What Your Bowel Movements Can Say About Your Health

Chances are you’ve probably wondered—or even worried—about your bathroom habits (it’s perfectly normal, and you are not alone). You may question if you go to the bathroom too much, or not enough, or if what you’re seeing in the bowl looks…right.

So how do you know if your BMs are in tip-top shape? The Bristol stool chart—a diagnostic standard that evaluates BMs by their texture and size—can help you determine if something’s off. Or, you can read on for insight from the experts.

What It Means If…Your BMs Are Hard

Ouch. Plenty of folks don’t get enough fiber—and your bathroom visits can help clue you in. “If you are going every day, but it is difficult to go, [or your BMs are] coming out in small pieces and extremely hard, this may mean you need more fiber in your diet,” says Dr. David Greuner, cardiovascular surgeon of NYC Surgical Associates.

Related: Shop digestive support products.

Fiber is also what gives BMs their bulk. “Thin, stringy, or unformed poop may indicate lack of adequate fiber, inflammation, dysbiosis (or, microbial imbalance), food allergies, or other issues,” says Dr. Eden Fromberg of Holistic Gynecology New York. So if you’re seeing something like this, stock up on some whole brown rice, fruits, kale, and quinoa, and make sure to get about 25 grams of fiber per day.

It’s worth noting that stringy BMs can also be a sign of rectal cancer, according to Dr. Greuner. If you notice your stool is regularly very thin, make an appointment with your doctor.

What It Means If…Your BMs Are Watery

Diarrhea, or watery poop, may temporarily occur in cases of food poisoning, illness, dehydration, or electrolyte imbalance (one reason it’s important to always stay hydrated). However, the most common cause of diarrhea is IBS. “Inflammatory bowel disease will often cause diarrhea,” says Dr. Fromberg, so be sure to check with your doctor if your BMs are watery pretty often.

IBS is a chronic but common disorder that infects the large intestine. People with IBS tend to experience pain, constipation, gas, bloating, and diarrhea. And while it may be uncomfortable, it won’t lead to colorectal cancer, like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis can, according to The Mayo Clinic. To determine if you have IBS, doctors may run a series of imaging, lab, or stool sample tests.

What It Means If…Your BMs Float

This may seem like a weird thing to look out for, but if your stools are floating—instead of sinking—you may have excess gas. The gas could be due to certain foods you eat (think: beans, lentils, broccoli, or milk), but it may also have to do with your body’s absorption abilities: “If your poop is floating [a lot of the time], it may be telling you something is preventing your body’s ability to absorb fats from foods,” says Dr. Greuner. This can be caused by a food allergy or an infection, so seeing your doctor can help get to the root of the issue.

Related: Reasons Why You’re So Gassy

What It Means If…Your BMs Are Any Color Besides Light to Dark Brown

Here are what different colors generally indicate:

Green: Green vegetables may cause a colored tinge, but a green hue might also indicate bile pigment in your stool, says Dr. Fromberg. It’s generally normal, although it may mean that your food moved too quickly through your large intestine.

What does this mean for you? First, it’s important to know a little about the digestive process: After we chew our food, it travels down to the stomach, where your stomach acid digests it. Then, it hits the small intestines, where digestive enzymes break down the food even further into carbs, proteins, and fats. This is also where your body absorbs nutrients. Next, it travels to your large intestine, which removes the waste and balances water absorption. Here, glands make mucus to lubricate the lining so the food can pass through. Finally, your colon contracts so you can, er, go.

If the food moves too quickly through your large intestine, it means that your body is absorbing less water (hence the watery stools or diarrhea). And the reason your poop may be green goes back to that issue of bile (a greenish fat-digesting fluid that turns stool brown as it does its job), which, in this case, doesn’t have enough time to work properly. This is common in patients with IBS.

Black: While black BMs can be caused by iron supplements, they can also signal bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. “Bloody poop should be checked out immediately,” says Dr. Fromberg.

Red:  If your poop is reddish in color, it’s not always a cause for alarm. For one, food may be the culprit (beets, tomatoes, or cranberries). According to The Mayo Clinic, however, bleeding is a possibility—either in the rectum (think: hemorrhoids) or in the large intestine. You should see a doctor to assess whether or not you are bleeding internally.

Clay-colored: Very light or clay-colored stool might indicate a lack of bile, which could be caused by some medications, or a bile duct obstruction, according to the Mayo Clinic. Bile helps to digest and absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins. It also helps us release waste. If you’re seeing light stools, talk to your doctor about the possibility of an issue in your biliary (bile) system.

Yellow: This color might indicate a malabsorption issue, so be sure to check with your doctor. According to The Mayo Clinic, malabsorption (or the increased passage of unabsorbed nutrients through the digestive tract) can cause deficiencies that affect the body in lots of ways, from hair loss to anemia. So, that yellow color may come from an inadequate absorption of fats in the digestive tract. Be sure to speak with your doc if you’re experiencing yellow stool frequently.