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The Scoop on Poop

Man wearing mask with magnifying glass

Although not a preferred dinner-party topic, digestion is an absolutely essential function and one that we all depend upon for our continued health and maintenance. 

Most naturopathic practitioners agree that chronic diseases such as autoimmune disease, chronic fatigue and breast cancer start in the bowels and so regular elimination is incredibly important to establishing and maintaining health. For this reason it is perhaps not surprising that the most constipated nation on Earth - the USA - is also the sickest and the fattest!

In the same way as you may be able to inspect the finished item on a production line and detect faults in the manufacturing process, examining the stool can reveal an awful lot about the efficiency of the digestive processes and your body's response to particular foods. And who is better placed to interpret these signs on a day-to-day basis than you - once you know how. 


Healthy bowel function

Of all the symphony of digestive actions, the function of the bowels is to absorb water and churn and compact the paste-like chyme from the small intestine into a solid or semisolid mass ready for elimination. The stool is stored in the rectum temporarily until such time as it is convenient to defecate.

There is a sphincter in the rectum known as the Houston valve which supports the weight of the stool and there are two further anal sphincters controlling the processes of defecation - one is external and under conscious control and one is internal and responds reflexly to the relaxation of the external sphincter.

Sensory nerve input signals that the rectum is distended and prompts the need to defecate. When the external anal sphincter is consciously relaxed, the autonomic nervous system (automatic nervous system) coordinates the relaxation of the internal anal sphincter with waves of muscular contractions which expel the stool from the rectum. 

Because of something referred to as the gastrocolic reflex, the bowels experience a mass movement shortly after eating whereby the contents of the colon get moved along en masse ready for elimination as more food enters the system. 

Three quarters of the stool is water and of the remaining quarter roughly:

  • 30% is fibre
  • 20% living and dead bacteria
  • 20% fat
  • 15% inorganic material and
  • 15% undigested proteins


Somewhat remarkably the faeces can contain half the colorific value of the foods consumed and this provides nutrients for the bacteria, fungi and beetles occupied which decomposing such matter. 

The colour of faeces comes from the breakdown products of blood being eliminated in the bile and although the bile itself is bright green, after processing through the digestive system it colours the faeces brown. 

The ideal is to have no digestive discomfort and to pass a well-formed stool at least once a day, and some say three times a day (once for each meal). The stool should be mid-brown, cylindrical, textured but not compacted and about the size and shape of banana. It should be easy to pass and can disperse in the toilet.

In fact, modern day evidence from indigenous peoples and preserved faeces (known as coprolites) from ancient peoples indicate that their stools are soft, ill-formed and full of fibre as shown in the images of coprolites below from neolithic peoples in Oregon 14,000 years ago.

Although passing wind is natural, this should not be excessive, and not too malodorous.




Problems with defecation

Those who have always enjoyed a good digestive system with regular problem-free bowel movements cannot imagine the distress that digestive problems can cause. The fact that you are reading this article, however, tells me that you are probably not one of them! The majority of people with digestive problems are thought never to seek professional help because of shame and embarrassment.

When reading the following, please refer to the Bristol Stool Chart provided below which grades the stool from constipation (Type 1) to diarrhoea (Type 7).


“Nothing is so overrated as sex and so underrated as a good bowel movement.”

Dr. Ted Loftness



Constipation is a common modern-day complaint and involves passing hard faeces irregularly and possibly with difficulty. Shown as types 1 and 2 on the stool chart, constipation is central to a lot of chronic ill health for two key reasons: 

1. The slower the transit time and the less dietary fibre/fiber consumed, the more toxins excreted in the bile will be reabsorbed from the intestines causing a steady increase in toxicity in the body over time.

2. Products absorbed from the bowel are routed directly to the liver and so a congested bowel can burden the liver which slowly becomes unable to process toxins.

These unheralded processes usher in nearly all serious, chronic and degenerative illnesses and reversing constipation is key to reestablishing health.


The Bristol stool chart


There are times when diarrhoea is the body's way of eliminating either a toxin or parasite as quickly as possible and unless becoming dehydrated, this process needs to be respected. However, regular diarrhoea is another matter entirely. Shown as types 6 and 7 on the stool chart, these loose stools prove more difficult to retain than a solid stool. 

Paradoxically, long-term constipation can cause diarrhoea and faecal incontinence in several different ways. The first of these is that the muscles involved become stretched and lose tone over time. The second is that the body is not able to absorb water from the chyme through the faecal deposits on the colon walls and so the stool becomes progressively more liquid. The third is that the deposits mean that the colon cannot churn as intended and so muscular control of the passage of faecal material is lost.

Many people find that they alternate between constipation and diarrhoea and this is known as irritable bowel syndrome and is estimated to affect approximately one in five people and more women than men although latest figures show a sharp increase in prevalence. 


Faecal incontinence

Faecal incontinence is the loss of control of the bowels and involuntary excretion and leaking are common occurrences for those affected. Many sufferers try to manage the problem themselves and nothing can render you housebound quite so effectively as occasional faecal incontinence and it is also one of the major reasons people ultimately need to go into care homes. 

Whilst faecal incontinence can and does affect people of all ages, it is more common in older adults than in younger adults, but is not an inevitable part of aging. That is to say it is symptomatic of increasing toxicity with age. 

There are several reasons for loss of faecal continence including:

  • A lack of sensory feedback which can cause difficulty with signalling the need to defecate. This can be the result of childbirth, long-term constipation, stroke, and diseases that cause nerve degeneration, such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
  • A general loss of tone of the tissues with age which can cause the rectum to prolapse or protrude into the vagina in women.
  • The automatic processes of relaxation of the sphincters and peristalsis of the rectum can become dysfunctional due to the absorption of toxins and toxic metals into the autonomic nervous system that serves this region.
  • Congestion of the colon with faecal plaques as described above, this can be remedied with a course of colonic hydrotherapy.
  • Dysfunction of the gall bladder caused by the presence of gallstones blocking the bile ducts or toxin absorption into the gall bladder itself from the bile preventing effective gall bladder contraction. 
  • Physical injury to one or both of the anal sphincters or controlling nerves as a result of a forceps delivery or episiotomy in women during childbirth or as a result of haemorrhoid or tumour surgery to adjacent tissues.
  • There is also some evidence that anal sex may cause injury to the sphincters over time.
  • Some treatments such as radiotherapy or surgery and some inflammatory bowel diseases may result in the bowel walls becoming stiff and losing elasticity and storage capacity. 


How to interpret the signs

The table below gives the different possible explanations for the appearance and form of the stool.

Black, tarry and/or sticky

Bleeding from the stomach or duodenum - possibly due to an ulcer caused by taking ibuprofen or aspirin. Also eating black liquorice or blueberries, taking iron-containing supplements, medications containing bismuth such as Pepto-Bismol or exposure to lead. 

Very dark brown

Drinking red wine or consuming too much salt and too few vegetables.


Eating beetroot or other red-coloured foods such as tomatoes or foods containing red food colouring.

Light green

Eating green foods like spinach and lettuce or foods containing green food colouring. Can also be caused by consuming too much sugar, or too many fruits and vegetables with not enough grains or salt.

Pale or clay-coloured

Minimal amounts of bile are being excreted, possibly due to liver and gall stones blocking flow or dysfunction of the gall bladder or liver. This can occasionally be caused by parasites blocking the bile ducts and some medications also reduce bile production.


Can indicate coeliac disease or gluten intolerance. Yellow, oily bowel movements indicate that the body is not properly digesting fats or that the diet contains excessive amounts of fat.

Bloody or mucous-covered

Red blood usually indicates a problem with the colon, rectum or anus such as haemorrhoids, colitis, diverticulitis, colon cancer or Crohn's disease but could also indicate an overgrowth of bacteria or a parasitic infection in the colon.

Thin and/or ribbon-like

A polyp, growth or restriction in the colon may be narrowing the alimentary canal.

Large and floating, with a greasy film on the toilet water

Your bile and digestive enzymes are not functioning efficiently, seek professional help or try supplementing digestive enzymes.

Small, hard, round pellets or compacted lumps

Types 1 and 2 in the stool chart indicate constipation possibly caused by too much dry food or protein, and insufficient vegetables and raw foods. Can also be the result of laxative abuse, anxiety and food intolerances - most commonly dairy. Pharmaceutical drugs such as codeine and iron supplements are also constipating. Lack of exercise and change of diet may also be a cause.

Loose, watery and with undigested foodstuffs

Type 7 on the stool chart. Causes include: food poisoning; food intolerances; consuming cured or smoked meat, spicy foods, excessive amounts of fruit or indigestible fats such as Olestra; prescription medications such as antibiotics, antacids or the fat-absorbing drug, Orlistat; changes in the diet; stress, anxiety or travel; inflammatory bowel disease; cystic fibrosis and a protozoal parasitic infection.

Alternating bouts of diarrhoea and constipation

'Irritable bowel syndrome' caused by food intolerances most often to gluten-containing grains and dairy products. Try excluding both food groups to monitor the results. Can also be caused by red meat, spices, sugar, alcohol, lack of fibre, parasitic infections such as worms and an erratic lifestyle and relationships. 

Smells really bad

Either eating too much spicy food or protein which putrefies in your digestive tract, or a lack of friendly bacteria.

Gas and bloating

Consuming difficult to digest foods such as legumes, raw fruits and vegetables, raisins, corn, capsicum peppers and milk; overeating; consuming indigestible sugars such as sorbitol; eating foods to which you are intolerant; candidal overgrowth in the colon will ferment refined carbohydrates, sugars and yeast-containing foods as will parasitic infections; insufficient digestive enzymes and particularly stomach acid; antibiotics and some other medications; swallowing air when eating or chewing gum and drinking carbonated drinks

Foul smelling flatulence

The higher your diet is in sulphur-containing foods such as cauliflower, cabbage, eggs and meat, the worse the odour. 

Soft, fluffy, falls apart easily

Types 5 and 6 as shown on the stool chart. Tending towards diarrhoea.

'Wet wind'

Food intolerances; parasitic or yeast infections; inadequate digestive enzymes.


Hints and tips

Suggestions for normalising bowel function include:

  • Defecate when your body prompts you to do so if at all possible. Delaying will dull the all the responses and cause stretching of the rectum.
  • In proper function, you will only defecate when relaxed because it is a function governed by the parasympathetic nervous system - so allow yourself some down time - ideally after a meal.
  • Do not use laxatives and pharmaceutical products to treat constipation or diarrhoea as these cause long term dysfunction of the digestive system. Instead, address the cause(s) as revealed in the table above. 
  • Keep a food diary and try and work out which foods are particularly beneficial, and which cause problems. Muscle testing foods may help with this. Typically gluten causes loose bowel movements and dairy products constipate.
  • When bowel habits are really erratic, it can be helpful to supplement meal replacement powders only for a few days in order to reestablish order and then to reintroduce foods slowly observing and documenting the results. 
  • Having a low foot stool available in the bathroom enables you to raise your knees when defecating. This position unkinks the rectum and is the more natural squatting position we were intended to use allowing for greater evacuation than in the sitting position to which we have all become accustomed.
  • Occasional use of a home enema kit can help to clear out the bowel contents if constipated or detoxing.
  • Drinking hot water with a slice of lemon each morning helps to stimulate a bowel movement.
  • A little exercise first thing such as the yoga 'Salute to the sun' routine can promote evacuation and generally get you ready for the day. 
  • After an initial course of colonic hydrotherapy, regular maintenance visits ideally quarterly at the change of seasons will keep your bowels clean and functioning well. If undergoing a detox or experiencing symptoms you may want to attend more regularly. This will help with both constipation and diarrhoea. 
  • A good abdominal massage can get things moving. Work in clockwise circles (with your abdomen as the face of the clock).
  • Tapping the alarm points (a few inches/centimetres) either side of the navel and rubbing the sides of the thighs vigorously will help to stimulate a bowel movement if sluggish.
  • Ensure that you take some sort of exercise or are active every day. A walk will help to get and to keep things moving. 
  • Try to eat healthy whole food meals at regular times to regulate intestinal function. 
  • Ensure that you are getting enough natural fibre in the form of whole grains such as brown rice (if tolerated), vegetables and fruits. Fibre will bulk out the stool, regulate both diarrhoea and constipation and allow the elimination of toxins. 
  • Drink plenty of water to prevent intestinal blockage from excess fibre and to prevent diarrhoea.
  • Eat foods known to stimulate digestive enzymes, including brown rice and pungent foods such as garlic, ginger and onions.
  • Avoid foods and drinks containing caffeine which relaxes the internal anal sphincter muscle if diarrhoea or incontinence are an issue.
  • Eat fermented foods such as miso and live yoghurt to replenish the beneficial bacteria in your gut or supplement friendly bacteria.
  • Supplement digestive enzymes to see whether they aid digestion. You may only need to take in association with a protein meal.
  • Pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics, the contraceptive pill and codeine are all recognised to interfere with normal bowel function. Review the drugs you are taking if experiencing problems. 
  • Actually sit upright and pay attention to your food while you eat. Set aside some time to eat and digest and don't eat 'on the run'. 
  • Reduce stress by taking up some form of exercise or meditation.
  • A liver flush will help to eliminate gallstones enabling the production of bile (for details see chapter 16 of The Natural Recovery Plan book).
  • In the long term, a programme of detoxification will eventually restore proper function as the toxins are pulled from the tissues and nerves controlling digestive function and the processes of defecation.


Further resources

You might also be interested in the following: 

Read button

The Health Benefits of Colonic Hydrotherapy

The Large Intestine and Guilt

The Gall Bladder and Rage

Digestive Enzymes: Key to Health

The Small Intestine

Chinese Medicine: The Liver

The Stomach: Key to Health

How the Body Heals

Bentonite Clay and Psyllium Husks

For a comprehensive approach to detoxification and diet refer to The Natural Recovery Plan book

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Colon Cleansing, Digestion, Digestion, Digestion and Why Health Begins in the Colon listed under Natural Recovery in the Audio Hub

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Bad Habits Destroy Good Digestion


Or for all media use the Search facility at the top of the page


The Scoop on Poop: Article summary

This article looks at what the colour and form of the stool can reveal about the processes of digestion. The topics of constipation, diarrhoea and faecal incontinence are addressed and tips offered to improve digestive function.


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The Natural Recovery Plan Ezine December 2010 Issue 12. Copyright Alison Adams 2010. All rights reserved
Dr Alison Adams Dentist, Naturopath, Author and Online Health Coach

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