Talk to your doctor or read about your gut online and you’ll encounter one vague—but clearly important—term again and again: ‘regular.’ Experts constantly tell us how crucial being regular is to our digestive and overall health, but many of us still wonder if our bowel movements are truly normal.
Turns out, there’s no one right number of number-two’s per day or week. “Normal for most (but not all) people can be from one bowel movement every three days to three bowel movements every day,” explains Rusha Modi, M.D., Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at USC’s Keck Medical Center. Docs call this the ‘rule of three’: anything between three poops a week and three a day is a-okay.
Different People, Different Schedules
When stool gets to our colon, it’s held there until all water and electrolytes are extracted and the water not needed elsewhere in the body is reabsorbed. The sensation of stool build-up signals your body to create space for more and voila, you hit the toilet.
The speed of this cycle varies from person to person, as some of our GI tracts just process and transport materials slower or faster than others’. If you poop multiple times per day, you have what docs call a fast ‘transit’ time, meaning your GI tract absorbs what it needs and empties quickly. If you go just a few times a week, though, you have a slow transit time. (Dietary triggers, such as sugar intake, trouble breaking down lactose, and electrolyte imbalances can all also influence how your body forms and flushes out stool.)
Whatever your schedule may be, norm is based on your usual bathroom habits over time. Consider your last two months of bowel movements: If you went once a day for seven weeks out of those eight weeks, consider that your version of regular.
Whatever your poop routine may be, as long as it’s comfortable and doesn’t interfere with your day or sleep routine, it’s probably just fine.
What Abnormal Bowel Movements Look Like
Now that you know your number-two timing isn’t all that important (as long as it’s consistent), there’s another aspect of your BMs worth paying close attention to: what they look like.
If you’re not taking a peek in the toilet after you go, you should be. Any of the following characteristics are considered abnormal:
1. Oily, Greasy Stools
Slimy-looking stools “suggest a malabsorption in the mid-gut or pancreas,” says Modi. “This means that some food—especially fat—isn’t processed normally.” These undigested nutrients remain in your stool and exit your body still somewhat intact.
When fats, specifically, aren’t broken down properly, the excess not only creates a greasy-looking BM, but can also cause diarrhea. (Gross but true, doctors can see actual fat droplets when they test BMs like these.)
A random floating stool here and there shouldn’t be cause for alarm, says Modi. Unusually fatty meals, increased fluid intake, and excess gas can all make stools less dense.
However, if your stools float persistently, you may have a food intolerance, likely to dairy and/or gluten. People with food poisoning or gastroenteritis (a.k.a. the stomach flu) may also experience floating stools, but they should disappear as the digestive system recovers, says Modi.
3. White Or Gray Stools
“The typical brown color of stool comes from the green-yellow pigment of bile, which helps digest fats and cholesterol,” explains Modi. Obstructions and other issues, like infections, in the liver and biliary tract (which stores bile) can block the flow of bile to the digestive system and lead to pale stools. If your stools have become chronically clay-colored or unusually pale, give your doctor a call.
While most isolated cases of diarrhea are caused by temporary infections like gastroenteritis, diarrhea that lasts more than a few days signals larger digestive issues. “Chronic diarrhea can occur for a whole host of reasons, from inflammatory bowel disease to celiac disease, and more,” says Modi. In many of these cases, active inflammation in the digestive tract leads to nutrient and protein losses and eventually erodes the surface of the GI tract’s lining.
Blood in stool is never normal, but it’s more common than you might think—especially in the case of hemorrhoids, says Modi. If you notice blood in your stool, give your doc a call just to be safe, but don’t fret just yet. (When a more hazardous condition, such as colorectal cancer, dumps blood into stool, that blood is often difficult to see with the naked eye and has to be identified through testing.)
How To Normalize Your Toilet Time
The number-one way to become (and stay) regular is to make sure your diet contains enough fiber. Insoluble fiber, which comes from fruit skins, vegetables and some grains (like brown rice) is especially important because it speeds up the stool-producing process absorbing the by-products of digestion in your GI tract. If whole foods don’t make up the bulk of your diet, a fiber supplement can help keep your digestion regular.
Regular exercise—at least 30 minutes, four times a week—also helps. “It is not uncommon that I see patients with constipation begin an exercise regimen and find that their bowel habits improve considerably,” says Modi. “The body is designed to move, so problems emerge when we are sedentary.”
Modi also recommends reviewing your medication list with your doctor. “Since most medications are first absorbed and processed by the digestive system, the use of multiple medications is becoming an increasing issue,” says Modi. Many pharmaceuticals list GI upset as a primary potential side-effect, and could be behind unexplained issues.
When To See Your Doctor
If you notice dramatic changes in the frequency or the appearance of your stools, pay your doctor a visit.
If these changes are accompanied by abdominal pain, shifts in appetite, and/or weight loss or night sweats, make an appointment ASAP. Together, these symptoms can indicate internal bleeding, severe inflammation, and even cancer.