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Healthy and Unhealthy Stool

What does your poop say about your health?

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Updated August 20, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

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Alternative practitioners often ask clients about their stool as part of the assessment. Find out what normal stool should look like and learn the causes of green stool, light colored stool, yellow stool, blood in stool, mucus in stool, pencil thin stool, infrequent stool and more.

What Does an Ideal Bowel Movement Look Like?

An ideal bowel movement is medium brown, the color of plain cardboard. It leaves the body easily with no straining or discomfort and is the consistency of toothpaste. Approximately 4 to 8 inches long, stool should enter the water smoothly without sticking to the toilet bowl. There should be little gas or odor.

Stool That Sinks Quickly

Rapidly sinking stool can indicate that a person isn't eating enough fiber-rich foods, such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains or drinking enough water. This stool is often dark because it has been sitting in the intestines for a prolonged time. Learn 5 tips to boost your water intake

Pale Stool

Stool that light colored (either pale, white, grey or clay colored) may be caused by a lack of bile in stool. Insufficient bile output or bile duct obstruction may be due to conditions such as cholecystitis, gallstones, giardia, parasitic infection, hepatitis, chronic pancreatitis, or cirrhosis. Bile salts secreted by the liver give stool its character brownish color. If there is decreased bile, stool is much lighter in color.

Certain medications such as bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto-Bismol, Kaopectate) or antacids containing aluminum hydroxide may also result in light colored stool. Stool may temporarily become pale after a barium enema test. Pale stool may also be shiny or greasy, float, and be foul smelling, due to undigested fat in the stool (see soft and smelly stool).

Floating Stool

Soft stool that floats, has odor, sticks to the side of the bowl, or is difficult to flush away may mean there is increased fat in the stools, called steatorrhea. Floating stool can also be caused by excess gas. Learn more about the causes of floating stool.

Green Stool

Seeing green stool in the toilet bowl can be alarming, but there are some common reasons why it occurs. Continue reading about the causes of green stool.

Mucus in Stool

Whitish mucus in stool may indicate there inflammation or irritation in the intestinal wall. Mucus in stool can occur with either constipation or diarrhea. Read more about the causes of mucus in stool.

Loose Stool

Two common causes of loose stool or diarrhea are GI tract infections or maldigestion (e.g. lactose intolerance). In traditional Chinese medicine, loose stools, abdominal bloating, lack of energy, and poor appetite can be signs of a condition known as spleen qi deficiency. It doesn't necessarily involve your actual spleen, but it is linked to tiredness and weak digestion brought on by stress and poor diet. Learn more about the causes of loose stool.

Pencil Thin Stool

Excess straining can result in a stool that is long and pencil thin because bearing down causes the anal sphincter to contract and narrow the opening of the anus.

Stool that is pencil thin can be caused by a condition known in traditional Chinese medicine as spleen qi deficiencyOther symptoms of spleen qi deficiency are: easy bruising, mental fogginess, bloating, gas, loose stools, fatigue, poor appetite, loose stools with little odor, symptoms that worsen with stress, undigested food in the stools, and difficulty ending the bowel movement. Spleen qi deficiency can be brought on by stress and overwork.

Eating certain foods in excess is thought to worsen spleen qi deficiency. Offending foods include fried or greasy foods, dairy, raw fruits and vegetables, and cold drinks, all believed to cause "cold" and "dampness" in the body. Dietary treatment of spleen qi deficiency involves eating warm, cooked foods. Ginger tea and cinnamon tea are also warming.

Pencil thin stool can also be caused by a bowel obstruction. Benign rectal polyps, prostate enlargement, colon, rectal or prostate cancer are some of the conditions that can cause obstruction.

Yellow Stool

Yellow stool can indicate that food is passing through the digestive tract relatively quickly. Yellow stool can be found in people with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Symptoms of GERD include heartburn, chest pain, sore throat, chronic cough, and wheezing. Symptoms are usually worse when lying down or bending. Foods that can worsen GERD symptoms include peppermint, fatty foods, alcohol, coffee, and chocolate.

Yellow stool may also indicate problems with the gallbladder and liver. Bile salts from the liver gives stool its brownish color and when bile output is diminished, it often first appears as yellow stool. 

If the stool is also greasy and foul-smelling, there may be excess fat in the stool -- causes include malabsorption disorders such as celiac disease. If the onset is sudden, yellow stool can also be a sign of a bacterial infection in the intestines. Prolonged yellow stool may also be caused by giardia infection or other conditions.

Infrequent Stool

With constipation, infrequent or hard stool is passed often with straining. It is most commonly associated with a lack of both dietary fiber and water. Learn about the causes and remedies for constipation.

Stool That Comes Out in Small Pellets

Pellet stool is stool that comes out in small, round balls rather than long and smooth. It is often due to a lack of dietary, as fiber forms a gel in the intestines when it is fermented by colon bacteria and combined with water. In traditional Chinese medicine, pellet stool is caused by a condition known as liver qi stagnation. Liver qi stagnation can be brought on by stress and a lack of exercise can worsen the problem. Find out more about the causes of pellet stool.

Undigested Food in Stool

Certain plant foods such as corn and grape skins may appear in recognizable pieces in stool, because humans lack the necessary enzymes to digest certain components of plant cell walls. According to Ayurveda, undigested food in stool indicates that agni (the body's digestive fire) is not functioning properly. Ginger tea may be recommended before meals. In traditional Chinese medicine, stool with undigested food may be due to kidney yang deficiency.

Note: Speak with your doctor about any change in bowel movements. If your stool is bright red or black, seek prompt medical attention as it may indicate the presence of blood in stool.

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