What It Means to Have a Normal Bowel Movement

There's a range of normal, so be aware of your own patterns

People often talk about having a "normal bowel movement," but what does that actually mean? Subjectively, it infers that you are "regular" and pass stools at more or less the same time every day. It also suggests that your stools are "healthy" and have an expected consistency, texture, and color.

Even so, there is no singular definition of what a normal bowel movement is. It can vary from one person to the next based on diet, general health, age, fitness, and other factors.

This article describes the range of characteristics that are considered "normal" and "abnormal" when it comes to bowel movement frequency and the consistency or color of stools. It also looks at some of the possible causes of bowel problems, both serious and not-so-serious.

abnormal bowel movement signs
Illustration by Jessica Olah, Verywell

Normal and Abnormal Frequency of Bowel Movements

Defecation is the process of passing feces (stool) from the body. In an ideal situation, what you take in as food should leave your body in the form of stool on a fairly consistent basis.

To many people, that means going to the bathroom every day at the same time. But, that's not the case for everyone. Your "normal" could be anything from going a few times a day to a few times a week.

A "normal" bowel movement is one that occurs between two times a day and three times a week.

Anything outside of this range might be considered abnormal and involve:

  • Constipation: Defined as having fewer than three bowel movements a week
  • Diarrhea: Defined as having loose, watery stools three or more times a day.

Most healthy adults will experience diarrhea or constipation at some point. However, if you have a consistent change in bowel habits, though, it could be a sign of a serious digestive problem.


Constipation is a common condition that accounts for around 2.5 million healthcare provider visits each year. It is characterized by hard, dry, lumpy stools that are difficult or painful to pass. it may be accompanied by bloating, abdominal discomfort, and straining on the toilet.

Dehydration, lack of exercise, and low dietary fiber are among the most common causes of constipation. Others include:

Chronic or severe constipation can have serious consequences. Straining can cause hemorrhoids, anal fissures (a tear in the anal canal), or rectal prolapse (when part of the rectum protrudes from the anus). Another potential concern is fecal impaction in which a hard stool gets stuck in the intestine and may require medical intervention.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

See your healthcare provider if constipation lasts more than a week or if constipation is accompanied by:

  • Bleeding from your rectum
  • Blood in your stool
  • Continuous abdominal pain
  • Any other concerning medical issue


Diarrhea is a common condition that affects roughly 179 million people in the United States each year.

The condition is largely defined by its duration; the duration, in turn, helps direct the appropriate treatment. Bouts of diarrhea may be described as:

  • Acute diarrhea: Lasting one or two days without the need for treatment
  • Persistent diarrhea: Lasting more than two weeks and less than four weeks
  • Chronic diarrhea: Lasting for at least four weeks. 

The causes of diarrhea are numerous and include gastrointestinal infections, medication side effects, food intolerance, food allergies, excessive heat exposure, poisoning, celiac disease, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).

Complications include severe dehydration, acute kidney failure, and organ damage. Some cases can be fatal.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the following signs or symptoms:

  • Diarrhea lasting more than two days without improvement
  • Excessive thirst with dry mouth or skin
  • Little or no urination
  • Severe weakness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Severe abdominal or rectal pain
  • Bloody or black stools
  • A high fever

Normal and Abnormal Stool Color and Consistency

A normal stool is one that is soft, well-formed, and easy to pass. Generally speaking, a stool should be brown to golden brown in color and cohesively formed with the texture of peanut butter.

Depending on the size of the person and how frequently they have bowel movements, a stool can be as small as a breakfast sausage or as large as a banana.

Stools that occasionally vary in size or color are usually no cause for alarm. Certain medications and changes in diet, temperature, or activity can alter the size and appearance of a stool.

But, there are some changes that should raise red flags and warrant further investigation. These include:

  • Blood in the stool: Causes include hemorrhoids, diverticular bleeding, IBD, or colon cancer. Red stools may also be the result of eating red-colored food like beets or strawberry gelatin.
  • Narrow, pencil-like stool: This is generally caused by the narrowing of the intestinal passage due to IBD, IBS, colon cancer, and other causes. A low-fiber diet and temporary infections may also be to blame.
  • Black or tarry stool: This may be caused by internal bleeding high in the digestive tract, such as caused by colon cancer or a peptic ulcer. It may be also due to taking iron supplements, using Pepto-Bismol (bismuth), or eating licorice candy.
  • Green stool: This can be caused by severe diarrhea (and excess bile that hasn't broken down) or from a bacterial, viral, or parasitic infection of the gut. Iron supplements can sometimes cause green stools as can green-colored foods like lime gelatin or spinach.
  • Pale or clay-colored stool: This is a common sign of liver or gallbladder disease, including hepatitis. But, it may also be due to less serious causes like a recent barium enema.


A "normal" bowel movement is what's normal for you. Generally, you should expect to pass stools between two times a day and three times a week. Anything greater than two times a day may be due to diarrhea, while anything less than three times a week may be due to constipation.

Stools should be brown, have a peanut-butter texture, and look like a sausage. If your stool has an abnormal color or consistency, it may be due to something you ate or an underlying medical condition in need of investigation by a healthcare provider.

A Word From Verywell

Many people aren't comfortable talking about bowel problems, but keeping the concerns to yourself can be harmful. While most causes are relatively harmless and treatable, certain bowel symptoms may be strongly suggestive of a serious health concern, such as colon cancer.

Chronic constipation or diarrhea should never be considered "normal" or something you need to live with as you get older. Regular changes in bowel habits should also never be ignored as they point to many different digestive diseases, some of which may be serious.

The more you can tell your healthcare provider about your bowel movements—including the shape, size, color, and smell of your stools and how often you go to the bathroom—the more able they will be to pinpoint the cause.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does it mean if poop is pebbly?

    Pebble-shaped stools are a sign of constipation. They are usually the result of not getting enough fiber or water that day. Because the stool is dry, it will break apart and form into individual balls as it moves through the intestine, eventually forming into the pebble mass once it reaches the rectum.

  • What does it mean if poop is skinny?

    A narrow, pencil-shaped stool may be caused by a bowel obstruction or the narrowing of the intestine caused by irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or colon cancer. It can also be the result of a low-fiber diet or an intestinal infection.

  • What does it mean if poop is wide?

    A large, barrel-shaped stool is usually due to chronic constipation. Because stools move so slowly through the bowel, they start to impact into larger masses and continue to do so as they settle in the rectum. Keeping hydrated, eating a high-fiber diet, and exercising regularly can help prevent this.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Diarrhea.

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Additional Reading

By Amber J. Tresca
Amber J. Tresca is a freelance writer and speaker who covers digestive conditions, including IBD. She was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis at age 16.