When it comes to pooping, your bathroom strategy is most likely to get in and get out—but it’s a good thing to take a look every now and again to see what’s going on in the toilet. The size, texture, and color of your poop can tell you a lot about what’s going on in your body. And it will vary depending on lots of factors.
“It is important to check because it can help you identify a problem: digestion problems, structural diseases, motility disorders, or an adverse reaction or side effect to a medication,” Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. “In general, the earlier a problem is discovered or identified, the better the outcome.”
A super handy visual tool called the Bristol Stool Chart is here to help you diagnose what may be going on.
What the Bristol Stool Chart is
The chart is a scale detailing seven types of poop, ranging from constipation (Type 1) to diarrhea (Type 7). The purpose of referring to such a thing? “Patients can better communicate to their doctors the appearance of their bowel movements,” says Dr. Lee.
Besides being used in the doctor’s office, it can be a super helpful chart to use day-to-day to check that things are OK within your digestive tract and body. The goal? Type 4.
“A diet rich in fiber tends to have more formed, brown stools, most commonly seen in Bristol Stool Chart Type 4,” says Dr. Lee. If your diet’s low in fiber and water, you might find your poops more consistently look like Types 1 through 3, she adds.
But it’s not just diet that changes how your poop looks. Here are a few other factors that can change what you see in the toilet bowl.
Your poop can tell you if you’re drinking enough water.
“If you are dehydrated, the large intestine and colon work like dehydrators, pulling water from stools and repurposing it for the body’s use, causing really hard stools,” says Dr. Lee.
How much you’re exercising (or moving in general) can also play a big role in what your poop looks like.
“Exercise improves muscle strength, motility, and a healthy stool appearance,” says Dr. Lee. “A sedentary lifestyle greatly exacerbates constipation.”
Tons of meds can mess with what your poop looks like.
“Bismuth subsalicylate (the active ingredient in many upset stomach medications) can change the color of your stools to black, as can iron supplements,” says Dr. Lee.
Blood pressure medications can cause constipation, while some prescription meds for gout or diabetes can cause the opposite problem, she adds.
Antibiotics can really do a number on your gut, and therefore your poop as well.
“Antibiotics can kill bad and good bacteria. Losing your good gut bacteria can drastically alter your stool consistency and frequency and even leave you vulnerable to pathogen invasions such as C. difficile,” says Dr. Lee.
Always use antibiotics correctly—and seek medical attention should you develop diarrhea post-antibiotics, which could signal a C. diff infection, she says.
If you’re noticing you’re having diarrhea a lot more, it could be a sign of an autoimmune disease.
“Autoimmune diseases such as celiac, thyroiditis, or inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis) can change the appearance of your stools, generally to diarrhea,” says Dr. Lee.
If you’re super stressed, your poop may show it. “Stress levels can greatly affect the appearance of your stools, to either loose diarrhea or the other extreme, severe constipation,” says Dr. Lee.
What if your poop is a different color?
In addition to looking like an optimal Type 4 on the Bristol Stool Chart, healthy poop is also a shade of brown (or sometimes green).
But plenty of factors can change your poop color. Pale or clay-colored stools might be a sign of a problem with your liver or pancreas. Black or red stools may suggest gastrointestinal bleeding, says Dr. Lee.
Even the foods you eat could be to blame. “Blueberries may turn the color of your stools to deep blue, and a diet rich in beta carotene (carrots, pumpkin, squash, etc.) may turn your stool orange,” Dr. Lee says. Candies or drinks with food coloring could change your poop color too, she adds.
In general, if your poop looks off and it isn’t just a one-time thing but rather persistent or progressive, Dr. Lee recommends making an appointment with your primary care doctor.