Reporting for “doody,” Dr. Ellie Sattler plunges her hand into a pile of brontosaurus stool to find out what’s ailing the sick old beast in Jurassic Park. She could have spared herself the up-close and personal if she had known how to read the colors of caca.
When your body’s gastrointestinal tract isn’t functioning correctly, stool colors can tell you what’s going on in your insides and whether you might have bowel problems.
The color of stool normally is brown. The reason for the brown color is the presence of bile in the stool. Bile is made by the liver, concentrated and stored in the gallbladder, and secreted into the intestine to aid in the digestion of food. Depending on the amount of bile it contains, the normal stool color can range in color from light yellow to almost black.
Bile secreted from the gallbladder into the intestine is a very dark green liquid made up of many chemicals, one of which is bilirubin. When red blood cells are destroyed naturally in the body, the hemoglobin, a protein inside the red blood cells that carries oxygen, is modified in the liver. The by-product of this process is bilirubin, and the liver secretes the bilirubin into bile.
As the bile travels through the intestines, it can undergo further chemical changes, and its color can also change. For example, if the traveling time through the intestine is too rapid, then bile won’t have the time to go through additional color changes and the stool color may be close to green.
The color of stool can change for other reasons as well. Many changes in stool color may not be of much importance, especially if the change happens once and is not consistent from one stool to the next. Sudden major changes in stool color that persist may suggest an underlying medical problem. Furthermore, gradual but persistent changes in stool color also can signify medical problems.
Medium brown is the color of healthy poop.
Pale, gray, clay-like stool suggests a liver problem. Bile from the liver is what makes stools brown; not enough and you get ashy shades indicating anything from gallstones to hepatitis, pancreatitis to cirrhosis.
Black or dull red stool sounds scary, but is often related to food or meds. You may see black after consuming black licorice, blueberries, iron pills, or Pepto-Bismol. (Call your doc if you see tarry black poop, which can be a sign of bleeding in the upper intestines or even the stomach.) And red? That may come from beets and tomatoes.
Green stools aren’t just for St. Patrick’s Day, although they can be from celebratory beer (it’s the green dye). Greenies can also come from eating lots of green vegetables or taking iron or certain medications.
Bloody or maroon/red poop is most often caused by hemorrhoids but it can also be from intestinal bleeding, so call your doc.
If you’re worried about any other colors you’re dropping, keep a 3- to 7-day record and share the shades with your doctor.