Yes, we know this. Yet STILL, many people are extremely uncomfortable with talking about their bowel movements and digestive troubles, even with their doctor! But, as any doctor worth their own salt should know, the health of your ENTIRE body starts with healthy digestion. So naturally (seriously, no pun intended), when you see a Naturopathic Physician, integrative medical doctor, Ayurvedic doctor, or any other holistic healthcare practitioner, a common question that arises is, “How’s your poop?” This is because these healthcare professionals know how important healthy bowel movements and bowel patterns are for optimizing the health of the rest of your body.
Your poop is the product of your digestion. It is formed from the food you eat, the wastes you don’t need, and a few billion bacteria that used to live in your colon. The appearance, consistency, frequency, and pattern of your poop all give clues about how well you’re digesting your food, as well as how your food is suiting you. It can also in certain instances tell you about things that are missing from your diet or health behaviors, tell you about certain microbes you might be harboring, and much more. A simple tool that can help guide in assessing our poop is the commonly used Bristol Stool Chart. This gives you a way to communicate the type of bowel movement you are having to your doctor or healthcare provider.
The appearance and consistency of your poop can change due to many different reasons. Overly dried, hard, less frequent poops that tend toward constipation gives you a hint that you may not have enough fiber, hydration, or fats in your diet, hints at the presence of food sensitivities, or that the food you’re eating doesn’t suit your body type. Eating right for your individual body type is something that has been discussed for literally thousands of years in various ways; Ayurvedic constitutional diets, blood type diets, other ancestor-based diets are just a few of the common ones. Wet, unformed or loose, more frequent poops also give you similar information, suggesting low fiber, poor digestion and absorption, or even presence of infectious or inflammatory agents, along with the possibility that again, the foods you’re eating don’t suit your body type or that you are sensitive to some of them. Beyond these basics, changes in poop consistency can also give hints into various more serious conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease or other inflammatory conditions, parasitic infections, and more. Further, the presence of undigested food particles, fat, mucous, or blood can also give insight into your digestion and the health of your digestive system. This is why having healthy poops is important – a good baseline of consistent poop allows you to visit your doctor when things just don’t seem right.
So, Why Is Good Poop So Important?
Answering this question could in itself be a series of several long posts, but I’ll do my best to sum up some of the major points. Beyond just the simple fact that our wastes need to be released so we don’t just fill up with septic crap (again, pun not intended) and burst, there are some other reasons why good poop is important. I have already mentioned that having healthy digestive function and consistent bowel patterns allows you to assess changes to your poop and use these as signs about changes in your overall health. Aside from this, there is also another very important reason why regular, well-formed, consistent poop is so important.
The Hepatic Portal System
We have this thing called the hepatic portal system, which is essentially blood flow that connects the digestive tract to the liver and allows for something called enterohepatic circulation. This fancy phrase simply refers to a physiological process that occurs in our digestive system: things absorbed in the majority of our digestive tract (food, water, medicines, etc.) are circulated through the liver via the portal vein BEFORE they travel to the rest of the body. This happens for a couple of reasons:
- The liver literally cleans the “dirty” blood coming from the digestive tract and metabolizes nutrients, drugs, etc. (drugs that end up metabolized in this fashion don’t reach the blood stream in the same amount as ingested – this is called first pass metabolism). This is a built in protective mechanism to catch things that need to be metabolized before being allowed into general circulation.
- The liver reuses bile acids that were broken down and reabsorbed in the small and large intestines, and recycles the bile several times before making more – talk about efficiency!
This system of recirculation is great, and protects the body in many ways, but it can also lead to some issues. With this type of absorption and reuse, the body can end up reabsorbing substances that were not supposed to come back into the body – wastes, environmental toxicants (including heavy metals), and more. Our liver detoxifies our blood of various substances, packages them neatly, and sends them out into our kidneys, or our small intestine via bile, so that they can be excreted. But the longer things sit in our digestive tract without getting eliminated as poop, the more time there is for these ‘packages’ to be digested, broken down, and reabsorbed.
The Gut Microbiome
A key player in this whole process is also the gut microbiome, or the gut bacteria. Unhealthy gut bacteria can break these packages down and lead to an increase in reabsorption of toxic substances – more on that in a later post though! These reabsorbed substances, instead of being eliminated in the poop, recirculate through the liver, making its life harder. These substances also get pushed back into the blood stream to circulate around and potentially wreak havoc on our body.
So the key takeaway about this enterohepatic circulation is that the reabsorption of wastes, toxicants, and things like excess bile acids, which can increase our levels of cholesterol (yes, this IS a cause of increased cholesterol levels), can be very detrimental to the body. Optimal elimination – or good poop – is how we can avoid this or at least minimize these processes. Enterohepatic circulation is also a major piece to understanding what is meant when people say they are doing a “detox.” Sure, many of the popular detox programs found around the Internet are ridiculous in terms of their claims, procedures, and cost, but the general theory of detoxifying your body is not.
– Caution: Upcoming Soapbox –
Your body is detoxifying itself 24/7. The skin sweats out almost every type of waste you can think of; your liver (as discussed) detoxifies by converting toxins, toxicants, drugs, etc. into waste products and sends them on their way out the body; the kidneys also filter your blood and remove wastes, including removing things packaged and sent from the liver; your lungs also detoxify your blood by removing gaseous wastes via breathing. These organs are always working away at these functions, and there are specific biochemical pathways involved that help convert harmful substances into less harmful substances that can more easily and safely be excreted. These pathways often require enzyme supports, coenzymes and cofactors that involve lots of micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to function optimally. So, if anyone ever tells you that detox is not real, smack them in the face with a biochemistry textbook and tell them to read about these biochemical processes. After that, you can let them know that optimizing the functioning of any and all of these organ systems will help with eliminating harmful waste products from our bodies, and this will in turn – contrary to some peoples’ beliefs – make you healthier!
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Alright, I Get It, I Need Good Poop. How Do I Get There?
Getting back to your poop and your health, I hope this post gives you some idea of why having good, healthy poop is so important to your health. Now, you must be wondering how to ensure you have fantastic poops and prevent upstream issues that result from poor digestive plumbing. Well, we’ve got just the thing for you! Check out the post, “The Five F’s of Fantastic Feces: 5 Things You Should Be Doing To Optimize Your Poop.” This is a whole post dedicated to explaining what sort of things you can do to ensure you have awesome poops.
Of course, these things are what you would do beyond eating a good clean diet and avoiding foods that you may be sensitive or even allergic to. If you’re eating fast food, chips, cookies, and soda all day, you’re not going to have good poop no matter what you do. You will feel awful until you start eating real food. Period. So, while you’re at it, you can also check out this short post on the basics of eating what we call a cleansing diet. Enjoy!