What Does My Bowel Movement Color Mean?

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I would wager a guess that at least one time in your adult life you had a bowel movement, looked into the toilet and thought, "what in the world?" You expect to see a formed, brown bowel movement. What you may see, and didn't expect, can be a green, yellow, or even light tan color stool. There is probably no need to panic, as your stool is easily affected by things that you eat and drink and medicines you take.


Most commonly in a healthy adult, the bowel movement is a brown color. This hue is normal and is a product of the normal functions of your liver, including the breakdown of bilirubin and release of bile salts into your stool. If you notice a change in your bowel movement color from the basic brown, you may want to discuss it with your doctor. It can, in some circumstances, be a symptom of an underlying illness or a problem with your digestive processes.

Green Bowel Movements

If you notice your formed bowel movement is a greenish color, it might simply be a product of eating more leafy green vegetables, such as spinach or kale. However, if you have not consumed leafy greens recently, there are some other potentially benign causes including:

  • Eating foods with artificial coloring, such as popsicles
  • Taking supplements of iron
  • Using bismuth-containing over the counter medicines, such as Pepto Bismol

    Chronic watery, greenish yellow stools can be a symptom of a clostridium difficile infection, which requires treatment from your doctor and is highly contagious. 

    Yellowish Bowel Movements

    Disorders of the liver, gallbladder, or pancreas can cause chronically yellow or fatty appearing stools in some cases.

    These conditions might include:

    • Gallstones (cholelithiasis)
    • Bile duct obstruction or blockage
    • Pancreatitis

    Also, conditions that affect your digestion, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), can lighten your stool. If the color change in your stool is accompanied by diarrhea, yellowing of the skin or eyes, or abdominal pain, seek medical treatment. 

    Bright Red Bowel Movements

    No one wants to see red in the toilet, but red colored bowel movements aren't always caused by blood or associated with colon cancer. There are some benign causes for this coloration to include:

    • Hemorrhoids
    • Anal fissure
    • Eating or drinking products with artificial red dye, such as Kool Aid or Jello
    • Eating beets

    Unless you can pinpoint the exact cause of the color change, red bowel movements should be reported to your doctor as they can be a sign of bleeding in the lower intestinal tract to include the sigmoid colon or rectum.

    Black or Tarry Stools

    Don't confuse very dark brown stools with the tar black coloration associated with gastrointestinal bleeding.

    Dark, bloody stools are usually very foul smelling and sticky. Contact your doctor and report tarry and foul smelling stools, as this can be a sign of gastrointestinal bleeding, which requires immediate treatment.

    Similar to some of the benign causes of green stools, iron supplementation and bismuth ingestion can temporarily darken your stool, as can eating high iron foods, such as spinach.

    Pale, White, or Cream Colored Stools

    These bowel movements are unmistakable -- they look chalky or grey in the toilet bowl, similar to the stool of a sea gull. Talk to your doctor if you are passing these pale stools as they can be a symptom of:

    Pale or greasy diarrhea can also be a sign of giardia, which is a parasitic infection that can come from eating food or drinking water infected with the parasite.

    Fluctuations in the color, consistency, and even frequency of your bowel movements can be a completely natural effect of dietary or lifestyle changes. However, be sure to discuss any new or concerning changes with your doctor, so he or she can decipher the need for further investigation.


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.). Giardia General Information. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed online February 19, 2015.

    Medline Plus. (n.d.). Bloody or Tarry Stools. Accessed online February 22, 2105.

    Medline Plus. (n.d.). Stools - Pale or Clay Colored. Accessed online February 22, 2015.

    Wilson, D. (n.d.). Hematemesis, Melena and Hematochezia. Clinical Methods: The History, Physical, and Laboratory Examinations. 3rd ed. Accessed online via the National Institute of Health on February 22, 2015.

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