You probably don't think about your digestive system when it's working properly. But when your stools become either too loose or too hard, it can suddenly be difficult to ignore.

Causes of Stool Problems

As many as 30 percent of adults experience stool problems, according to Eamonn Quigley, MD, past president of the American College of Gastroenterology and the World Gastroenterology Organization, who serves as head of Houston Methodist Hospital's gastroenterology division. He says that such issues often stem from irregularities in the digestive system that may be caused by diet, stress, or illness and may also be affected by your age. Any of these things can throw off the digestive process, causing food to move through your system too quickly or too slowly, which can affect its consistency when it reaches the bowels and is ready to be eliminated. The result may be diarrhea or constipation.

Preventing Stool Problems

Quigley says that eating a diet that's high in fiber can help to keep your body and your stools more regular. The recommended fiber amount for adults varies depending on age and calorie intake but often ranges between 20 and 35 grams a day. You can get this through fruits and vegetables, beans, and also whole grains. Just be sure to increase your fiber intake slowly, Quigley warns, since getting more than your body is used to can cause gas and bloating until you adjust, so increase gradually.

Treating Stool Issues

Sometimes ensuring proper nutrition won't be enough, though. When your stools are still off, here are some things that Quigley suggests to try to address persistent problems:

  • Take high fiber supplements. The fiber in the supplements can work in different ways depending on your body's needs, either helping increase your stool's bulk to soften the consistency if it's too hard, or soaking up excess water when it's too soft.
  • Use probiotics to get enough "good" bacteria and yeast in your intestines to keep your body balanced to prevent or cure diarrhea.
  • Increase your water intake to address constipation. Drinking 8 glasses of water a day is a good goal to keep your digestive system working well.
  • Try laxatives or stool softeners when your stool is too hard. Quigley says that this approach can make it easier to go to the bathroom and better yet, they can take affect very quickly.
  • Limit caffeine and alcohol, since both of these can cause your stool to be too soft.

When to See Your Doctor

While many bowel issues will respond well to dietary changes and over-the-counter remedies, when things don't seem to be improving, it's time to see get some medical advice.

Quigley says that diarrhea that lasts for more than 4 weeks, blood in the stool, weight loss, constant abdominal pain, vomiting, or chronic constipation that doesn't improve with laxatives, are all things that warrant a visit to your doctor.

Eamonn Quigley, MD, reviewed this article.


Eamonn Quigley, MD, gastroenterologist, Houston Methodist Hospital. Email interview July 30, 2013.

National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). "Living with Bowel Control Problems." Accessed Aug. 2, 2013.