What Do Your Bowel Movements Say About Your Health?

It's a subject many people feel uncomfortable discussing, but one that can be a leading indicator of your health: your bathroom habits, specifically your bowel movements. While what's considered normal bowel elimination will vary for everyone-for some it may be as many as three times a day or as few as three times a week-knowing what's normal for you is important so you can spot potential health problems early.

According to experts, there are a number of factors that can influence bowel frequency, stool consistency and color, including age, diet, the medications you take and your lifestyle. And while it's not uncommon to fluctuate between your normal bowel routine and constipation (having a bowel movement fewer than three times per week) or diarrhea (loose, watery stools that have to be eliminated more than three times a day), a major change in your bowel habits could be a red flag that something is wrong.

One of the early warning signs of potential health problems is the presence of streaks of blood in the stool or on the toilet paper, which could indicate something as benign as a burst hemorrhoid or a more serious condition like Crohn's Disease or colon cancer. If you notice blood in your stool, talk to your doctor about ruling out a serious medical problem.

What to Look For 

A bowel movement is made of what is left after your digestive system-the stomach, small intestine and colon-absorbs nutrients and fluids from the foods you eat and the liquids you drink. Here's how to detect what your gastrointestinal tract is trying to tell you.

Stool Color. A healthy stool will be a medium brown color, but don't be alarmed if something you ate, including blueberries or beets, temporarily changes your stool color. A black-colored stool could be the result of iron supplements or something more serious like bleeding intestines. If you're not taking extra iron, check with your doctor to rule out problems.

Size and Consistency. Ideally, your stool should be shaped like a banana or log and be soft and easy to pass. Passing little deer pellet-size stool can be the result of a longer amount of time it takes for the food you eat to get through the gastrointestinal tract and into the toilet. It can also mean a lack of fiber in your diet. What you don't want to see is a pencil-thin stool, which could indicate polyps in the colon or colon cancer. Talk to your doctor to rule out a serious health issue.