As you probably already know by now, I am a holistic wellness health coach and an Asian bodywork therapist (traditional Chinese-style, which includes tui na to cupping, moxa, gua sha, and ear seeds). I’m also a practicing Chinese medicine intern on the home stretch towards graduation. Then I’ll be a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist [Update: I am indeed now a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist]. So yes, I talk poop all the time. One of the eternal questions that I ask in clinic, in fact, is “How is your digestion?” That’s a polite way to get the ball rolling in the direction of the big one, better known as: “Tell me about your bowel movements.”
Before I get to the Chinese medical attitude towards poop, though, let me ask you to think about your poop. How is it? How many times a day do you go? What does it look like? Do you feel happy and comfortable afterward, or do you feel like there’s more in there and you need to take a detour back to your bathroom and try again shortly after the first one? Do you suffer from gas or bloating? Does your stomach hurt during the day? Is there anything you eat that makes things worse? Anything that makes things feel better? If you try, can you teach yourself to view poop as though it were the tea leaves and you were telling your fortune each time you looked into the porcelain bowl?
That’s what you could and should be doing, really. Poop is funny until it’s not, and many times in clinic I deal with the “it’s not” narrative; equally so is the case, I find, when working with health coaching clients. If your bowels aren’t functioning like champions then you probably aren’t feeling your very best. Knowing how to describe and discuss your poop with your practitioner is a great tool in your self-care toolkit. So is having a plan for when things aren’t going as well as you would like. In this essay, I will be giving you some great suggestions for healthy and functional pooping. But first (and if you’ve been following my blog or my Facebook page, you knew this was coming), please do allow me to take a little cultural detour that invites my previous career as a Spanish professor into the conversation.
Have you ever heard of el caganer? That is a Catalan Christmas icon known as, in English, “the shitter.” Catalunya (or Catalonia, if you are speaking English) is an autonomous region in the northeast of Spain whose magnificent capital city is Barcelona. The natives speak their own language, Catalan, and hold many of their own customs that do not appear in the rest of Spain. One such is the shitter, a figurine of a squatting person who-get ready for this-squats happily over a pile in a corner of Christmas Nativity scenes. Yes. For a Catalan Christmas scene, there will be Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the Wise Men, the cows, the barn, the star….and el caganer, crouched in the eternal position as he shamelessly lets go with a good one. If you go to the central cathedral Christmas bazaar during the season, you can see tables full of different variations on this little guy and business is brisk. Tourists and locals alike love this figurine and it is a tradition to buy and treasure him.
Currently, in fact, a family business outside of Barcelona makes shitter figurines in the image of public figures, such as Queen Elizabeth, varying European soccer stars, and political figures from across the globe. And that’s not all. Catalan children also play a Christmas game that entails singing to a wooden log of poop and then hitting it to make it crap out their gifts. It’s kind of like a poop piñata. Why, you ask, do Catalan people do this? Well, nobody really knows. This custom has been around since at least the 18th century and it seems to fit in beautifully with the earthy sense of humor that is so very Catalan. (Of course, anyone who has ever sung along to the South Park Christmas anthem “Mr. Hankey The Christmas Poo” will recognize that American Christmas has its quirks too, right?).
Poop, clearly, has its cultural role within the context of everyday life but what of the actual deposit you make in your throne? Well, in terms of its content, most of it is water (about 75%) and the rest is bacteria and undigested other material. As such, poop is an excellent diagnostic marker that speaks volumes about your health status. If you are not quite sure what a healthy deposit looks like, there is something called the Bristol stool chart that categorizes matters and can give you a good idea of where you are, relatively speaking. Besides shape and consistency, other factors to consider relate to odor and color and other such things. For instance, though poop does have a smell to it, in reality super smelly is not optimal and is something we would take into account when planning your treatment. As for color, it is useful to know that black and red are never good unless, with respect to the latter, you have been eating beets lately; brown is good; green can be caused by eating lots of leafy vegetables; and chalky white is cause for discussion because it generally means that there is something off-kilter with your bile production.
A traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioner will use all of this information to help construct a syndrome analysis of your condition and then formulate a a plan for you and your health. Indeed, Chinese medicine has a lot of great ways to treat untoward poop, either via herbal formulas that really work, dietary counsel that can really change the course of your digestion in wonderful ways, and/or with acupuncture. Other tried and true methods pertain to bodywork therapies that may include tui na, abdominal cupping, or perhaps a treatment with heated herbs known as moxibustion.
Education is also of great benefit for everyone and, when I work with weight-concious or digestively compromised health coaching clients, I am always enthusiastic about helping them to learn and gain power from knowledge. A very favorite book that I always recommend is The Good Gut: Taking Control of Your Weight, Your Mood, and Your Long-Term Health, which I reviewed here. If you know how your digestion works you can then readily understand how it is that your bowel movements function within the trajectory of “in one side and out the other.” This awareness, most of all, is what will make a difference in how you look and feel because, as the saying goes, when you know better you do better.
Naturally, there are several pragmatic things that a person with bowel issues can do to improve the experience overall. Keeping tabs on how much water you drink, for instance, and whether or not certain food groups cause undue reactions, can often be useful. Yoga can help soothe angry intestines and so can Asian bodywork. Lifestyle change and mindful meditation practices to help you feel calmer are also options if you are looking to improve your digestive process. And if you want to sit like an authentic Catalan Christmas icon in the privacy of your very own bathroom, you can try out a squatty potty which–for many who use and love it–is a real game-changer. Acupuncture and an herbal prescription can definitely make a difference in your bowel health and habits. If you aren’t going as regularly as. you should (or you’re going too often), make an appointment with your licensed acupuncturist. Your bowels will thank you!
This is not going to be the last article I write about poop. Never fear–there will be more to come. For the moment, though, and in conclusion, here’s the poop: what it looks like is important and it’s smart to get used to looking. If things are not optimal, then there are ways to fix it. And poop is funny…until it’s not. So if you come to see me either at clinic or in my office, do not be surprised if I smile happily at you and say, with sincere interest, “Tell me about your poop” and then start asking you all the questions I wrote at the beginning of this essay.
Happy pooping to you, dear reader, and may excellent digestion be at your disposal!
Paula Bruno, Ph.D., L.Ac., is a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist, an AOBTA-CP traditional Chinese bodywork therapist, and a wellness educator. She maintains an active and growing practice at her Austin, TX offices. Dr. Bruno is also available for distance appointments for wellness consultation or coaching.
In her first career, she was a Spanish professor.
Dr. Bruno’s specialties as a traditional Chinese medicine practitioner include: • Musculoskeletal health (acute or chronic pain relief; Ehlers Danlos syndrome & hypermobility support) • Digestive support, gut health, and weight loss • Aesthetic treatment, including scar revision • Men’s health • General preventative care and immune support for all persons.
When you are ready to discover what traditional medicine plus a vibrant and engaged approach to holistic health can do for you, either contact Dr. Bruno or book an appointment online.
Note: Material on this web site site is not intended to diagnose, prevent, treat, or cure any disease, illness, or ailment. A TCM practitioner in Texas identifies syndrome patterns but does not diagnose illness. Material on this web site does not purport to identify syndrome patterns.