Our bodies are efficient…and miraculous. The ability to extract energy from food is a fascinating biochemical process.
The digestive process is complex but truly amazing; it begins as soon as we see food and that food enters the mouth. Breakdown begins immediately with our saliva, our bodies move things along on to the stomach with its harsh stomach acid and then it breaks down further with enzymes in the small intestine. When it reaches the large intestine/colon, it is condensed into a mass that is ready to leave the body through the rectum, and then it's out the anus as poop. The liquids that have been processed, absorbed, and sent to the bloodstream circulate through the kidneys for filtration and cleaning. That waste is turned into pee and sent to the bladder.
Poop and pee health 101 -- what's normal?
The average person produces between 3-21 ounces of poop every day depending on body weight. Healthy poop should be easy to pass with minimal effort. Your stool color should be a light shade of brown and have the consistency of peanut butter. Urine output varies drastically depending on the amount of water you’re consuming but typically ranges from 4-8 cups per day.
As you eat, your body begins to break down the food to extract the essential nutrients our bodies need from food. Water in our foods is absorbed as it is pushed along by the muscles of the digestion tract (called peristalsis) and sent to the bloodstream and urinary system.
Next, the half-digested mass is moved along through the small intestine until, finally, waste is packaged into solid forms by the large intestine before being expelled as poop. Water and nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream with the kidneys acting as natural filters that eventually create pee.
A clean gastrointestinal tract is essential for optimal health, nutrient absorption, and our overall wellbeing. When we aren't functioning well internally, it can impact our physical and mental health! On average, between 10 and 30 grams of waste gets stuck in the digestive system daily; that’s around 1 to 4 teaspoons!
Generally speaking, it is normal to poop one to three times a day; anywhere within this range is considered healthy. If you don't have three bowel movements a day, don't worry or reach for laxatives. Healthy poop frequency can vary due to many factors. In terms of urine production, you should aim to produce between 4-8 cups of pee a day if you are adequately hydrated. If you aren’t making enough or too much, it may mean something isn’t quite right.
Fun fact: you never actually empty your bladder completely! If you did your bladder walls would stick to each other which can cause infections. Whenever you pee, you actually only empty half of your bladder's contents. Interestingly, the PACs (proanthocyanidins) in cranberry have been shown to prevent the bacteria that cause urinary tract infections (UTIs) from being able to adhere to the urinary tract and bladder's walls. The clinical level needed is 36 mgs of PACs per dose.
Uh, things look and smell a little weird. When should I be worried?
Symptoms that something might be wrong with your digestive functions include constipation, bloating, abdominal pain and discomfort, heartburn, and changes in stool smell, consistency, and color and/or urine color, smell, or consistency along with urge and/or frequency. Constipation is when your system becomes blocked or slowed down and is defined as pooping fewer than three times a week.
Changes in color like green poop, black stool, or undigested foods (except corn) can indicate everything from red blood cells to too much bile to too much fat to malabsorption issues to gallbladder issues. But before you freak out, consider too that what you recently ate can also cause changes. Foods like beets and tomato juice and even food colorings can make things look different.
When it comes to urine, be alert to whether your pee is cloudy or dark in color; it means your body doesn't have enough water for proper hydration. Changes in smell are also alerts; if your pee smells yeasty, you may have a UTI. Remember too though that foods like asparagus and garlic can make your pee smell different, changes can also be a side effect of medications. Getting dehydrated can also make your pee smell more intensely.
In total, getting enough fluids every day is vital for urinary and digestive health.
Where things can go wrong...
Because of how the digestive tract is designed, waste can build up in pockets along the walls of the large intestine. Diverticulosis will begin if these pockets become inflamed because they are filling with waste that’s not moving along. This is a condition where the pockets swell like a bicycle innertube that bulges with too much air. Unattended, it will become diverticulitis resulting in a full-blown infection. The result can be fever, pain, and nausea. Diverticulosis affects about 10% of people over 40 and 50% over 60. Almost everyone over 80 has diverticulosis. (Read more at The Cleveland Clinic's Website)
Fun fact: because the acids in your stomach are so powerful in order to digest the foods you eat, they can also digest the lining of your intestinal tract! Your body digestive linings regenerate every five to seven days! If the breakdown and rebuilding cycle gets out of phase, ulcers can develop along with signs like acid reflux and heartburn.
How to clean that sh*t up!
If you are eating high-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, drinking enough water throughout the day, and engaging in regular physical activity and your digestive system isn’t moving smoothly—you need to take action. There are easy steps you can take to produce poops on a regular schedule to stay healthy and happy!
A gentle cleanse and system detox when things aren't working or being proactive with a seasonal cleanse are great ways to stay on track, regular, and clear of toxins. You'll also ensure your investment in good eating pays off with optimal nutrient absorption from a healthy digestive tract.
Take care to choose a cleansing product that is gentle. Three-day cleanses are very hard on the body. The optimal program helps you move things out of your system regularly without leaving you sprinting for the bathroom, getting diarrhea, or causing a rollercoaster of constipation and feelings of blockage followed by watery pooping. (If you are dealing with IBS, be sure to consult a doctor before starting any kind of cleanse.) You could notice some changes in your bowel habits but a gentle cleanse will quickly rebalance to healthy poop consistency and normal pooping frequency as your body acclimates itself.
And, of course, for general gut health, be sure to keep well-hydrated. Keep an eye on the colors in your toilet bowl – your urine and poop can tell a lot about the current state of your health and if you have cause for concern. (See below for The Bristol Stool Chart of types of poop, color, and texture.) And ensure that you get enough fiber too. Most of us don’t meet the recommended 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day – UCSF Department of Health estimates that most American adults only get 15 grams of dietary fiber daily.
Diet, water intake, and exercise all play a role in keeping the assembly line from getting stuck, slow, or stopped. Knowing how to help your digestive system work at maximum efficiency will help ensure that your system runs smoothly and that you avoid any unwelcome issues with your elimination.
You may want to consider ditching the toilet paper and switching over to a bidet or washlette - if it's something you're considering, check out this article from the Wirecutter blog at the NY Times website. They tested 13 of the most popular ones.
For a gentle but highly gratifying cleanse and detox, try Sculpt N'Cleanse.
To help you meet your daily recommended intake of fiber, try Ready Fiber - hot tip - it makes anything you add it to taste sweeter without adding any sugar (it's great in coffee or tea!)
For a funny and fascinating deep dive into digestion, check out acclaimed science writer Mary Roach's book, "Gulp"
Lisa Moretti is a Certified Health Coach from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the largest nutrition school in the world. She was at the top of her cohort in 2015. She's been involved in the natural health and supplement world professionally since 1981.