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Digestive Health | Men’s Health | Women’s Health
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The Scoop on Poop: 5 Facts You Should Know

What are your bowel movements telling you?

Your bowels communicate.

That may sound strange, but here’s what I mean: Signs of everything from diseases to stress may show up in your bathroom habits. The key is knowing what to look for — and what the signs may mean.

There is no normal

People are different. So are bowel movements. The size, shape and consistency of feces will change greatly from person to person.

“Your body reacts to things that go on around us. The impact of stress and unresolved issues may show up in your bathroom.”

Brooke Gurland, MD

Department of Colorectal Surgery

Instead of looking for “normal,” look for a change. Did you use to move your bowels frequently but now have trouble doing so? Did they use to be solid but now are runny for a long period of time? When you experience a big, noticeable change that lasts, it’s time to see your doctor.

Blood is a warning sign

If there is blood in your feces on a recurring basis, see a doctor. Blood can be a sign of polyps or colorectal cancer. It also can be caused by benign conditions such as hemorrhoids and anal fissures. In any case, it’s worth getting checked out.

If you see blood, keep an eye out for other symptoms: weight loss, fever, chills. When they come together, those are “high-alert” symptoms of bowel disorders.

Sometimes size is a concern

If you used to have sizeable stools but now they are always pencil thin and hard to pass, consult your doctor. In certain types of colon cancer, the bowel gets narrow, and so do your bowel movements.

Thin stools do not automatically mean cancer. But if they last a long time and if going to the bathroom is difficult for you, your doctor may order a colonoscopy to rule it out.

Consistency matters

We all have bouts of diarrhea from time to time. Runny, watery stool over a short period of time can mean mild food poisoning or an infection, for example.

But if you used to have solid bowel movements and now have diarrhea frequently, it could be a sign of an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis — especially if it comes with other symptoms such as abdominal pain, blood and weight loss.

It could be stress

Your body reacts to things that go on around us. The impact of stress and unresolved issues may show up in your bathroom.

Your bowels may be indicating something that you’re not appreciating consciously. If your bathroom habits have changed drastically and other medical causes have been excluded, life’s stresses may be to blame.

Pay attention to what your bowels are telling you. From stress to medical conditions, they may give you warning sings that will help you improve your health.

Tags: bowel health, bowels, colon cancer, colon cancer awareness month 2013, digestive health, hemorrhoids
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Brooke Gurland, MD, is a surgeon with the Department of Colorectal Surgery at Cleveland Clinic.

Cleveland Clinic now offers same-day appointments. Get the care you need, right away at 888.223.CARE.

We welcome your comments. However, we cannot provide a medical opinion without an in-person consultation. To learn about Cleveland Clinic services available to you, please fill out our WebMail form.
  • Sandra Huard

    Good article! Very informative! Sandy

  • DogsNeedTheirOwnBed

    That article was full of sh*t. Baaaahaaaahaaa

    • Liz

      Badum tsss

  • Carol

    Comment on Dr. Gurland…I traveled to Cleveland Clinic to see Dr. Gurland and was impressed with her knowledge and understanding of the difficulties for people who have serious intestinal issues.

  • angie

    I would like to know how to get help, where we live there is only 1 pediactric doctor around fot my 16 year old who has had trouble for 3 years and they havent helped us ? How can I find a doctor that will work with insurance for a child that needs help

    • irene williams

      Nationwide Childrens Hospital in Columbus Ohio, wonderful pediatric Gasologists for bowel n bladder problems. my 10 yr. old has been going since he was 4yrs.old.

  • Nora

    As an Ostomy nurse who used to work for the Cleveland Clinic and now work in NYC I still am passionate about the wonderful MDs and nurses at CCF GI and Colorectal MDs!!

  • debbie

    Crunchy vegetables: carrots, celery, fresh green beans, broccoli for instance, cooked lightly in oil; salt, pepper, mayonnaise and hot sauce, or Soy sauce helps with flavor, really helps stool be more solid and less messy, less tissue needed too. It seems important to me to share.

    • Jerry S

      Helps with flavor? I hope you mean food flavor!

      • Owe Sseeit

        LMMFAO hahahaahahaha

  • Linda

    what about odor?? I am told mine is “potent” and then some…does this mean anything more than the food I eat/digestion issues (had bisection of colon in early 2000s)

    • brenda

      if a person has diarrhea and the smell is out of this world, get checked for c-diff it is an infection of the colon, we all carry c-diff which is a bad bacteria, but our good bacteria keeps it at bay, but sometimes when our system gets out of whack the cdiff takes over and wreaks havoc, there are 2 antibioticss to treat it with and thats flagyl anc vancomycin. it can be deadly in elderly people.

    • Dale Ramsey

      it is also known a woman’s stool is more potent then mens Bm’s as well as gas!

      • Chickie

        Boy are you living in a fantasy world.

        • Dale Ramsey

          it is a scientific fact, try looking it up!

  • Mary Kaleal

    My Grandson was born at Fairview Hospital (a suburb of Cleveland) .It is owned by Cleveland Clinic. They discovered he had Hirschsprung Disease. He is 8 now and after 3 surgeries he was told he would have to live with some degree of fecal incontinence for the rest of his life.His last surgery was at the Cleveland Clinic by Pediatric Surgeon Dr Alexander, who we feelsaved his life.I can’t say enough about how great the hospital and Dr. Alexander were. I would love to see more about this disease since it is not as uncommon as one would think, just one that people are uncomfortable talking about. We have learned ,through doctors at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, That there are pro. Football players that have this disease. That gave some comfort to my 8year old Gra ndson. Please, explain this disease ,as a doctor, so that people can understand.

  • dee

    My stool was as black as tar for two days last week, but went back to regular color afterwards ??????

    • wally

      Someone cornholed you too hard and caused bleeding

    • mojones1

      Had you taken pepto bismol? That will turn stools black.

  • Jeff

    What about stools that float? Is that a warning sign for pancreatic cancer?

    • Sheila

      I believe floating stool indicates the person has been eating a fat-laden diet.

    • Judy

      Diet of low protein will cause floaters.

  • Barbara

    REALLY??????? Could you have waited until after the holidays to pst this lovely topic again? I am a nurse and I know that colon cancer kills,but could we keep the topic lighter for now?

  • bethmoore

    Interesting I’m normal,get the runs if super stressed.

  • Bill

    What about taste, is a lemon tang normal?

  • Shari Fisher

    Carbs and sugar will make your BM pungent. Eat a clean diet and you’ll be amazed.

  • Janie

    I was off of Plavix for over a month due to back problems and felt well and my stool became a dark healthy color. After I went back on Plavix my stool went back to the pale reddish brown and my eyes and mouth are so dry that I can’t talk with out getting drinks of water. Plavix was given to me because of a stroke in October 2007.

  • joyce

    I had my gull bladder removed 6 years ago would it mess with your bowls or could I have runs a lot because I don’t eat right

    • Connie

      Try taking probiotics daily. Especially people who have their gall bladder removed. The gall bladder produces gall which helps digest your food. Probiotics will help to regulate your digestive system.

  • amjpnc

    You meant “used to”, right?

  • Eva Hargrave

    Is it possible for meds to affect your BMs? I started taking Lithium and Seroquel about the same time so I’m not sure which one or if either affect my BMs. I have several a day, and they are very loose. Not watery just loose. However, sometimes I barely make it to the restroom. I’ve spoken to my Psychiatrist, but he doesn’t seem too concerned. If it’s normal, I’m ok with it. I can live with it. I can’t live without my meds for Bipolar/Depression. TIA.
    Eva

  • pensimmon

    Eat only organic food. Almost no sugar, and absolutely. no processed food. If you’re eating protein, eat no starch. Eat starches alone or with veggies. Sorts out your system. Read Sherry Brescia column. Eta Kimchee to restore intestinal bacteria. I only take medicines if it’s absolutely essential. And carefully read side effects. Medicines can throw your whole system off. Read the side effects of OTC medicines- alarming.

  • Boogie Nights

    Metamucil is an amazing fiber supplement that not only cures irregularity but many stomach disorders. Stop taking those “heartburn” medications! Bad for you. Take a large dose of fiber supplement daily and see how much better your gut feels!!

  • Marcia Sullivan Mullins

    Don’t ignore blood, even if you think it is from hemorrhoids like my doctors and I did.
    Rectal blood needs to be taken seriously AT ANY AGE.
    The bleeding I had turned out to be advanced Colorectal Cancer.
    Anyone at any age can get Colorectal Cancer.
    Be Seen and Get Screened!!!
    Ask your doctor about your screening options, including Cologuard, which is new.

  • Cindy Murphy

    What about a dark green bowel what does that mean?