Stool Color Changes and IBS

What Is Normal and What You Should Be Concerned About

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It can be easy to become concerned about the various shapes, colors, and sizes that they see in their bowel movements. This is particularly true if it takes a dramatic or sudden change. The cause can be simple — your toddler got into a stash of grape-flavored treats that turned his stool purple — or it may indicate a medical issue. 

It's important to remember that stools can change dramatically without necessarily signaling serious illness.

Yet it can be hard to know when to worry and when you can breathe easy.

People dealing with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) have a unique challenge in this matter. By definition, the disorder involves a change in the appearance of bowel movements. This can leave you with very understandable concerns about the color of stool.

Typical Stool Colors

The normal stool can be a variety of different colors without indicating the presence of serious disease. The most common stool colors include:

  • Dark brown
  • Light brown
  • Orange
  • Tan
  • Yellow

Colors to Be Concerned About

The following colors are not typical and should immediately be brought to the attention of your physician:

  • Bright red
  • Dark red
  • Black or tar-colored

If you have stools that are this color, don't panic. Although it is true that red- or black-colored stools suggest bleeding and may indicate the presence of something like colon cancer, there are many other possibilities that are not as scary.

These include an acute infection, a tear in the tissue of the anus (anal fissure), hemorrhoids, or non-cancerous polyps.

Don't Check Too Often!

A person dealing with an eating disorder will cause himself unnecessary anguish by constantly checking the scale. If the numbers are up, they become upset. The problem is that scales are not precise instruments and fluctuations in scale measurements are not necessarily indicative of weight gain.

This same principle applies to the daily examination of your bowel movements. Therefore, a much better strategy is to check it weekly. That way, you can be confident that you are monitoring your health and at the same time not exposing yourself to unnecessary emotional distress.

IBS and Stool Changes

As stated above, IBS by definition involves a change in stool appearance. So, yes, your stool may look abnormal to you. Just remember that abnormal does not necessarily mean that your doctors have missed a more serious disease.

Typical IBS stools can be:

  • Filled with mucus
  • Thin and pencil-like
  • Hard, lumpy, and difficult to pass
  • Soft, loose, and watery

The advice to not check the appearance of stools too often is especially relevant for IBS sufferers. The psychology of IBS can be similar to that of post-traumatic stress disorder. When you have been traumatized by severe symptoms, your brain automatically wants to search for signs related to your disorder. This can result in hypervigilance, a constant state of anxious watching and worrying.

The problem with IBS is that an anxious state can trigger or exacerbate the very symptoms that you are worried about. Due to all of this, it is important that you try to work actively on reducing your anxiety whenever you can.

One way to do so is to reduce your focus on the way that your stool looks.

Sources:

Longstreth G, Thompson W, Chey W, Houghton L, Mearin F, Spiller R. Functional Bowel Disorders. Gastroenterology. 2006;130:1480-1491.

Thompson W. Alarm Symptoms: A Cause for Alarm? International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders. 2015.

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