What Your Poop Is Telling You About Your Overall Health

Author and Professor of Medicine By Terry Wahls, M.D.
Author and Professor of Medicine
Terry Wahls, M.D. is a Professor of Medicine at the University of Iowa, where she conducts clinical research on the use of diet and lifestyle to treat brain-related problems. She received her master's in medicine from The University of Iowa, as well as her master's in business administration from the University of St. Thomas.

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How often do you look — I mean really look — at your poop? It may sound weird, but the truth is our poop is a window into our health.

I ask my patients to talk about their poop every time I see them. How often do they poop? What does it look like? Is it hard, pebbly, and a struggle to pass? Can they see bits of undigested food? Do they have watery diarrhea? Blood in their stool? Drops of oil on the water? All of these are clues to a person's health.

The research about our poop is exploding, linking more and more of our chronic health problems with the bacteria living in our bowels. There are even papers that demonstrate the bacteria living in our bowels can influence our moods and our behaviors!

So what can your poop tell you? It gives you a glimpse into two key things: 1) how well you are digesting and absorbing your food and 2) who is living in your bowels.

Looking at your poop is an important first step in getting your digestion back on track.

First, let's talk about digestion and what it means for your health. As humans, we must consume food that our bowels digest and break down into particles small enough to enter our bloodstream and be transported to our cells. At that point, the food can be used to run the chemistry of life and make cellular components we need to live.

So the first thing to consider is whether undigested food is showing up in your poop. If pieces of whole, undigested food are showing up or there are droplets of oil on the toilet water, there is likely a problem with the digestion process, suggesting not enough stomach acid is being made, not enough digestive enzymes, or perhaps not enough bile. Or it may mean that cells lining the small bowel are damaged, preventing the absorption of the digested food into your bloodstream. If you are having problems digesting your food, your cells are not getting the mix of building blocks they need to thrive. Your health will steadily decline. These signs are big clues that you have a digestion problem that needs addressing.

Next, we need to talk about who is living in your bowels. We each have approximately 10 trillion human cells, 100 trillion bacteria, and 1,000 trillion viruses that all contribute to how we run the chemistry of life in our body. Having the correct mix allows us to run that chemistry effectively and efficiently, and as a result we enjoy good health. But if we don't have the correct mix, trouble can develop.

The science is clear that the mix of bacteria has a major impact on mood, behavior, and health. We do know that the poop quality of the hunter-gatherer societies is very different from the poop quality of most people in Westernized societies. The hunter-gatherers had large, bulky, easily passed poops, usually after each eating occasion. They were large, soft, coiled snake-shaped poops.

On the other hand, today people are more likely to suffer from constipation with hard, rocky, dry poops that are passed with great struggle. It's not unusual to go several days between poops. Others are troubled with inflammatory bowel disease and struggle with diarrhea. Both constipation and diarrhea indicate that a disease-promoting mix of bacteria is living in the person's bowels instead of a health-promoting mix of bacteria.

If you are passing snakelike poops two to three times a day, you are more likely to have a health-promoting mix of bacteria living in your bowels. If you are constipated, passing hard stools, or having diarrhea, you are more likely to have a disease-promoting mix of bacteria. That means you need to spend more time tending your gut garden — fertilizing your bacterial friends and starving your bacterial enemies. The hallmark of tending the gut garden begins with your food choices, in particular removing sugar and flour-based products from your diet.

Looking at your poop each time you have a bowel movement is an important first step in getting your digestion and your gut garden back on track. To learn more, check out my new mbg class.

Terry Wahls, M.D.
Terry Wahls, M.D.
Terry Wahls, M.D. is a professor of medicine at the University of Iowa, where she conducts clinical...
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Terry Wahls, M.D.
Terry Wahls, M.D.
Terry Wahls, M.D. is a professor of medicine at the University of...
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