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What’s your poo trying to tell you?
We make no apologies for getting to the bottom of this important bowel business. Dietitians Stephanie Liang and Nina Oljaca, both CBHS Wellness Consultants, have dug into the details to bring you this exclusive scoop on your poop.
What’s the big deal about poo?
The long journey your food takes when it passes along your gastrointestinal tract, through your stomach and into your intestines ends in the expulsion of waste. Call that poo, stools, faeces, Number Twos, or bowel movements, it all comes down to the same thing. Or does it? What happens behind a locked toilet door can produce some surprisingly different results.
“Your poo can tell you so much about your overall health.”
The shape, colour, and texture of your stools can tell you a lot about your health, and the health of your gut. Why does that matter? Because we know that gut health can be closely linked to mental and physical health.
‘Your poo can tell you so much about your overall health,’ says Nina.
First, a word about fibre
‘Fibre is essential for you to form good quality poo,’ Nina explains.
Soluble fibre draws water into your gut to help soften your stool, insoluble fibre adds bulk to your stools, and resistant starch helps you produce good bacteria to improve your overall bowel health. Many plant foods contain both soluble and insoluble fibre.
Insoluble fibre is found largely in:
- wholegrain breads
- nuts, seeds
- wheat bran
- the skin of fruit and vegetables.
Soluble fibre is found largely in:
Resistant starch (a prebiotic) is found in:
- cooked and cooled potatoes
- cooked and cooled pasta and rice
- underripe bananas
‘Many people are surprised to learn how nutritious legumes are,’ Stephanie adds. ‘They’re also practically free of saturated fat and they have a low glycemic index, so they're great for balancing blood sugar levels.’
Rundown of the benefits of dietary fibre
- main fuel for healthy gut bacteria
- very filling so you’re less likely to overeat
- slows digestion and the release of sugar into the bloodstream
- may reduce the risk of some cancers, in particular colorectal cancer
- may reduce cholesterol levels by absorbing bad cholesterol then excreting it from the body
- may help to reduce inflammation in the body.
‘Dietary fibre passes largely unchanged through your stomach and small intestine, until it reaches your large intestine,’ Nina explains. ‘That’s where magic happens. The fibre is a prebiotic. It feeds your gut bugs, which are also known as probiotics. Put prebiotics and probiotics together and you get...
Postbiotics! (We guessed.)
‘Yes. Postbiotics carry huge health benefits. They can help reduce inflammation, keep your colon healthy and help improve the health of your bowel.’
“We’re all different, and dietary changes can quickly change the composition of our gut microbes, which can then affect our stools.”
‘We need healthy stools to be able to detox our bodies of waste products, excess hormones and cholesterol,’ says Nina.
So, let’s take a closer look at what your poo might be trying to tell you.
What does healthy poo look like?
Before you flush next time, take a closer look and check your stool against this Bristol Stool Chart. It’s the chart many doctors use, so it can be useful if you need to talk to your GP about bowel movements. Check below for what the results could mean.
What type of stools do you have?
Type 1 or 2
Oh dear, you probably spend a very long time in the loo. You’re unlikely to poo every day and you might have to strain because your stools are so hard and dry. Your poo is showing all the signs of constipation. Your gut is trying to tell you something, and it’s time you started listening. It may help if you up your intake of water and fibre.
Type 3 or 4
Congratulations, you’re passing the ideal poo! Your stools are log or snake shaped, easy to pass and they stay in one or two pieces. You don’t spend too long in the bathroom, you probably poo at least once a day, and you can be pretty confident that your guts are in good shape.
Type 5, 6 or 7
Uh oh, here you go again. And again! Watery loose stools that range from mushy to complete liquid indicate diarrhea. With Type 5, it may be a simple case of adjusting the type and quantity of fibre you eat to bulk up your stools. It could also be something more problematic like a food intolerance. Either way, you need to see your GP if these symptoms persist.
“We’re all different, and dietary changes can quickly change the composition of our gut microbes, which can then affect our stools,” explains Stephanie.
‘Ideally, you should be able to pass bowel movements easily, with no pain, in one or two large pieces. They should be dark brown, hold their shape as you flush, and you should feel complete evacuation.’
“It’s normal to have up to three bowel movements a day, so long as they are formed.”
You might sometimes find undigested food in your poo if you eat insoluble fibre, common examples include corn and chia seeds. That’s nothing to worry about.
But you should never have any blood, whole chunks of food or black coffee-like grains in your stools. If that happens, or if your stools appear yellow or foamy, see your GP for further investigation.
How often should you go?
You may have been told it’s normal to go every few days, but it’s certainly not ideal. Your body would prefer to eliminate waste every day, or at least every other day. But don’t be worried if you feel the need to head to the bathroom
“It’s normal to have up to three bowel movements a day, so long as they are formed,” says Stephanie.
The angle of attack
Did you know that poor posture can make it harder for you to pass poo? If you’re hunched forward on the loo, with your knees lower than your hips, it puts a kink in your bowel and makes it harder for your abdominal muscles to move your stools out.
‘Try putting your feet on a low stool. That can change your posture and help the passage of bowel movements,’ Stephanie suggests.
Coffee can do more than kick start your day
Caffeine can accelerate the whole process of emptying your bowels by activating the gastrocolic reflex. It may be the chlorogenic acid in coffee that does the trick, or it may be the beans and oils, either way, a large long black, or a skinny decaf can give some people the urge to nip to the loo for a quick Number Two. That’s worth remembering if you’re out on a walk and you stop to grab a quick coffee!
Tips to add more fibre into your diet
- aim for three serves of whole grains every day
- get five serves of veg and two serves of fruit per day by spreading them out across your meals
- add nuts or seeds to meals or eat them as snacks
- sprinkle chia, oat bran or psyllium husk into a smoothie or porridge
- add chickpeas, lentils or legumes to meat dishes, or make meat the side dish!
- keep the skin on plants whenever possible.
Experiment with probiotics
Probiotics are live bacteria that occur naturally in your gut and in some foods.
They can improve your gut health by reducing the number of harmful bacteria, but they don’t necessarily live and repopulate in the gut, so the benefits are only seen while you’re eating the food. Enjoy a variety of probiotics on a regular basis and you’ll boost your gut health.
Probiotic supplements might be useful after a course of antibiotics. Antibiotics kill both good and bad bacteria, so probiotic supplements may be a useful way to reintroduce good bacteria into your gut. Speak to a healthcare professional to find out which probiotic supplements are best for restoring your good bacteria.
Dealing with difficult Number Twos
If your poo heads towards either end of the Bristol Stool Chart, you need to take action. And we don’t mean taking a book into the bathroom and locking the door!
Constipation is a common complaint, which can be caused by something as simple as dehydration. Are you drinking enough fluids? Men need ten cups of fluid a day, women need about eight and children need four to eight, depending on their age and sex.
“Fibre draws more water into your gut so you need to drink more water to make up for it.”
The cause could also be a lack of fibre. If you change your diet to add more fibre and improve your gut health (nice work by the way), don’t forget to increase your water intake at the same time.
‘Fibre draws more water into your gut so you need to drink more water to make up for it,’ explains Nina.
Constipation might also be due to lack of exercise, hormonal changes, stress or physical disorders, so if you suffer from chronic constipation make an appointment to see your doctor. They’re likely to ask questions about your poo and take a sample. The more detailed your answers are, the better.
Diarrhoea can be caused by infection, food allergies, reaction to medications, intolerances or eating too much fibre, or the wrong kind of fibre. It can also be caused by anxiety or emotional stress, reinforcing just how regular the communication is between your gut and your brain.
Bouts of diarrhoea are not uncommon and they usually clear up within a few days. Rest, good hygiene and plenty of fluids are often all that’s required, but babies, young children and elderly people may need medical attention.
Diarrhoea can also be caused by bowel diseases, so if you experience persistent bouts of diarrhoea see your GP for further investigation.
Bloating and gas
When you increase the amount of fibre in your diet, your body can take a while to adjust, producing more gas and a little bit of bloating. This is normal, if a little uncomfortable and embarrassing.
If the bloating is accompanied by pain or excessive gas, you may have a food intolerance or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a condition that affects the large bowel (colon), causing abdominal pain, bloating, and chronic diarrhoea or constipation (sometimes alternating between the two). The pain or discomfort can often be relieved by passing wind or stools. The exact cause of IBS is unclear.
If you experience a change in your normal bowel habits, such as diarrhoea, constipation or both, bloating, abdominal pain, or discomfort, you may have IBS. The condition is usually diagnosed by assessing symptoms and ruling out any other cause such as more serious conditions like coeliac disease, endometriosis, and inflammatory bowel disease.
Women are twice as likely as men to develop IBS, and as many as one in five Australians will develop IBS in their lifetimes.
IBS can be highly affected by stress and lifestyle. It may also be a miscommunication between the gut and the brain.
If IBS is caused by diet, dietary changes can relieve symptoms. The low FODMAP diet, developed by Monash University as a diagnostic tool, can reduce the symptoms. FODMAPs are types of carbohydrates found in some food, including wheat and beans.
A word of caution though. The diet isn’t recommended for long-term use, so consult your GP or a dietitian if you’re considering FODMAP. Studies have shown that following a low FODMAP diet long-term can impact the composition of your gut microbiome because of the restricted intake of prebiotics.
When to see your doctor
See your doctor if you experience any of the following:
- persistent bouts of constipation
- persistent bouts of diarrhoea
- blood in your stools
- pale stools
- a stool that looks like it contains coffee granules
- abdominal pain or problems passing a bowel motion
- yellow or foamy stools.
Could a dietitian help?
Keeping your gut healthy isn’t about dieting or restrictive eating patterns, it’s about adding a wide variety of quality plant-based foods that can boost the microbiome in your gut and support your overall health. Diversity is key, and dietitians
can help you achieve this.
If you have any level of CBHS Extras cover you can claim a benefit towards the cost of seeing a dietitian. The same is true on most levels of packaged cover.
All of our CBHS Hospital policies or packaged covers also include Better Living programs for people with chronic disease to help improve and manage health conditions. These programs include access to dietitians.
Your membership also qualifies you for a 20% discount on the 12-week CSIRO Total Wellbeing Diet for gut health. If you hold Hospital or packaged cover, and you have chronic disease or you’re at risk of chronic disease, you may be able to access the longer 24-week program at no cost.
All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified healthcare professional.
Sonnenburg J, Sonnenburg E. 2015. The Good Gut – Taking care of your weight, your mood and your long-term health. Penguin Books.
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