Bowel movements can tell you a lot about what is going on in your body. Stools vary in color, texture, size, and odor, which is typically not a concern and will resolve on its own in a day or two. However, there are certain stool characteristics that may suggest GI issues or other health conditions.
Diverticulitis, for example, is a condition that can cause changes to your stool. To understand what to look for in an unhealthy stool, you must first understand what characterizes a stool as “normal”. Abnormal stools to look out for are dark red or black in color, increasingly foul smelling, more loose or firm than average, and thin, pellet shaped.
What is a normal stool?
There are a few key characteristics of a normal stool:
- Color: The color of a normal stool should be medium to dark brown, due to the formation of bilirubin when blood cells break down.
- Odor: It is normal for the odor to be strong-smelling due to the breakdown of bacteria in stool.
- Texture: Normal stool texture should be somewhere between soft and firm.
- Shape: Stool passed in a single piece or a few smaller pieces is considered normal. The shape should be long and sausage-like, which matches your colon’s shape.
- Frequency: A person should pass at least three bowel movements per week. Normal bowel frequency ranges from once every other day to twice per day.
- Effort: Healthy bowel movements should be strain-free and painless
For the most part, stools vary from person to person, and you should have a good idea of what is normal for you. Most changes in bowel movements will clear up on their own in a few days, but there are specific red flags that can indicate there is a problem, such as Diverticulitis.
Diverticulitis stool characteristics
One key marker of Diverticulitis is changes in your bowel movements. Diverticulitis stool shape, color, and smell will likely be different than your average everyday bowel movement. Below are the changes to look for when determining if your stool may indicate a Diverticulitis flare.
- Color: The stool may be bright red, maroon, or black and tarry, which indicates the presence of blood. Stools may contain more mucus than normal.
- Odor: The stool odor may be increasingly foul compared to the typical smell.
- Texture: Diverticulitis can cause diarrhea or constipation, causing the stool to be especially loose or firm.
- Frequency: The frequency can also be affected if you experience diarrhea or constipation.
- Effort: Stools may become more strained or painful.
- Shape: Diverticulitis stool shape is often thin and pellet-shaped, which is caused by distorted colon shape.
Dangers of Stool Changes
While the change in your stool itself is not typically harmful, it can indicate a larger problem within your body. In this case, we’re referring to Diverticulitis, which is definitely a cause for concern.
However, there are many other conditions that can cause changes in stool shape, texture, color and odor. Celiac Disease, Crohn’s Disease, Ulcerative Colitis, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Thyroid disorders, and even Colon Cancer are examples. If you have recurrent diverticulitis flares, it’s likely that changes in your stool mean another flare is imminent. However, it is always important to investigate further to ensure there is not an additional accompanying condition.
What to do when you Notice Changes in Your Stool
When you begin to see changes in your stool, keep track of how long your stool remains abnormal. If the problem does not resolve within a few days, the first thing to do is contact your doctor. Minor changes in stool texture, shape and frequency are normal and could be an indicator of needed dietary improvements.
If you experience minor constipation, it may be helpful to increase your dietary fiber and water intake or try an over-the-counter stool softener. A bout of diarrhea can be treated by reducing dietary fiber intake temporarily or taking an over-the-counter anti-diarrheal such as Imodium.
However, some other symptoms such as blood in your stool should be immediately addressed and examined by a doctor. Similarly, any symptom that lasts more than 3 days warrants a doctor’s visit.
Bottom Line for Diverticulitis Stool Shape
For healthy bowel movements, consistency is key! Healthy stools vary from person to person, but it is important to know what is “normal” for you. If you experience a drastic change in size, firmness, frequency, or color that does not subside in a day or two, we recommend contacting your physician.
For more information on how to manage a diverticulitis flare and improve your diet to deal with your diverticulitis, download our Diverticulitis Nutrition Guide.
Kaitlyn Willwerth is a Registered Dietitian at OnPoint Nutrition. Kaitlyn's work focuses on providing individualized health and lifestyle coaching and, most importantly, support. She is a Certified LEAP Therapist and has also completed the Monash University 'Low FODMAP Diet for IBS' online training course for health professionals.