The No. 1 Reason to Check Your No. 2

by Valerie Berkowitz, R.D., for SHAPE.com

We know it's kind of gross, but it's important!We know it's kind of gross, but it's important!The idea of looking inside the porcelain throne after using it may gross you out, but your waste is hardly a waste when it comes to identifying potential health concerns. How often you go No. 2 and the shape, color, and even odor of your bowel movements (BM) can be warning signs that something's amiss.

The next time you hit the bathroom, sneak a peek to see how things are coming out so you can get some sense of what may be going on inside your body, good and bad.

1. Shape
What's normal: A sausage or snake shape, either with cracks in the surface (type 3) or smooth and soft (type 4)

According to the Bristol Stool Form Scale, there are seven types of stool.
Type 1 (hard lumps resembling nuts) and type 2 (sausage-shaped and lumpy) may mean that you are not drinking enough water and are constipated. Constipation is uncomfortable at the least, but if waste is not being eliminated, it can lead to pain, lack of appetite, straining that results in hemorrhoids, or more serious issues like colon cancer.

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Type 5 (soft blobs with clear-cut edges), type 6 (mushy, fluffy pieces with ragged edges), and type 7 (watery; no solid pieces) are hard to stomach and not a pretty sight to see. Loose stools, or diarrhea, indicates that too much fluid is getting into the gut, which can lead to loss of fluid and electrolytes.
Suffering from constipation, diarrhea, or both consistently is a sign that your inside plumbing needs attention. Speak to your doctor, as these could be symptoms of bacterial or viral infections, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Chron's disease, parasites, celiac disease, or any bowel disorder.

And although it's not on the scale, a narrow or thin BM could mean that something-such as scar tissue, impacted stool, or even a tumor-is be getting in the way of passing feces, and it might be obstructing the intestine. It may also be a sign of a GI issue such as Crohn's disease, so you should speak to your doctor if you spy this too.

2. Frequency
What's normal: 1 or 2 bowel movements daily without pain or a burning sensation

For infrequent bowel movements, eat more healthy fats and fiber, drink more water and/or tea, and consider taking a probiotic. All of these natural laxatives can help you go more often. These will also help remedy any pain or burning, which is a sign of constipation.

If you're on the other end of the spectrum and seem to always be running to the loo, track what you eat and figure out how this affects your bathroom routine. You may discover that you have an intolerance for certain foods or medications. If your food journal doesn't give you any insights, see your doctor, who can test for a digestive problem or infection.

3. Color
What's normal: Tan to dark brown

Eating a variety of vegetables such as carrots, spinach, or beets may change the color of your bowel movement, and that also goes for certain medications such as iron supplements, antacids, and Pepto-Bismol. However, repeatedly seeing some shades is reason to see your physician: Bright red may mean blood in the lower intestine, black could be a sign of bleeding in the stomach, grey may signal insufficient bile, yellow could be malabsorption, and green might hint that your waste is moving too quickly (also called "decreased bowel transit time").

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4. Odor
What's normal: Scented but not unusually striking

Anything that is stuck inside your body and not being eliminated for a few days is not going to smell like roses. But infection, certain medications, yeast overgrowth, overgrowth of your body's natural bacteria, malabsorption, and poor digestion can all lead to bathroom trips that seem like a stink bomb went off. Keep track of what you eat, and speak to your doctor if the odor occurs for two or three days and you can't link it to a dietary change.

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