Talking about bodily functions doesn't generally make for polite conversation. Judging by the stunning array of constipation medications at the drugstore, maybe we do need to talk about healthy bowel movements. (I was looking for ipecac syrup, which they no longer carry, to keep in our emergency medical kit.)
What's a healthy bowel movement?
Believe it or not, some scientists in England (Bristol, to be precise), came up with a chart to describe the range of typical bowel movements. This is called the Bristol Stool Chart (or as we like to call it, the Poop Chart).
The following is a summary based on information from www.gutsense.org. Please speak with a health care provider for specific medical advice.
Type 1: Separate hard lumps, like nuts
These stools are not soft and squishy, because bacteria are missing and there is nothing to retain water. The lumps are hard and abrasive, the typical diameter ranges from 1 to 2 cm (0.4–0.8”), and they’re painful to pass, because the lumps are hard and scratchy.
This is a common side effect of antibiotic treatments. It may also occur for people attempting fiber-free, meat and fat heavy (low-carb) diets. Flatulence isn’t likely, because fermentation of fiber isn’t taking place.
Type 2: Sausage-like but lumpy
This type represents Type 1 “nuggets” clumped together by fiber and some bacteria. It's typical for organic constipation.
The diameter is 3 to 4 cm (1.2–1.6”). This type is the most destructive by far because its size is near or exceeds the maximum opening of the anal canal’s aperture (3.5 cm).
It’s bound to cause extreme straining during elimination, and most likely to cause anal canal laceration, hemorrhoidal prolapse, or diverticulosis. To attain this form, the stools must be in the colon for at least several weeks instead of the normal 72 hours.
Adding more fiber is dangerous for Type 2, because the expanded fiber has no place to go. It may cause a hernia, obstruction, or perforation of the small and large intestine alike.
Type 3: Like a sausage but with cracks in the surface
This form has all of the characteristics of Type 2 stools, but the transit time is faster, between one and two weeks. Typical for latent constipation. The diameter is 2 to 3.5 cm (0.8–1.4”). Irritable bowel syndrome is likely.
Flatulence is minor, because of dysbacteriosis. The fact that it hasn’t became as enlarged as Type 2 suggests that the defecations are regular. Straining is required. Type 3 has the same adverse effects typical for Type 2, especially hemorrhoids.
Type 4: Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft
This form is normal for someone defecating once daily. The diameter is 1 to 2 cm (0.4–0.8”). The larger diameter suggests a longer transit time or a large amount of dietary fiber in the diet.
Type 5: Soft blobs with clear-cut edges
The authors of www.gutsense.org consider this form ideal. It is typical for a person who has stools twice or three times daily, after major meals. The diameter is 1 to 1.5 cm (0.4–0.6”).
*Note – many other sites list 4 and 5 as preferred shapes.
Type 6: Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool
These kind of stools may suggest a slightly hyperactive colon (fast motility), excess dietary potassium, or sudden dehydration or spike in blood pressure related to stress (both cause the rapid release of water and potassium from blood plasma into the intestinal cavity).
It can also indicate a hypersensitive personality prone to stress, too many spices, drinking water with a high mineral content, or the use of osmotic (mineral salts) laxatives. Iron supplements may also cause diarrhea.
Type 7: Watery, no solid pieces
This, of course, is diarrhea. It’s typical for people (especially young children and infirm or convalescing adults) affected by fecal impaction—a condition that follows or accompanies type 1 stools.
During paradoxical diarrhea the liquid contents of the small intestine (up to 1.5–2 liters/quarts daily) have no place to go but down, because the large intestine is stuffed with impacted stools throughout its entire length. Some water gets absorbed, the rest accumulates in the rectum.
This is called “paradoxical diarrhea” because the person has diarrhea and constipation at the same time.
Will more fiber help me poop better?
We are bombarded with advertisements for FIBER! FIBER! FIBER! Is a large amount of fiber the real solution we're looking for?
Based on personal experience, I'd have to say, “no”. I've read some articles that say that if you eat a lot of fiber, it can actually make bowel problems worse, depending on your situation (such as #2 poop problems from the chart).
We need to look at the colon as not only a part of your digestive system, but part of the body as a whole. Did you know that an under active thyroid can contribute to constipation? And that the gastrocolic reflex (the urge to poop) typically weakens as we age?
I (unfortunately) found this information out first hand when my thyroid became sluggish. The good news is that by changing my diet, I am now happily in the 4-5 range. Here are some of the changes I've made during the last year or so that have helped me.
Strange Colored Stool
Healthy bowel movements come in range of colors, most of which are some variation of brown. If a stool is more green or yellow, it may contain more bile.
Foods may not be the same color coming out that they are going in, especially with artificial food colors. One notable example of this was the black bun Whopper from Burger King, which made people pass neon green stools.
My boys used to pass bright green stools when their grandmother fed them artificially colored fruit leather when they were little. (Now we make our own fruit leather.)
7 Tips for Healthy Bowel Movements
Better health and better bowel movements go hand in hand. Gut biomes vary from person to person, so you may need to try different strategies to see what works best for you.
For instance, the carnivore diet works well for some people, while others eat plant based. We're working to raise most of our food, so we eat a mix.
If you have food intolerances or sensitivities, that will impact your digestive tract and bowel habits. You should be having a bowel movement at least three times a week. Daily or several times per day means your system is moving food through more evenly.
1) Avoid highly processed foods
When the boys were younger, we did a little homeschool science experiment where we took samples of different foods and subjected them to “digestive forces”. We soaked them in vinegar, “smushed” them in a plastic bag, and finally forced them through on old nylon stocking.
The foods we examined were a piece of meat, a piece of apple, some celery, some oatmeal, and saltine crackers. When we got to the saltine crackers, they basically coated the inside of the stocking like glue.
The same thing happens in your guts. Highly processed foods lack soluble and insoluble fiber. They are also typically quite dry, so they can be easily compressed in your guts, forming hard, dense bowel movements.
2) Eat plenty of vegetables and moderate amounts of fruit
I've been eating less fruit lately since I am cutting back on carbs, but I do make sure to get plenty of plant material each day. Plants provide a good ratio of fiber to water that is generally easy on the digestive system.
Many plants are high in soluble fiber, which swells and bulks up the stool for easy transit, and insoluble fiber, which acts somewhat like a “broom” to “sweep” the colon clear.
3) Eat plenty of high quality saturated fats
3) Stay hydrated
I'm not fanatical about how much water I drink. I think the eight glasses a day recommendation seems a little over the top, unless you're in a situation where you're sweating heavily. Realistically, would our ancestors have consumed that much fresh water daily? I think it's unlikely.
That said, I think most of us have a higher toxin load from our environments, so we want to keep things moving through our systems.
4) Eat and drink plenty of probiotic foods and beverages
As we age, our bodies naturally produce less digestive enzymes. Our digestive systems slow down (and sometimes even stop – not good).
Live culture foods and drinks like sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented salsas and chutneys, kombucha, kefir, and kvass all help “jump start” your digestive system and often contribute to the healing of many digestive ailments.
If you want to learn more about these foods and how to make them at home, visit the Live Culture Foods Section of the recipe page.
7) Try Adding Magnesium
Many people suffer from constipation due to magnesium deficiency. According to WebMD, “Dietary sources of magnesium include legumes, whole grains, vegetables (especially broccoli, squash, and green leafy vegetables), seeds, and nuts (especially almonds). Other sources include dairy products, meats, chocolate, and coffee. Water with a high mineral content, or “hard” water, is also a source of magnesium.”
Natural Calm Magnesium Beverage mix is an easy way to take extra magnesium. A glass in the evening may also help you get a more restful night's sleep and reduce nighttime leg cramps.
7) Try squatting, and stay physically active
Squatting is the natural position for making a bowel movement, because it helps your guts to line up correctly to pass stool more easily. This can be accomplished with lower toilets, or through the use of a simple step like the Squatty Potty®, pictured below.
We love our Squatty Potties and have one next to each toilet. They are easy to use, easy to clean, and tuck out of the way next to the toilet when not in use.
Staying physically active also helps with healthy bowel movements. When you move, it helps to keep your digestive system moving. It's no coincidence that many people have a bowel movement first thing in the morning. Your body does “clean up” at night, and then you get up, and move the waste out.
Keeping active during the day also helps, like taking a 30 minute walk after lunch. You don't need to be setting world records, just keep moving.
So the next time you visit the bathroom, take a peek at what's going on before you flush. If you're not in the 4-5 range, you may want to consider making some changes in your diet.
You may also enjoy other posts in the Natural Health series.
This article is written by Laurie Neverman. Laurie is a lifelong learner with a passion for natural remedies and holistic healing. She’s successfully improved her eyesight, cleared her psoriasis, and gotten off of prescription medication.
Originally written in 2011, last updated in 2023.