The practice of Haruspicy is common amongst African tribes. It is the practice of studying the entrails of a freshly sacrificed animal to tell the future – wealth, health and many cattle being the optimal reading. Of course, when it comes to Western society, all matters of the intestinal kind are barely discussed unless within the framework of a crude joke or when pressed by one’s gastroenterologist. Forget about looking into the toilet after the deed is done. All we want to do is flush.
Thankfully, in my family, all we ever did was examine and discuss. There is a saying in Greek that a person either dies by way of their head (i.e. mind) or their ass (i.e. intestines). Hence, the daily dose of TMI over breakfast and/or dinner. Based on my experiences and research, here are some of the things you should ask of your bowels followed by a cautionary tale.
Did you go today?
A human being should defecate at least once a day, but if your track record is less than 3 movements per week, you are officially constipated. Since the bulk of water absorption happens in the large intestine, the longer your poop stays in there the more water gets absorbed out of it and the tougher it will be to pass. Dietary issues that may cause constipation can include inadequate water intake; inadequate fiber intake; overuse of coffee, tea, or alcohol; a recent change in your diet; and ignoring the urge to defecate. Reduced levels of exercise may play a role as well. Other factors to consider are psychological issues such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders as well as medications whose side effects mess with the natural flow of things.
What should it look like?
Reference the amazing Bristol Stool Chart, a medical aid created by a doctor at the University of Bristol, England to classify human poop into 7 types. Types 1 through 3 indicate constipation. Normal poops are classified as Type 4 and 5. Types 6 and 7 indicate diarrhea and its precursor, respectively.
Frequent bouts of constipation and/or diarrhea can be a warning sign/symptom of a number of conditions, such as IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) and Celiac Disease. If diarrhea lasts for more than a week, it can cause an electrolyte imbalance due to all the potassium and sodium loss. If not treated properly, that imbalance can lead to death. Listen to your poop and see your general practitioner if any of the above is the case.
What color is it?
The stool color spectrum is even more informative than the Bristol Chart. Heaps of information on one’s health habits can be gleaned from the color of their poop. Here are the notable ones.
Brown = Normal
You want your poop to be within the middle of the brown shade spectrum. This normal shade comes from bilirubin, the yellow biproduct of broken down blood cells, that enters the intestine by way of the liver and helps color the poop. It also makes our pee yellow in color. Darker brown poops can be a result of excess salt in one’s diet or from constipation.
Black and Tarry, better safe than sorry! Blood, when digested, looks black and has the consistency of tar. The bleeding could be an indication of a stomach ulcer, a bleed somewhere in the upper GI tract or even cancer. Certain ingredients in medications and vitamins containing heavy doses of iron can also produce such poops. Best to visit your MD as soon as you become aware of this ominous color.
The Anemic Poop
If your movement is very light, almost grey in color and you didn’t just have a colonoscopy, then you may be experiencing some kind of blockage of a bile duct, gall bladder dysfunction and/or even liver disease.
Yellow like a newborn babe
Newborn babies that are breast feeding tend to have frequent poops that are yellow and slick in color because their bowel system is so fast and the content of their meal so fatty. Poop of this color and nature in adults can mean a few things. Assuming you haven’t consumed a whole lot of beta carotene rich foods or candy dyed with artificial yellow coloring, it could mean fat is not being properly absorbed and therefore, is getting excreted through the bowel. The poop will also stink to high heaven and float on the water’s surface like an oil slick. If you have recently traveled to a developing area of the world, it can also signify an infection known as Giardiasis, caused by a parasite that gives you yellow diarrhea. Another condition that causes poop to come out yellow is Gilbert’s Syndrome which is an excess of bilirubin, also making the person look jaundiced.
If you are a person who loves their leafy vegetables, your poops will obviously represent that. But if your body is moving food too quickly through your system, as in the case when you have diarrhea, bile does not have sufficient time to breakdown and stays in the poop, dying it green. Also iron supplements can stain poop green (in higher concentrations, black) too. If you are going green consistently, you may want to get your liver/gallbladder checked out.
Now where things get a little serious…A Cautionary Tale of Colon Cancer:
For years my father dealt with bouts of constipation stemming from what he self diagnosed as a “bad stomach.” In his youth, he had very poor nutrition, as his family lived in abject poverty. Upon his 12th birthday, he left to work on the cargo ships where he ate whatever was canned and salted amidst dank conditions and constant stress. In his early twenties, he came to the U.S. and ate one meal a day while working 12 hour shifts at a restaurant. He worked like an animal going from dishwasher, to busboy, to food runner, to line cook and finally, head cook of a high end Greek eatery. Then he bought his own restaurant along with two other friends. The workload should have been divided by three, but my dad ended up working 24 hours shifts. He lived on black coffee and inhaled meals on the go. When he got married to my mom, issues with his partners ended up forcing him to carry the restaurant himself. He had to be everywhere at one time. He was always under slept, stressed and constipated. When he did poop, it would be very hard to pass or would come out in ribbon like pieces. He dropped to 125 lbs. He looked scary. Solution: my parents sold the business and moved to Greece. He ate well. He basked in the sun. He gained weight and pooped like clockwork. Everything was great, except for one detail. Island life in Greece circa 1980 was something my mother could not handle with two babies. There was only one phone in each village, no indoor plumbing and limited access to the things needed to take care of us. She wanted to go back. My father listened. In the years that followed, my father worked from scratch again, since the restaurant was sold before we moved. He learned he had an ulcer in his stomach. He had kidney stones. He was constipated. He put himself on special “diets” to cleanse his bowels and calm his sour stomach. He was angry and stressed all the time. Life was not pleasant. Then he retired from all work when he turned 50. Despite the lack of work related stress, he was still angry and preoccupied. The patterns of constipation continued throughout the rest of the 90’s and in the first decade of 2000’s. This past December, after experiencing some intense pain on his left side and being unable to eat, he went for his first colonoscopy. It indicated adenocarcinoma, the cancer that typically occurs in the colon. Thankfully, it was still in stage 2 and operable. He is now doing chemo, eating super well, and gaining back weight and energy. The doctors feel optimistic that he beat it. My point of outlining his whole story is that had he paid attention to what his colon was telling him all along with the bouts of constipation and digestive issues, he would have changed his lifestyle and eating habits for the better. He is lucky. Had he refused, as many old school European types tend to do, to go for that colonoscopy, he probably would have been well into stage 4 before it was detected. It would have been too late.
Listen to your poop…it could save your life.