Before You Flush
Look inside the bowl to learn about your health.

March 18, 2009

Why is it that when it comes to bathroom habits, guys seem to turn into a bunch of 12-year-olds ("Just taking the Browns to the Super Bowl!")? But even if potty talk grosses you out, flushing and running isn't the best strategy either. Docs say that what's in the toilet can provide important clues to your health. Yale gastroenterologist Anish Sheth, M.D., the author of What's Your Poo Telling You? and Poo Log, says, "What comes out tells you a lot about what's going on inside." Here he explains what you should look out for. Take a deep breath. You can handle this.

Flush factor: Consistency
What you should see: A stool that's compact yet soft enough to be passed very easily
What you shouldn't: A bowel movement that's broken up or watery

An ideal download shouldn't require a lot of pushing or straining, Sheth says. To achieve that, drink plenty of water and get at least 25 grams of fiber per day. On the other hand, stools that are looser than a Rock of Love contestant can signal food intolerance. The most likely culprits: the milk sugar lactose, the artificial sweetener sorbitol (found in sugar-free gum), or the wheat protein gluten. A food diary can help you determine whether grilled cheese, Orbit, or whole-wheat pizza crusts are to blame. If changing your diet doesn't get results, see a GI specialist. Your symptoms could be caused by a bacterial infection or an allergy.

Flush Factor: Color
What you should see: Cocoa, mahogany, burnt umber, cafe au lait...
What you shouldn't: Regular appearances from hues that aren't in the brown family

Sheth is down with anything brown, but says not to worry if something you ate temporarily changes a stool's color. Blueberries and beets, for example, can tint your business blue and red, respectively. Persistent red or black stools, however, are often caused by blood in the digestive tract, which may signal stomach ulcers or hemorrhoids. Yellow floaters occur when there's fat in the stool, which means your body is having trouble digesting food properly. And pale gray stools typically result from gallstones. If an abnormal palette persists for more than a day or two, keep a record and take it to your doctor.

Flush Factor: Shape
What you should see: A single, bananalike shape
What you shouldn't: A pencil-thin stool

"One long piece means you're getting enough insoluble fiber, which adds bulk to your stool," Sheth says. To get your fill of the rough stuff, have a bowl of bran cereal for breakfast, or snack on broccoli dipped in hummus. Skinny BMs can indicate a serious problem—namely, rectal cancer. See a doctor for a colonoscopy if your deposits are persistently scrawny or become thinner over several weeks.

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