Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

What Your Poop Is Telling You About Your Body

Written by Julie Fishkin
Illustration by Jenny Yoo

Poop is terribly maligned and misunderstood for something truly uniting and unmistakably common to every living creature. We all know we all do it. We use its name in countless permutations to express emotion or describe the quality of something and yet, when it comes to that daily ritual, it’s just not a very popular topic.

Actually, I stand corrected. It is a popular topic but its popularity is limited to stark medical settings and, from what I’ve heard, Germans. (Seriously, my German friends readily inquire about their loved ones’ bowel movements with genuine interest.) For the rest of us, however, the subject is still either a perverted predilection, a private affair, or an exploratory medical probe. The bottom line is that in common conversation, stool gazing is still taboo.

What we underestimate is just how much poop can tell us about the health of our body and the quality of our diet. Along with everything else, our GI tract begins working at birth. A child’s first stool is called meconium. It’s a collection of amniotic fluid and other secretions swallowed in utero. The meconium is different from the baby’s subsequent poops mainly in that its brown and substantially bigger than those later mustard squirts babies have while they are breast- or bottle-fed before the initiation of food. Sometimes a baby will even swallow some feces leading to neonatal bacteremia, a bacterial infection babies get from eating their own shit. Babies just don’t know any better. This infection is usually no cause for alarm and is treated with mild antibiotics. For adults, however, feces, laden with a vast variety of bacteria can cause serious infections such as E. coli (remember killer spinach? feces!). The trick is to always wash your hands. But enough about basic hygiene.

The act of pooping, dropping a deuce, squeezing one out—whatever your preferred euphemism—is the body’s basic form of healthy digestion. Foods we consume are ground and churned in our stomach. They slowly pass to the small intestine via peristalsis, the automatic muscular contractions that occur throughout your GI tract. The small intestine is the epicenter of absorption. This is where your food actually becomes the tiny particles that your body uses to live and thrive. Fats, proteins, and carbohydrates are absorbed, as are vitamins and minerals. What’s left, the waste and indigestible particles, is packaged and shipped out. It’s not fully formed, however, until it reaches your colon where water is reabsorbed and feces is fully formed. How it is shaped, formed, and released depends on your diet. You are the master of your own physical kingdom to rule on your throne as satisfyingly or disappointingly as you choose.

Regularity, or how often you go, really isn’t the most important thing to consider. Some of us go daily, others every other day or two, no big deal. What matters is form. The perfect poop will be bulky, smooth with ease of passage that results in a feeling of emptiness—one of those bathroom trips that, as my sweetheart puts it, makes you feel like a ballerina. Yet your body is not a perfect machine and lots can go wrong. Sometimes a pathogen inhabits your bowels causing various degrees of diarrhea. Usually this just needs to take its course as your body rids itself of unwanted guests. Make sure to stay hydrated with electrolytes and fluids. Always opt for Pedialyte or coconut water, not sports drinks. 

Things can also go wrong in the other, more common direction: constipation. The best advice is fiber. Remember, there are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Foods are usually a combination of both, such as the case of vegetables and fruit. Soluble fiber will slow the transit time within your body, keeping you full and satisfied, while insoluble fiber gives your poop that healthy bulk, usually the key ingredient that, let’s face it, adds that element of satisfaction to your private time in the toilet.

Most variations of the sturdy stool are no cause for alarm. Remember when you would swallow cherry pits as a kid and mom would tell you you’re going to grow a cherry tree in your stomach? Well, that’s not true. And gum doesn’t sit in there for seven years either. Anything we swallow that our enzymes can’t digest and absorb, we usually just poop out, even bobby pins (true story from kindergarten). Cautionary tale: if something is not digested or passed through stool, however, it can cause an obstruction. The medical term is a bezoar. A bezoar is a hairball or any mass of fibrous material that sits in the stomach or intestine causing a blockage. It usually requires surgical removal.

Poop, while traditionally brown, can also vary in color. Baby poop is yellow, as I’ve mentioned, but darkens when the child is introduced to new foods. The brown color comes from bilirubin, a yellowish pigment that comes from bile when the liver breaks down red blood cells. In fact, if your poop wasn’t pigmented with bilirubin, it would be colorless or clay-like and grey. If it ever is that color, your liver is probably not releasing bile and you should most certainly see a doctor. If your poop is tarry black, this could mean two things. Either you have a gastrointestinal bleed or you’re taking too much iron. Both, as you’ve probably guessed, are no good. While your diet can affect the color palette, extreme variations should not happen (with the exception of fabulous fuchsia that often happens after eating beets). Green stools can happen from lots of hearty greens, carrots can tint it toward a lighter brown or orange, and excessively dyed red foods can turn our stools red. A healthy body will produce many variations in a lifetime.

Indications of illness tend to be the outliers. Two possible indicators of a diseased colon, for example, are drops of blood or black stools, caused by bleeding hemorrhoids or diverticuli. This is why regular colonoscopies are recommended for adults over the age of fifty. For the rest of us, keeping our GI tract healthy means eating well. No crazy diets or detox programs (they are all lies) needed.

The basic problems we encounter usually have a dietary solution. Constipation needs a good dose of raw vegetables, fruit, whole grains, and plenty of fluids. Diarrhea will take its course. If fiber caused it, cut back on the raw vegetables and fruit. Always take note of the way a food affects your digestive process. If something just doesn’t work out, avoid it. For me, it’s green peppers. For no rhyme or reason. For you, maybe it’s beer or cabbage (though I really hope not). Dairy products with live active cultures can help replenish your gut with healthy bacteria. If dairy is your enemy, try any fermented foods such as sauerkraut or kimchi or any probiotic supplement.

When artists discuss or display feces (another good one), it’s considered subversive, and maybe it is. Or it was in the days before Damien Hirst deadened everyone’s sensibilities. After all, Milan Kundera once defined kitsch as our own inability to deal with the fact that we all shit. Luckily, we do so no need for a pretty cover up. I’m not suggesting you remove your bathroom door. After all, privacy is a hard-earned American right. I’m simply saying that there’s no shame in pooping! Long live your healthy, beautiful gut! 

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