The scoop on poop: 5 questions on digestive health

We asked a doctor what to do if your stool changes color or shape, and how to keep things moving.
© MSN Healthy Living // © MSN Health

It seems like it should be so straightforward -- you eat food, your stomach digests it and your bowels excrete it. But too many times, things don't go quite so smoothly.

That's why we've called on Dr. Connor Loftus, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. He'll help you decode what you see in the toilet and tell you when you might need to adjust your diet to keep your digestive tract on track.

Turn to MSN's Ask A Doctor blog every day to find answers to all of your health concerns. A team of top experts tackles questions exclusively from the MSN audience. Have a health issue or just curious? Send in your question today.

--By Sally Wadkya for MSN Healthy Living

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Q: My stool has a reddish tinge. Should I be worried?

A: There are a variety of potential causes for a change in shade, and most of them are not a cause for panic. That said, any recurring change, no matter how innocent it may seem, should be discussed with your doctor. But before you speed-dial your doctor, let's look at some of the more benign explanations.

"If you see a small amount of bright red blood — either on the stool itself or on the toilet paper when you wipe — the most common scenario is hemorrhoids," explains Dr. Loftus. Especially if you had to strain a bit to go, it's not unusual to have a bit of bleeding as the stool exits the body. "If this occurs once in a blue moon, it's probably not a problem," he says. "But it's still worth a mention to your doctor." A true, not-to-worry situation is when the change in hue is due to something you ate. "Beets are notorious for giving the stool (and the urine) a maroon tinge," said Loftus, so look back on your last meal for a clue if you see this sort of change. Some food colorings can also be a culprit — like those found in a red Popsicle, for example.

But if you see larger quantities of bright red blood or if your stool is tinged with a darker shade, it could be a sign of something more serious. "The darker the blood, the more likely it's coming from a source higher up in the gastrointestinal tract," said Loftus. Make an appointment to see a gastroenterologist who can identify the source of the bleeding and help treat the cause.

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Q: My poop normally comes out in one piece, but now it looks like a pile of deer pellets. What's up?

A: That large, fluffy-looking stool you described is the ideal when it comes to bowel movements. One that's less fluffy and more lumpy is a sign that's something is up — most likely with your diet. "A change in bowel habits like that is generally due to a lack of hydration, a lack of fiber or a combination of both," said Loftus.   

So the first thing to do is take a look at what you are — or aren't — eating and drinking. Following a diet plan that restricts carbohydrates (like the Atkins diet) can leave you lacking in adequate fiber. And if you're not drinking at least six to eight glasses of water a day, your digestive system won't have enough fluid to create the desired, fluffy, easy-to-pass poop. Fiber is what helps the body hold onto fluid, so the combination is essential for keeping your digestive system in prime working condition.

"Generally, seeing pellet-like stool is not a sign of disease," said Loftus. "But if it persists, you should mention it to your doctor."

Have a health issue or just curious? Send in your question today to MSN's Ask A Doctor blog.

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Q: Help! What's the fastest fix for diarrhea?

A: Before you start treating your diarrhea, it's important to try to figure out what's causing it. You could be suffering from an infection or food poisoning, or your nonstop watery stools could be a sign of a chronic problem like irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.

If the cause of your diarrhea is an infection (such as C. difficile or rotavirus), your best bet may be to cancel your plans and park yourself near the potty. "When you have an infection, diarrhea is the body's way of protecting itself and ridding itself of the infection," said Loftus. Using medication (such as Imodium) to artificially stop up that process won't necessarily solve the problem. If it's not an infection, Loftus recommends taking a dose of Imodium about 30 minutes prior to a meal in order to help alleviate your symptoms. But if diarrhea becomes a chronic problem, or if you are starting to show signs of dehydration from too many trips to the toilet, he suggests seeing your doctor for a more thorough evaluation.

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Q: What exactly are probiotics and do I need them in order to have a healthy digestive system?

A: Probiotics are good bacteria. We all have both good and bad bacteria floating around in our bodies, and when that intestinal flora gets out of whack — and there's suddenly more bad than good bacteria in residence — that's when we suffer from problems like bloating, diarrhea or other types of intestinal distress.

There's plenty of debate over the merits of ingesting extra probiotics — in supplements or in foods in which they natural occur, like yogurt and kefir. According to Loftus, "normal, healthy people do not need to worry about adding probiotics to their diets." But, he adds that "probiotics may be of benefit to anyone who has had changes in their bowel flora and needs help repopulating the good bacteria." That sort of thing is most likely to happen when you're taking antibiotics (which are indiscriminate in the way they kill both good and bad bacteria), so eating more yogurt or popping a few probiotic supplements during the course of your medication could be beneficial.

The good news is that, so far, research has shown probiotics to be safe and relatively side-effect-free. But still best to consult with your doctor if you're considering using them to beef up your (or your kids') good bacteria.

Have a health issue or just curious? Send in your question today to MSN's Ask A Doctor blog.

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Q: Do I really need to worry about fiber now, or can it wait until I'm older?

A: Everyone — from toddlers to the elderly — needs a certain amount of fiber in their diet in order to keep the digestive system healthy and help keep things moving along smoothly. The current recommendation from the Institute of Medicine is to take in about 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you consume. (That adds up to about 19 to 25 grams per day for a young child; 38 grams for men and 25 for women.)

Without measuring and counting every bite that goes into your mouth, how can you know if you're getting enough? "If you're having one good, clearing bowel movement a day, you probably don't need to worry about taking in any extra fiber," said Loftus. "But if your bowel movements are sluggish — you only go once every two or three days and they are smaller, drier and more difficult to pass — you do need to increase your fiber." Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes are all good dietary sources, and if you still need more you could down a powdered supplement like Citrucel or Metamucil. Just be sure to drink some extra water while increasing your fiber intake — it's the combination that keeps things moving through your digestive tract.

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