5 ways to improve your poop

As part of getting to know our patients, naturopathic doctors ask a lot of nosy questions. One that frequently gives my patients the giggles: Asking about poop.
How you poop (or don’t) actually tells us a lot about your health. It gives us information about how you eat, what you absorb from your food, how well your digestion works, whether you’re drinking enough water, and can help determine whether you have certain serious diseases.

why does it matter?

Our bodies want to get rid of things for good reasons!

Imagine what happens if you don’t take your garbage out. Even relatively benign organic matter will start to decompose, to smell, to grow mold, to grow or invite critters.

Bowel movements are how we get rid of the toxins cleaned from our blood in the liver, things we can’t digest, broken down hormones, excess cholesterol, and more. If those sit around because we’re not pooping often enough, our bodies can reabsorb them — increasing toxic load and impairing our health.

The converse is also true: If we poop too fast and frequently, our bodies don’t have time to absorb nutrients from the food we eat. So it’s important to understand why that’s happening, too.

The perfect poop

I start by asking patients specific questions:
  • How often do you poop?
  • What color is the poop?
  • Does it pass easily or do they have to strain to pass it?
  • Does the poop float in the toilet water?
  • Do they see any blood, mucus or undigested food in the poop?
  • Is the bowel movement hard, soft, formed, loose or watery?

For the consistency question, I refer to the Bristol Stool Chart. (Cue giggling.)

(Chart via Cabot Health, Bristol Stool Chart, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Having the chart is nice because we can grade things easily and … ahem.. consistently over time. It really helps patients see what the options are, and understand what’s going on for them personally.

how often is optimal?

All people have their patterns, and may feel quite comfortable with them. But getting accustomed to something doesn’t mean it’s normal or optimal physiologically.

When I ask the frequency question, people almost invariably respond saying “I’m regular.” So I have to ask what that means. Some people will then say they poop twice a week (constipation!) or five times a day (probably diarrhea!)

Optimal pooping is once after all full meals. The idea is that you eat food, which stretches receptors in your digestive tract, which in turn stimulates the intestinal waves that move food through and out. So most of us should be pooping three times daily.

5 ways to improve your poop

Most of the ideas below are intended to help people who fall on the more constipated end of the spectrum. But as you know is my mantra, vegetables make (almost) everything better. Eating a variety of veggies will help digestion all around, including how you get stuff out.

So here are the five tips you’ve come this far to see.

drink water.

How much water do you actually drink in a day? (Soda, coffee and alcohol do not count here.) If your poop is hard or pellets, it needs more moisture. Moisture also helps lube the tube. So make sure you’re getting enough. (What is enough? That’s a different post.)

eat more fiber.

Remember the bit about stretch receptors above? Fiber literally bulks and fluffs stool up, so it’s helpful for both diarrhea and, often, constipation. Fiber also feeds the healthy bacteria living in our guts, which in turn support immunity and make vitamins out of things we can’t otherwise digest. So eat your veggies!

max out the magnesium.

What’s not absorbed stays pulls water into the bowel as the body tries to equalize saturation (osmotic gradient). More water translates into looser stool. I tell my patients to start slowly, because too much at one time can lead to … shall we say explosive consequences? Or, often, diarrhea that can get uncomfortable — but is reversible when you lower the dose. Magnesium citrate is the most effective for constipation. If you run toward diarrhea, consider magnesium glycinate or malate instead. (You can find my favorites here.)

simulate squatting.

How most of the world relieves themselves. This one is in the international arrivals area of the airport in Delhi, India.

Humans have squatted to poop for most of our existence. And while a porcelain throne may be more comfortable, it does not comport with human physiology. When we’re seated, the puborectalis muscle pinches the rectum closed. So if you’re straining to stool, that may be part of the problem. Approximating or actually squatting opens the channel so feces can move more smoothly. Some clever folks now sell cheekily named bathroom footrests to help: squatty potty, tushy, go stool. These snuggle the base of your toilet and slide out of the way when you’re done. They’re available in many different colors and styles.

skip the senna.

Laxatives, including herbal ones, should be tools of last resort. Why? Most of them work by irritating your body into expelling its excesses. Over time, your system will figure that out and acclimate, requiring more laxative to get the job done. That’s a great hamster wheel to avoid if you can.

get help if you need help.

Sometimes pooping problems are easy to fix. (Again, veggies.) Sometimes they’re not — and that can indicate serious disease.

So if you have questions or need help, ask your healthcare provider. If you’re in Alaska or Oregon and would like to talk about your issues with me, you can make an appointment here.




Header photo by annie pm on Unsplash