Regular bowel movement is crucial to staying healthy and fit. However, it isn’t the only indicator of one’s health. The colour and appearance of your poop say a lot, too, experts say.
According to Dr Ajay Agarwal, Director and HOD – Internal Medicine, Fortis Hospital, Noida, changes in the colour of your poop are “less obvious, less common, and more subtle indications of various diseases compared to change in stool frequency” as in conditions such as constipation and diarrhoea.
What does ‘normal’ poop look like?
Depending on a person’s diet and genetics, the colour may normally vary from pale yellow to dark brown. “Normal stools can vary in consistency from soft and misty to firm sausage-like in shape and consistency,” Dr Rajesh Upadhyay, Senior Director – Gastroenterology, Max Hospital, Shalimar Bagh, added.
Dr Agarwal explained that the brown hue of stool comes from bile – a greenish-brown fluid that aids digestion. However, if your poop is not looking normal, here are some possible reasons.
Causes behind different colours of poop
“Passing significant fresh blood in stool is a sign of bleeding from your lower gastrointestinal tract; it is of utmost concern and requires a visit to ER,” Dr Agarwal said. While passing small quantities of blood in the stool or blood-streaked poop might not be an emergency, he suggested getting consulted nevertheless as blood-streaked poop can be seen in conditions such as haemorrhoids, anal fissure, colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, and malignancy.
If you are passing black-coloured stool, especially with a tarry or sticky consistency, it may indicate bleeding from the upper gastrointestinal tract. Some of the common causes include “peptic ulcers, esophageal varices, medications such as NSAIDs, H Pylori infections, stress-related mucosal erosions etc”. Dr Agarwal added that taking iron supplements, too, commonly causes blackish discolouration of stool — an expected adverse effect of the drug.
Greyish or clay-coloured poop
If your poop has little or no bile, it will appear greyish in colour. “The pale colour may signify a condition (biliary obstruction) where the flow of bile to the intestine is obstructed, such as obstruction of the bile duct from a tumour or gallstone in the duct or nearby pancreas. The change of stool colour to grey or clay typically occurs gradually as these medical conditions progress relatively slowly and stool becomes pale over time,” he explained.
Yellowish greasy or bulky poop
Yellow poop is an indicator of the presence of undigested fat. This is due to the “diseases of the pancreas that reduce delivery of digestive enzymes to the intestines (pancreatic insufficiency), such as chronic pancreatitis or malabsorption syndromes such as celiac disease etc”. Additionally, weight loss medications, such as orlistat, can also cause this type of stool. “Excessively yellow stools can be seen in patients with some forms of jaundice,” Dr Updhayay added.
When poop passes through the intestines rapidly (diarrhoea), there may be little time for bilirubin to undergo its usual chemical changes and poop may appear green in appearance due to this rapid transit, Dr Agarwal said. “Eating excessive amounts of green foods, foods with green or purple dyes, and vegetables also can cause stool colour to turn more green than normal. If the cause is obvious, it is not of much concern.”
According to the expert, diet plays a major role in the colour of your poop. “Excess of beetroot consumption can change the stool colour to reddish or orange and is not of any concern. Artificial food, consumed in large quantities, can change the colour of stool to any shade in the rainbow,” Dr Agarwal said.
Other signs of abnormal poop
Apart from the colour, Dr Upadhyay shared some other indicators of abnormal poop. “Excessively loose stools or the presence of blood or mucous in stools can suggest an underlying disease such as infection, inflammatory bowel disease or cancer,” he said.
The expert added that hard poop with cracks on the surfaces or pellet-like stools can mostly be seen in those with constipation.
Lifestyle tips for healthy poop
Experts stressed the need for adequate hydration, consuming a good amount of fibre and reasonable fat content, and regular physical exercise to ensure normal bowel movement.
Dr Agarwal said that it is important to recognise whether the change in poop colour is persistent, recurrent, or transient. “Generally, changes in stool colour that are transient, for example, once or twice, and then return to healthy stool colour are not as important as persistent or recurrent changes with the exception for red and black discolouration which needs to be consulted even for a single episode,” he said.
Additionally, people with a family history of gastrointestinal cancers, polyps and other gastrointestinal disorders should undergo routine screening as per their primary physician/gastroenterologist, Dr Upadhyay advised.