Remember Chanda Guerin? Who did the awesome post on milk and surviving a break-up without derailing your healthy eats? Well, she’s back with a fascinating article on — yep, what your poop is telling you! As a health and nutrition education masters of science candidate, food and nutrition blogger, nutrition and cooking workshop facilitator, and fancy dinner-cooker, she knows her stuff!
Turns out quite a bit of diagnostic work for nutritionists starts with, “How often do you poop?” Some put it more eloquently, using the term bowel movement or skirting around the topic by asking about Number 2. For me, there’s familiarity and humor in such a silly word like poop. It lightens the mood and makes a client more comfortable talking about stinky bodily functions.
I don’t want to just know how many times you poop in a day. I also want to know what those poops look like and how you feel about it. Quantity and quality can tell me if you’re drinking enough water, if you’re getting enough fiber, and how your current diet is working with your body.
More importantly than how many times a day you poop, it’s important to know your bowel transit time. Bowel transit time is the time it takes for the food you eat to make its way through your digestive system and come out on the other end. Ideally, during this process your body is extracting and utilizing all of the nutrients from the food you’re eating, and takes about 12 to 24 hours to go from mouth to toilet.
How to Test Your Poop Transit Time
A good test to figure out your bowel transit time is to use an indicator food or substance to basically “mark” a meal and be able to tell when it’s on its way out. I prefer to use beets because you get a good dose of folic acid, fiber and potassium, and what I like to call “Party Poop” because the beets make everything magenta. Eat three to four whole beetroots with a meal, note the time and then calculate the time it takes for your pinkish-purple poop!
- Optimal transit time is 12 to 24 hours, making time for one to three bowel movements per day.
- Less than 12 hours can indicate malabsorption of nutrients because things are moving way too fast through your system.
- More than 24 hours and your poop is sitting too long in the colon — this means those bacteria and other substances your body needs to eliminate are being absorbed back in your bloodstream.
Are Things Moving Too Fast?
When things are moving too fast — we usually call this diarrhea — the poop is usually more liquid, less formed. The colon isn’t getting a chance to do its job of absorbing all the liquid and forming a good, solid stool. Diarrhea is usually a self-eliminating process your body kicks into gear to get rid of something disagreeable in your system (like bacteria or a virus). Other causes may be a dietary intolerance like diary, overdose of vitamins or a side effect of a prescribed drug, or irritable bowel syndrome. If you have a bout of diarrhea, skip the over-the-counter drugs and try a natural route first:
- Drink herbal teas, vegetable broths and electrolyte-replacement drinks to stay hydrated. Your body is eliminating a lot of your water reserves and you want to add liquids back into your body.
- Avoid dairy and possible food allergens that can exacerbate the diarrhea.
- Solidify stool with pectin-rich fruits and vegetables like pears, apples, carrots and potatoes, and oleic acid found in olive oil, olives, almonds and avocados.
- Avoid alcohol sugars commonly found in artificial sugars (really just get rid of these in life as a whole!) because they can contribute to diarrhea.
- Try a probiotic supplement. Adding healthy bacteria back into your intestines will get your system back into working order and restore what’s being lost with the fast moving poop.
Chronic (consistently more than a week) diarrhea could be a sign of a food sensitivity or allergy, or a fungal/parasitic infection. Definitely talk to a doctor about that because no one enjoys feeling gross for more than a week.
Wishing for More Poops, More Often?
Constipation is the worst, and women experience it more frequently than men, especially around the time of our period. Thanks, Mother Nature! If it’s taking more than 24 hours to see those beets move through your system, there’s definitely constipation happening. A few other signs: you’re straining to make it happen, the stool is lumpy or hard, you feel like you’re not finished or there’s something in the way, and/or you’re pooping less than three times per week. This is the worst feeling.
In addition to that time of the month, constipation can be caused by medications, sedentary lifestyle, low-fiber and processed foods, dietary intolerance and magnesium deficiency (especially during our period!). Magnesium helps digestive muscles relax and contract, i.e. moving stool through the intestines.
I bet you’ve heard that fiber will help? If you’re already constipated, it’s only going to make it worse. Fiber is a long-term preventive plan to avoid constipation (and diarrhea!) but not so much when you’re already bloated, uncomfortable and cranky. Again, let’s go the natural route before drugs and doctors:
- Women need about 300 mg of magnesium per day (450 if you’re pregnant or lactating), and the best sources are kelp (760 mg in a 3.5-oz serving), wheat bran (490 mg, same serving size) and almonds (270 mg, same serving size).
- Drink more water — I can’t stress enough how important staying hydrated is to prevent and treat poop-related issues.
- Cultured and fermented foods and drinks can replace healthy gut bacteria (kombucha, probiotic yogurt, sauerkraut).
- Exercise like running and yoga keep your body moving, actually working against constipation and can help you poop!
Tips for Good Poops
A combination of diet, hydration and exercise can prevent diarrhea, constipation and other crazy stomach tricks causing poop-related issues from even being a thing. Start with trying the beet indicator to figure out your bowel transit time (and for pink poop) and make the optimal 12 to 24 hours your goal. Here are a few tips for regulating your digestive system and cheers to good poops!
- Drink a minimum of 48 to 64 ounces of water per day.
- Eat a nutrient-dense diet of whole foods and high in fiber. That means kick the processed foods and ingredients lists you can’t pronounce. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes will provide ample fiber to bind stool and keep things moving.
- Avoid diuretics like caffeine and alcohol. It’s not a coincidence your morning poop shortly follows your morning coffee!
- Exercise. Get it in where and whenever you can! Check out Fit Bottomed Girls for their latest updates on workouts you can try with a trainer or group or at home. Jogging, high-intensity CrossFit classes or some yoga will do the job.
- If you suspect a food sensitivity or allergy, start with an elimination diet. This involves starting your dietary habits from scratch by cutting out all possibly allergens and slowly reintroducing foods to find the culprit. Consult a nutritionist and/or carefully read a book about changing your diet before starting.
Get in tune with your body and listen to what it’s trying to tell you — through poop.
So, how often do you poop? —Chanda Guerin