Let’s face it, poop is not a typical topic of discussion, particularly at dinner parties or social events. However, it is an important subject with which you should become familiar.
What’s weird, what’s normal, what’s healthy, and what’s not—your bowel movements can say a lot about your overall digestion and health. So it is natural to have questions about what your poop is telling you.
Especially when things don’t seem normal. Diarrhea and loose stools come to mind in this instance.
What is Normal?
Researchers at the Bristol Royal Infirmary—a hospital in Bristol, England—actually developed a visual guide for stools. The Bristol Stool Scale helps skittish patients and doctors distinguish normal stools from abnormal without getting embarrassed over personal details.
On the scale, types 4 (“Like a sausage or snake, smooth and soft”) and 5 (“Soft blobs with clear-cut edges”) are normal stools. Types 6 (“Fluffy pieces with ragged edges, a mushy stool”) and 7 (“Watery, no solid pieces”) are what the experts consider to be loose stools.
But to the layman, type 6 would be “loose” while type 7 would be referred to as diarrhea. But is there really that much of a difference?
Confusion is Common
It’s easy to confuse diarrhea with loose stools. In fact, for many, the terms are interchangeable. But it is very important to understand the difference, as one can be more dangerous than the other.
Loose stools are bowel movements that contain more water and, therefore, are softer or “looser” than normal stool. Their odor may or may not be foul (or, at least, more foul than usual), and their shapes and consistency can differ.
Loose stools occur when stool passes through the large intestine too quickly. It is normal for everyone to have loose stools sometimes, and they are usually nothing to worry about … unless they occur frequently.
And that is where one goes from one to the other.
A Change in Frequency and Duration
Diarrhea is loose stools that occur three or more times in one day. Most people have experienced diarrhea—whether from a virus, an allergic reaction, or as a result of stress or anxiety.
Acute diarrhea lasts a short time. This is common and usually lasts about one or two days, though it may last longer. It usually goes away on its own.
Diarrhea lasting more than a few days may be a sign of a more serious problem. Chronic diarrhea lasts at least four weeks and may be a symptom of a chronic disease. Chronic diarrhea symptoms may be continual, or they may come and go.
Sander Binderow, MD, FACS, FASCRS, is a colon & rectal surgery specialist in Atlanta, GA, offers his take on the difference between loose stools and diarrhea. “[D]iarrhea is a medical term and diagnosis, and ‘loose’ stools are a patient observation.” He also adds that diarrhea can be mixed with mucus.
Causes of Loose Stools
Loose stools can happen for a number of reasons. Some of the most common causes include:
- Certain Foods: Loose stools can occur after you eat foods that don’t agree with you, or to which you have an allergy or intolerance (lactose for instance). Spicy foods, overly fatty foods, alcohol, and caffeine can also cause loose stools in some people.
- Stress: Stress has a profound effect on the digestive function, causing a spike in blood pressure and dehydration. These, in turn, release potassium and water into the intestinal tract, leading to loose stools.
- Medications or Supplements: Antibiotics are known to cause loose stools, as are magnesium supplements.
- Gastrointestinal Conditions: Chronic loose stools could be caused by Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Irritable Bowel Disease, Crohn’s Disease, Celiac Disease, or Ulcerative Colitis.
The Dangers of Chronic Diarrhea
Although it is usually not harmful, having diarrhea over a prolonged period of time can become dangerous or signal a more serious problem. There are two main health issues that can arise if you have chronic diarrhea:
- Dehydration: Water content and electrolytes are often lost in extremely loose stool. This can be life-threatening if they are not replaced. Drinking enough water is critical when you’re losing so much in your stool. Try to drink 16 ounces of fluids every hour. Herbal teas, such as ginger, peppermint, licorice/fennel, or pomegranate, can also help with hydration while soothing your stomach.
- Malnutrition: This can occur when nutrients are not absorbed due to rapid movement of food content through the digestive system. You can also get nutrients and fluids at the same time by drinking homemade bone broth, which will provide amino acids and electrolytes.
Seek Natural Remedies
Most people who have diarrhea look to over the counter medications that can shut down symptoms quickly. However, that is not necessarily a good thing. Because diarrhea is one of the body’s natural mechanisms for shedding toxins, not allowing this to happen means harmful bacteria stay inside your body longer.
There are several natural remedies that can improve your overall digestive health, soothe your stomach, and combat diarrhea:
- Probiotics help fight infection and can help re-colonize the gut with healthy bacteria.
- Glutamine is an amino acid that helps repair the digestive tract, which is especially important for people with chronic diarrhea.
- Aloe Vera Juice is healing to the lining of the digestive system.
- Flax and Chia Seeds contain soluble fiber that can help thicken stools and reduce the frequency of diarrhea.
The terms diarrhea and loose stools are usually interchangeable, but diarrhea occurs more frequently—three times per day or more—than loose stools. Pay attention to warning signs, avoid foods and stress that could cause digestive issues, and support your body with adequate hydration and nourishing foods.