We’d rather not talk about stools, but the fact is that gut function is very important for our overall well-being and what we ‘leave behind’ says a lot about our exercise and eating habits, and our stress levels – both in sickness and in health.

You should keep an eye on your bowel movements – how often they occur and what they look like. There are things you can do to make your stomach and gut more healthy. This will help you get more out of your healthy lifestyle, because believe us – when your gut is working properly, life is almost perfect!

Checklist: colour

BROWN: Completely normal and a sign that the bile has done its job during digestion. A light brown colour is better than darker browns.

GREEN: Food has moved through the body too quickly. It could also mean that you have eaten a lot of green vegetables or something else with green colouring in it. Green stools can also be caused by eating iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements. However, there are also certain diseases that can cause green stools. These include coeliac disease (severe gluten intolerance), bowel cancer and IBS.

Black: This can be caused by several things: taking certain medicines or supplements (such as iron tablets) can discolour your stools and turn them black. This can also happen if you have recently eaten a lot of liquorice and/or blueberries. If your stools are black, tarry and smelly, it may be a sign of bleeding, known as melena, usually from ulcers or bleeding in the upper gastrointestinal tract. The black colour comes from oxidised iron found in the blood’s haemoglobin. Melena often requires emergency hospitalisation, so consult your doctor if you are in any doubt.

YELLOW: Foul-smelling yellow stools that are slightly oily in consistency are caused by leftover fat and can have multiple origins, such as a food intolerance or a lack of fat-degrading enzymes. The pancreas may not be able to produce the enzyme, or something may be blocking its transport. If your stools are yellow for an extended period of time, you should contact a health care professional to have the issue checked out.

RED: In the worst case, red-coloured stools or spots of blood in your stool can be a sign of cancer. In this case, the blood comes from a wound that bleeds down the intestine. This is often in the lower gastrointestinal tract because the blood turns black after about 14 hours in the digestive tract. Bleeding can also come from haemorrhoids, inflamed bowel pockets or other lesions in the bowel. Make an appointment with your doctor. If it happens infrequently, it’s rarely anything to worry about, but if it’s regular, you need to get it checked out. NOTE! Beetroot can colour your stools and urine red.

LIGHT GREY/WHITE: If your stools are almost colourless, it often means that there is a lack of bile, which is what gives stools their brown colour. This can have several causes such as gallstones creating a blockage, inflammation of the pancreas, or problems with the liver. If your stools look like this for an extended period of time, you should consult your doctor.

Checklist: consistency/form

Separate hard lumps/balls: You are probably constipated.

Floats instead of sinking: Could be because you’re eating too much fat, or have too much gas in your digestive system. It’s also common if you have simply eaten too much food, or beans, cabbage or sprouts. If this is a recurring problem, it could be caused by the body’s inability to absorb fat due to pancreatitis or food allergies.

Sausage-shaped/cylindrical, smooth and soft: Congratulations – your stool is optimal!

Sausage-shaped but in small blobs: You need to drink more water and get more fibre into your diet.

Sausage-shaped with some cracks on the surface/edges: Perfectly fine, but also a sign that you need to drink a little more water.

Soft and sticky: If your stool sticks to the sides of the toilet, it contains too much oil. This could be because your body isn’t absorbing fat properly. Some diseases, such as chronic pancreatitis, can prevent the body from absorbing fat.

Small, hard balls: A sign of constipation, or thyroid or blood sodium disorders. It could also be a sign that the life you lead is too sedentary …

Watery, with no hard lumps/pieces: Diarrhoea caused by viruses or bacteria. You need plenty of fluids to avoid getting dehydrated. Mushy and loose stools can also be a sign of IBS or gluten/lactose intolerance.

Keep in mind that healthy stools sink slowly. Your stool should slip through the surface of the water in the toilet like a cylindrical projectile and not make much noise – it shouldn’t sound like when you go dive-bombing in the pool with your kids on a charter holiday … It’s normal to do a number two once or twice a day (more often is fine too), but some people do have less active bowel cleansing. Everyone is different, and some people only have a bowel movement about 3–5 times per week. As long as you are generally healthy, this is perfectly fine. When you eat, it takes about three days for the ingested meal to end up in your stool.

How can I tell if I’m constipated?

  • If you do a number two less than twice a week.
  • When your stools are hard and difficult to pass.

Tips to avoid getting constipated!

  • Drink lots of water. Lots of water makes your large intestine slippery, allowing stools to slide through unhindered.
  • Choose food that’s rich in fibre. Good sources of fibre include linseeds, rye crispbread, oats, peas, avocado, wholegrain rye bread, sesame seeds, broccoli, prunes and psyllium.
  • Eat little and often. When you eat large meals and don’t spread them out throughout the day, your intestines have trouble breaking down the food. Don’t skip meals.
  • Go to the toilet when you need to. Don’t hold it in – this can cause problems. Your intestines will tell you when they need emptying, so listen to your body’s signals. If you ignore these signals, you can end up disrupting the reflexes that control when you need to do a number two, which in turn can lead to constipation.
  • Exercise! Several studies show that exercise promotes bowel function. When you move, your bowels move too. If your stomach feels bloated, swollen and gassy, exercise can help a lot, even if you ‘just’ go for a walk.
  • Stress less. Your gut reacts to how your hormones are balanced, and, if you’re stressed, you’re more likely to get constipated.

Eating at odd times or stuffing your face with food (such as at Christmas dinner or other buffets) can lead to sluggish digestion and constipation. This also happens if you travel and end up in a different time zone, which upsets your body in several ways, including your gut.

Why do I fart so much?

  • Eating a lot of nuts can cause problems for some people.
  • Typical foods that cause excess gas are onions, eggs, cabbage and beans, meat and fatty foods.
  • If you have recently changed your diet and started eating a lot of vegetables and other products rich in fibre, you may experience some gas, and this is perfectly normal.
  • Wine gums and certain types of sweets increase gas due to the overproduction of yeast in the intestines.
  • If you chew gum, eat too quickly or talk with food in your mouth, you can take in large amounts of air, which your body then needs to get rid of.
  • Your farts may smell more if you’ve eaten a lot of asparagus and eggs – but this is nothing to worry about.

NOTE! Passing wind 15–20 times a day is completely normal. But farts tend to be relatively odourless. If it smells unusually bad when you break wind, think about whether you’ve eaten something in particular that your stomach may not tolerate. If you have experienced bad-smelling stools and farts for an extended period of time, it could be a sign that you have a problem with your pancreas.

Squat down!

The convenient invention of the flushing toilet, where we sit upright to do a number two, is actually not optimal for our bowels. The muscles of the rectum do not open fully, so we have to push hard. In many parts of the world where people still defecate through a hole in the floor and thus squat, there are almost no issues with constipation or upset stomachs at all. German researcher Giulia Enders addresses this in her best-selling book, ‘Gut’. If you’re agile, you can simply put your feet on the toilet seat and squat down (it’s great exercise too!), but the easiest way might be to lean your upper body forward when you go, putting your feet up on a small stool (you can use the same stool that small children use to reach the sink when they brush their teeth).

Gut behaviour during pregnancy

About a third of pregnant women suffer from constipation, especially in the later months of pregnancy. Many also become constipated during the first trimester because the intestines are affected by progesterone, which slows down digestion and bowel movements. The more the belly grows, the less space the intestine has to do its ‘job’. Stools may become darker and appear harder. Iron tablets, which many pregnant women take because of iron deficiency, can also cause hard stools. In addition, iron tablets can discolour stools and turn them black.

It’s also not uncommon for a sluggish digestion and constipation to lead to haemorrhoids during pregnancy, which can be difficult to get rid of, even after the baby is born.

You can also get constipated outside of pregnancy, during the third part of your menstrual cycle.

Sources Science Illustrated, ‘Gut’ (Giulia Enders), Ulla Gabay, Newsner