the small intestine (duodenum). Bleeding may result from inflammation or an ulcer. Other possible causes of black stool include consuming black licorice, iron pills, medication with bismuth, or blueberries.
Red signifies blood and bleeding somewhere in the digestive tract. Because the blood has not turned to a darker shade, it leads medical professionals to presume the bleeding is somewhere in the lower digestive tract, as the blood has not had enough time outside its normal environment. The lower digestive tract includes the rectum, large bowel, and anus. Causes leading to red stools include diverticulosis and hemorrhoids. Other causes are abnormal blood vessels, intestinal tumors, consuming red food coloring, tomatoes, and beets.
Related: Blood in stool (rectal bleeding) causes, symptoms, treatment, and prevention
The brown color stool is what most people have become accustomed to when thinking of the waste product. This is the result of various processes controlled by the liver that gives stool its distinctive color and is considered healthy. If the stool were to lose its natural brown color, it often indicates an underlying problem in the liver, gallbladder, or pancreases; all of which contribute to the digestive system. Problems affecting these organs could be due to a tumor, infection, cyst, or gallstone obstruction.
Diarrhea can often present with green colored stool. This is because the bowel is evacuating so quickly that the bile and enzymes normally released to break down your food. It does not have enough time to be used and reabsorbed by the intestinal system. Instead, they are excreted in your stool, giving it a green appearance. Green stools may also be caused by consuming leafy vegetables, iron supplements, or be due to an intestinal condition or infection.
Changes in consistency of bowel habits
The size and shape of your stool can also be a good indicator of possible bowel pathology. The following are some stool presentations and what they could mean.
Depending on how narrow your stools are, it could be just considered a normal variation. However, this stool can sometimes be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome, a condition characterized by the urgent need to defecate with relief achieved once doing so. More worrisome is that having chronically thin stools may indicate an obstruction in the color with colon cancer being a likely possibility.
When stool is dry and rough, it is often described as being a hard stool. Constipation is a common cause of hard stool as it stays in the bowel much longer than normal, allowing the intestines to leech as much water from it as it possibly can, making them harder. Constipation is characterized as passing less than three bowel movements a week.
A common feature of a diarrheal illness, watery stool indicates that its water content is too high and your intestine is not absorbing most of it before it gets released. Disturbances of the digestive tract, as seen with various bacterial and viral infections, can cause watery stools. Diarrhea is defined as having more than three bowel movements per day and having a total volume exceeding 200 grams or 200 milliliters per day.
Floating stool is a characteristic feature of steatorrhea or having excess fat in the stool. There are many issues that can lead to steatorrhea such as malabsorption, lactose intolerance, celiac disease, and cystic fibrosis. This is often used as a clue to doctors to begin investigating a potential underlying cause. Floating stool may also be caused by the gas produced by bacteria and the ingestion of gas producing foods.
Mucus in stool
Mucus production is a normal process of your digestive tract to aid in easier defecation, however, too much of it can indicate gastrointestinal tract irritation, infection, or inflammation. Too much stool mucus can be a sign of conditions such as Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, ulcerative colitis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Undigested food in stool
Your digestive tract exists to break down the food you eat in an effort to exact as many nutrients from it as possible. your gut achieved this with the use of bile and other various digestive enzymes. Some foods, such as those high in fiber, are naturally indigestible tend to be excreted out. However, if there is an issue with any part of the digestive process or disorder affecting the production of digestive enzymes, your body will have a hard time breaking down your food resulting in undigested food in the stool.
Changes in frequency of bowel movements
There is no definite consensus on what “normal” bowel movement frequency is, however, there is what is considered “abnormal.” Normal bowel movements should be considered on an individual basis, as not a single type of bowel movement tends to fit everyone.
While most people would consider having a single daily bowel movement normal, this is not true for everyone. There are healthy people out there who may have a bowel movement a few times a day to a few times a week, and they feel normal. So, it makes sense to think of normal bowel movements on a spectrum; either three times a day to three times a week.
Frequent bowel movements
When a person has to go to the bathroom more than they normally do, they are considered to be having frequent bowel movements. However, this is a common sign of diarrhea that may be due to an underlying illness or from a bacterial toxin, as is the case with food poisoning. Frequent bowel movements generally show up alongside cramping, bloating, abdominal discomfort, urgency, and possibly nausea and vomiting.
Common causes of frequent bowel movements include:
- Diverticulitis—inflammation of an abnormal pocket in the colon
- Food allergies—allergic reaction to certain foods
- Gallbladder disease or stones
- Inflammatory bowel disease—including Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)—digestive discomfort that does not cause intestinal damage or serious disease
- Lactose intolerance—inability to digest lactose, the sugar in dairy products
- Low-fat diet
- Parasite infections such as Giardia infection
- Surgical removal of any portion of the intestinal tract
- Viral gastroenteritis—viral infection of the digestive tract, also called stomach flu
- Whipple’s disease—bacterial infection affecting small intestine
Irregular bowel movements
This could either mean going to the bathroom frequently or infrequently. Irregular bowel movements can also fall into the criteria of diarrhea or constipation.
If you find yourself going to the bathroom more than three times a day (diarrhea) or less than three times a week (constipation), there is generally a reason behind it. There are several disorders that can lead to irregular bowel movements, and their cause is not obvious. The following are some potential causes:
- Irritable bowel syndrome: A common disorder that affects the large colon. It differs from more other inflammatory bowel conditions like – ulcerative colitis and chrons disease – in that it doesn’t change the bowel tissue or increase the risk of colorectal cancer. In order for a doctor to make the diagnosis of IBS certain criteria have to be met, these include having abdominal pain or discomfort lasting at least three days a month in the last three months, and improvement of the pain occurs with defecation. IBS may also present of bouts of constipation in combination with diarrhea.
- Crohn’s disease: An inflammatory bowel condition that is characterized by inflammation of the digestive tract that spreads deep into bowel tissue. Symptoms include stomach pain, severe diarrhea, and weight loss. While various therapies exist, there is no known cure for Chron’s disease.
- Ulcerative colitis: An inflammatory bowel condition that is characterized by long-lasting inflammation and ulcers (sores) in the digestive tract, primarily affecting the gastrointestinal lining of the large intestine. The condition can often be severely debilitating and sometimes lead to life-threatening complications. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain, and weight loss. There is no cure for ulcerative colitis, but the disease can reach long-term remission.
Related: Irregular bowel movements treatment: How to have regular bowel movements
Odor changes in bowel habits
It might be hard to imagine that stool can smell anything but foul, but in fact, it can have subtle nuances that doctors analyze and use as evidence when making a diagnosis. The primary reason stool smells the way it does is because of a large number of bacteria living in your gut. Dietary changes and malabsorption can lead to your stool smelling more than usual, such as in the case of fat malabsorption. Various medications and supplements could also be a likely cause for smelly stool. Various causes of foul smelling stool include:
Due to malabsorption
- Celiac disease
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), including Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- Carbohydrate intolerance—having the inability to process sugars and starches completely
- Lactose intolerance
- Food allergies
Due to infection
Due to medications and supplements
- Vitamin A, D, E, and K
- Cystic fibrosis
- Short bowel syndrome
Related: What causes foul-smelling stool and how to get rid of it?
How to diagnose and treat the changes in bowel habits
When seeing your doctor about a change in bowel movements, they will first ask you a series of questions relating to the frequency, amount, color, and consistency of your stools. They will also try to pinpoint when the increased bowel symptoms started to help find out other possible causes. Most of the time, a stool sample test will not be needed, but in cases of suspected parasite infection, your doctor may find it necessary for a diagnosis.
Treatment will depend on your cause. The following are some of the remedies employed depending on the type of bowel irregularity.
- Over-the-counter anti-diarrheal medication
- Stay hydrated
- Limit caffeine, sugar, and dairy products
- Eat smaller meals
- Keep a food diary
- Over-the-counter laxatives
- Getting regular exercise
- Increasing fiber intake
- Stay hydrated
- Do not postpone going to the bathroom when getting the urge
Related: What your poop (color, smell, and shape) is telling you about your health
IMAGE PROVIDED BY:
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