Stool, Or Fecal Matter, Is Your Body's Waste Material

Female Rectum
The rectum is located between the buttocks, and is where stool leaves the body.. Image © Credit: Dorling Kindersley / Getty Images

Everybody poops! Stool, or feces, is what we call the waste material that leaves the body. We all must eat, and when we do, food is broken down. But it's not broken down fully, there is something left over, and that material must leave the body. But our food goes through a lot of changes before it becomes stool. 

Stool can often provide some big clues as to what's going on in the body, especially when something is going wrong.

What's In Stool?

Stool is mostly undigested food, but it also contains bacteria, dead cells, and mucus. It begins its journey in the mouth, as we chew our food. Food is swallowed and travels down the esophagus and into the stomach. Once in the stomach, digestive juices are mixed in, and food is digested in earnest.

After the stomach breaks down the food, it moves into the small intestine. More digestive enzymes are added and nutrients are absorbed by small fingerlike hairs called villi.

By this time, many nutrients have been absorbed from food, and it continues along the digestive tract and into the large intestine. In the large intestine, water is absorbed. At the end of its trip through the large intestine and the digestive tract, stool passes into the rectum and then out of the anus as stool.

What Makes A "Normal" Stool?

Normal stool is different from person to person. What's assuredly not normal is having too many loose stools (diarrhea) or too many hard stools (constipation).

Striking a balance in the middle is the goal, with a stool that is soft and easily passed without any pain or discomfort. The number of stools per day is also variable, with a range of anywhere from 3 a day to once every 3 days. Every person needs to understand their own personal normal, and talk to a physician when stools begin to move out of that normal range.

What Can Go Wrong With Stool?

Unfortunately, plenty can go wrong with stools. Any time there's a change in your normal stool pattern (size, shape, frequency, color), it's called a "change in bowel habits." Most of the time it will be just temporary, but it it continues for 3 or more days, it's worth talking to the doctor about.

Diarrhea. Waste material could move too quickly through the digestive system, which leads to diarrhea. Often diarrhea resolves on its own and the cause might not be known, but some of the many causes of diarrhea include:

  • Infection (viral and bacterial)
  • Parasites
  • Food intolerances
  • Disease
  • Functional bowel disorders
  • Motility disorders

Constipation. Food can also move too slowly through the digestive tract, which could lead to constipation. Constipation could be temporary and resolve on its own, but it could also be chronic. Some of the possible causes of constipation are: 

  • Medication (such as pain medications)
  • Motility disorders
  • Dehydration
  • Adhesions (scar tissue)
  • Bowel obstruction
  • Digestive diseases and conditions
  • Other diseases (such as diabetes or thyroid disease)

Unusual colors. Stool can come in a variety of colors and still be considered "normal" but if it goes on for more than 3 days or you can't figure out why your stool is turning a different color, talk to a doctor. Some of the common reasons for differently colored stool are:

  • Red: Naturally and artificially colored foods can cause red stools.
  • Black: Green, black or purple foods as well as iron supplements can turn stool green.
  • Green: Green foods and iron supplements can be the cause.
  • Orange: Red or orange foods and some medications can cause this color.

Stool Red Flag Symptoms

Blood in the stool. Blood in or on the stool could mean red or black stools. Blood in the stool is never normal, and should always be checked out by a doctor. If stools are black, tarry, and foul-smelling, this could also mean blood, and should be discussed with a doctor right away.

Pale stool. Sometimes pale stool could be the after-effect of a barium test, in which case it might not be a cause for worry, but it could also be a result of a blocked bile duct. If you haven't had a barium test recently, contact your doctor about pale colored stools.

Narrow stools. Narrow stools could be the result of a narrowing in the bowel, so it means you need to make a call to your doctor.

Absence of bowel movements. Not having any stools for a while could mean a blockage, which tends to be more common in people with inflammatory bowel disease (and Crohn's disease in particular). 

If any of these signs are accompanied by other symptoms such as abdominal pain or vomiting, seek medical attention immediately.

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