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Always look before you flush

The shape, consistency and color of your bowel movements, and your bathroom habits in general, can say a lot about your health. In fact, while it might seem a little weird, you should monitor your bowel movements for changes.

“It’s true that you are what you eat, and your bowel movements are proof,” said Geisinger gastroenterologist John Boger, MD. “They can change shape and color depending on your diet and can also be a good indicator of when something may be wrong.”

But if you do notice something is different about your bowel movements, it may be embarrassing to try to describe it to your doctor, short of taking in a sample. To help, Dr. Ken Heaton at the University of Bristol created the stool scale in 1997. It includes descriptions of seven types of stools:

  • Type 1: separate, hard lumps
  • Type 2: lumpy and sausage-like
  • Type 3: sausage-like, with cracks on the surface
  • Type 4: smooth and snake-like
  • Type 5: soft blobs with clean edges
  • Type 6: mushy with ragged edges
  • Type 7: liquid, no solid pieces

The type of stools that you see are based on a number of factors, including your diet, how much water you drink, medications or genetics.

“If your stools are often like types one and two, you could be constipated, while types six and seven trend toward diarrhea,” said Dr. Boger.

Healthy stools are types three and four—easy to pass without too much liquid in them. However, what’s even more important is monitoring changes in your bowel movements.

“It’s normal to occasionally see changes in your bowel movements; however, if you notice a change for more than a few weeks, you should see your doctor,” said Dr. Boger.

These changes could be the result of a wide range of health issues like irritable bowel syndrome or colitis, or they could indicate a health issue like hyperthyroidism.

All the colors of rainbow
A normal stool is brown because of bile that’s produced in the liver. Bile is normally a yellow-green color, but as it travels through your digestive track, it changes colors.

Here’s the other colors you might see, and what it means:

  • Green – Dark, leafy good-for-you greens sometimes cause stool to change to color. If you see green before you flush, think about whether you ate kale or spinach recently, or if something you ate was made with green food dye. Iron supplements may also be the culprit.
  • Yellow – Yellow stool is also somewhat common; however, if your stool is suddenly yellow with a greasy consistency, it may have too much fat in it.
    “If you see yellow stool that is greasy and smells different, it may be a sign that you’re having a hard time digesting food. You should see your doctor immediately to find out what the cause is,” said Dr. Boger.
  • Black – Dark colored foods like blueberries or foods high in iron could cause your stool to be black. However, if your stool looks like tar, it may have blood in it, which could indicate bleeding in your digestive tract from an ulcer, a noncancerous tumor or cancer.
  • White – If your stool is light-colored or white, it may be because of over-the-counter diarrhea medicine. However, white stool could also be a sign that your body isn’t producing enough bile and there’s a problem with your liver, gallbladder or small intestine.
  • Red – Just like several other colors, reddish stool is often the result of a food you ate, such as something made with red or pink food coloring, or beets. The red you see in the toilet could also be blood from hemorrhoids, diverticulitis, colitis or cancer.

“You should keep an eye on your stools and see your doctor if you notice significant, prolonged changes in the color, shape and consistency,” said Dr. Boger.

Geisinger gastroenterologist John Boger, M.D., sees patients at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. To schedule an appointment with Dr. Boger or another Geisinger gastroenterologist, please call 570-808-5780 or visit


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