What Your Poop Says About Your Health

man on toilet
Frank Fennema/Shutterstock
Frank Fennema/Shutterstock

Whether you like it or not, your poop is a pretty good indicator of your overall health, so when something's off in your excrement, it may be a sign of a bigger problem. Here are the red flags to pay attention to in your feces, and what they may mean.

pottery making clay

Gray or clay-colored poop

While poop can be a multitude of different colors, such as green, yellowish, or (the crowd favorite) brown, there are a few that you should watch out for, says Dr. Scott Schreiber, a chiropractic physician double board-certified in rehabilitation and clinical nutrition. "If your stool is gray or clay colored, you may have a pancreas, liver, or gallbladder issue," he explains. Of specific note, pale, gray, or clay-colored stools can indicate cancers of those organs, cysts in the bile ducts, hepatitis, cirrhosis, or gallstones.

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Black poop

Dr. Gina Sam, director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Center at Mount Sinai Hospital, says black poop can be a sign of bleeding in the upper portion of your GI tract. This sort of bleeding is black because it's had a while to chill out through your intestines on its way from your esophagus or stomach to its exit.

Of course, it may just be something simple like Pepto-Bismol, which has the unfortunate side effect of causing weird black poop (the same is true for other products that contain bismuth salicylate). Other benign causes of black poop are consuming black licorice, iron pills, or even blueberries.

Red poop

Red poop is almost always alarming because for most people, red equals blood. And yes, sometimes that is the case, and the causes can vary wildly -- as Dr. Sam explains, it can be something as simple as hemorrhoids, or as serious as colon cancer. Inflammatory bowel disease, infection, and trauma can also cause red bleeding. Here again, though, there are less-serious potential causes -- copious amounts of beets and tomatoes can make your poop appear red, but your doctor can determine if your red poop is in fact blood or a byproduct of your favorite foods.

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Trouble with your exit strategy

Constipation is never, ever fun, and while most cases can be treated by eating plenty of fiber and drinking tons of water, it may still be worth a check from a doctor. "If you are forcing and straining more than usual to have a bowel movement and you are eating your 25g of fiber daily and drinking at least eight glasses of water, you should see your physician because this may be a sign of colon cancer," warns Dr. Sam again. Yikes -- but again, be sure that you're covering those other bases before you freak out too much.  

Thin poop

"If your poop changes and becomes thinner in size, you should see your physician because this could be a sign of colon cancer," says Dr. Sam. This type of poop phenomenon is also known as pencil-thin poop or narrow poop, and it's a concern because there may be a mass in your bowels preventing your feces from reaching its preferred size, which is, obviously, no bueno.

hard-boiled eggs
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Egg or sulfur smell

Poop stinks. However, if your poop stench resembles a weird egg or sulfur smell, you may have something going on that needs to be treated. Dr. Sam mentions that giardia may be the culprit. "This is usually acquired from swimming in a lake or drinking water that is unpurified," she notes, but it can also be spread from person to person in close quarters, like daycare or even your home.

Greasy, floating, or stick-to-your-toilet poop

One of the symptoms of celiac disease is weird, fatty poop that doesn't act normal -- it's yellow, it's greasy, it floats instead of sinks, and it clings to your toilet instead of flushing down like good feces should. Fecal fat, also called steatorrhea, can also be a sign of other malabsorption conditions, such as gallbladder disease, pancreas problems, or Crohn's disease. So keep a close eye on the bowl before you flush the evidence down the drain.

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Monica Beyer is a health writer who definitely checks the toilet after pooping. Doesn't everybody? Follow her: @monicabeyer.