Bowel habits - What is normal?

Bristol Stool Chart

Dr Jane Varney - Research Dietitian, 12 January 2021

IBS is characterized by abnormal bowel habits, but have you ever wondered what is considered normal? While this varies from person to person, there are a number of characteristics that distinguish normal from abnormal. 

See our examples below: 

  • Frequency – Anything from several times a day to several times a week can be normal. However, a sudden change in bowel habits can signal a problem and is reason to consult your doctor. 
  • Texture - The texture of your stool is more important than the frequency. Stools should be soft, sausage-shaped and easy to pass. Diarrhea occurs when your stools are very watery and unformed. By contrast, constipation is characterised by stools that are hard, dry, pebble-like or difficult/painful to pass. It should only take around one minute to empty your bowels. Take a look at the Bristol Stool Chart below to see the 7 types of stool. Using this chart, types 1 and 2 generally indicate constipation, types 3 and 4 are ideal as they should be soft and easy to pass and types 5, 6 and 7 may indicate diarrhoea and urgency. 
  • Colour - Stools should be brown, although you may notice a change in colour if you eat pigmented foods such as beetroot. See your doctor if the colour of your stool changes to very dark/black or very light grey/brown. 
  • Smell – It is normal for stools to smell, and simply a result of bacteria residing in your large intestine. 
  • Wind – It is normal to experience some wind/gas and a normal sign of healthy digestion. However, wind/gas can be excessive in IBS. If this is troubling, see a dietitian as dietary changes such as a FODMAP diet can help. 
  • Other changes - Certain changes in bowel habit can signal the presence of problems other than IBS and should be mentioned to your doctor. These are sometimes called ‘red flags’ or ‘alarm signals’ and include blood in the stool, bowel motions at night, severe/ongoing diarrhea and sudden changes in bowel habit. 

As you can see, there is a lot to consider when we describe bowel habits as normal or abnormal. If you have concerns that your bowel habit is abnormal, talk to your doctor. Fibre can also play a role in normalising bowel habit, as too much or too little fiber can affect IBS symptoms, and certain types of fiber may be better tolerated than others. Working with a dietitian can help to get you to consider effect of fiber on your IBS symptoms. 

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