For more toilet talk, catch Thursday night's episode of 'The Feed' about DIY faecal transplants on SBS On-Demand. Shit happens, my friends. The bumper sticker says it all. But nobody likes to think about the specifics, do they? While iconic pop culture poos like Mr Hanky and the smiling turd emoji have broken down a few conversational barriers when it comes to human excrement, toilet talk is still a taboo in most cultures. A tapoo, you might say. Sorry. Sorry for all of this.
For nutritionists and gastroenterologists though, poo can prove fascinating. And as researchers learn more about the potentially miraculous benefits of faecal transplants—which are, incredibly, exactly what they sound like—it might be worth polishing up your knowledge of number twos and their various properties.
Read Your Poo
Literally what is a healthy poo meant to look like? How often are we meant to be taking a dump? Why does one long black require me to excuse myself halfway through a nice brunch with friends, all of whom must by social convention pretend not to know about the ungodly thing that's about to happen in the bathroom?
In an effort to increase my understanding of the human stool, I reached out to accredited dietician Leanne Elliston from Nutrition Australia. She was happy to answer poo questions, especially about the coffee thing.
"The caffeine is a stimulant to the gut. It triggers your nerves and makes you need to go to the toilet. You know how coffee gets you moving and thinking straight, gives you a buzz? It also does that for the gut too," Elliston explains. "It's quite normal, but caffeine affects people differently so it affects some more than others."
If you speak the brown language, the humble turd has much to say. "Basically our poo can tell someone whether they are digesting food properly, whether their bowel and whole gastrointestinal system is functioning normally, if there's food they don't agree with or they're sensitive to certain foods, it can tell us whether their gut bacteria balances, and also whether they're well hydrated."
Rank Your Poo
For a dietician like Elliston, a healthy stool is the goal. If someone's poo looks good, they must be eating properly. How to tell? In faeces as in all things, consistency is key.
"It's all about knowing what a normal poo is," she says. "Which comes down to the poo's texture. It's not how often you're doing a poo—it's how long it takes. If you're on the toilet and you have to sit and read a book, then there's something wrong. On the other hand, if there's urgency and it's really runny, there's something wrong as well. Too hard or too runny are the warning signs."
It's actually possible to rank your turd against a platonic poo ideal. The Bristol Poo Chart is made up of seven rather frank diagrams, creating a poo spectrum that spans from hard to soft. It should be easy enough to figure out where your stool fits in.
"Basically you want to be looking between types three and four," Elliston says. "If you were to put it in words, your poo should be formed, but soft." She notes that occasional bouts of diarrhoea and constipation are normal for everyone, and people should only worry if either condition becomes chronic. To increase the quality of your poo, stay hydrated and adopt a high fibre diet relatively free of highly processed foods.
While frequency isn't particularly important, it's important to go when you have to go. Doesn't matter if you're at work, doesn't matter if you're in the tiny echoey studio apartment of a Tinder date.
"Holding it in risks long term constipation," Elliston says. "Also, if you don't let a poo go, then all the bacteria the body is trying to expel stays in and can cause damage to your gut. If it hangs around for too long time it could affect the walls of the gut and that's a risk factor for bowel disease and bowel cancer. You've pretty much got to do a poo. Hang onto it, it's like keeping garbage in the house. It'll start to have an effect."
Don't be afraid of your body's ability to produce excrement, though. Biology has got this one on lock—people who obsessively clean themselves out via colonics might be doing more harm than good. "There's actually a risk, because you're removing the good bacteria from your gut," Elliston explains.
Respect Your Poo
We're only just beginning to understand how important that bacterial balance is for maintaining human health. As Melbourne gastroenterologist Dr Paul Froomes explains, faeces plays a much more vital role in this than doctors once thought.
"Poo used to be something that everyone viewed as waste. It's dirty, it's toxic. But it turns out that there are some pretty incredible things in poo. The most important thing we're focusing on these days is the bacteria in poo—it's actually the richest source of probiotics."
Dr Froomes runs a microbial faecal transplant clinic, Melbourne FMT, where patients with bacterial gut infections can receive faeces from healthy donors via enema. The bacteria from the healthy person's poo can restore gut health—the results are often as miraculous as they are disgusting.
"I first got interested in it when we had a patient dying of clostridium difficile infection, which you get when you've been taking antibiotics and they wipe out the good bacteria in your gut. This patient wasn't responding to drugs, their heart was failing. We mixed up a poo sample and squirted it down their feeding tube, and within three days they were out of intensive care. Nobody could quite believe how incredibly powerful it was, and how it saved this person's life," Dr Froomes explains.
It is possible to mimic the probiotic effects of a poo transplant by eating foods like yoghurt or kimchi. But it appears that faeces is much more effective in the long term, and researchers are only just scratching the surface of what poo can do. "We're trying it with other infections now. There's a 50 percent remission rate with Crohn's disease, and now we're hoping for more studies around irritable bowel syndrome." Froomes notes that poo contains many other active particles aside from bacteria, all of which scientists may one day be able to isolate and use for therapeutic benefit.
It's fair to say that poo has an image problem. It's time to start giving a shit about your bowel movements—they're incredibly important.
"I think people should care more about their poo. Specifically, building a good poo. A perfect poo," says Dr Froomes. "You should be focused through your lifestyle and your diet on looking after your poo, which means looking after your bacteria. If you have a well-formed healthy poo, then your gut bacteria are healthy. And they're looking after you. We're a symbiotic organism."
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