Is your stool soft or hard? Brown or black? Odorless or stinky? You may feel uncomfortable talking or even thinking about it, but Daily Health News contributing editor Andrew L. Rubman, ND, points out that your stool can tell you and your doctors a lot about your health. It’s helpful to know that a normal stool is soft, medium brown, not horrendously odiferous and sinks slowly into toilet water. And if your stool gets sent to a lab for testing, its bacterial content can reveal lots of other information and identify subtle underlying issues, allowing you to know what you need to do to take your well-being to a new level.

You most often hear about stool cultures (such as the fecal occult blood test and the stool DNA test) being used to detect digestive diseases such as colorectal cancer. But in my conversation with Dr. Rubman, we focused on how stool cultures can provide comprehensive insights that go far beyond your digestive health.

All You Want to Know—and More!

In a stool culture, a sample of your feces is placed in a special medium where bacteria and other microorganisms are then grown. This identifies what type of flora — good and bad — inhabit your digestive tract.

Conventional MDs generally order these tests when you have prolonged diarrhea and they suspect an underlying bacterial infection (e.g., from eating undercooked meat, poultry, eggs or other contaminated food). This is useful insofar as it goes, says Dr. Rubman, but he said that when you work with an experienced practitioner trained in the nuances of nutrition and digestive health, a stool culture also can reveal such information as:

Does your diet support a healthy balance of microflora in your gut? This is a must for optimal immune function, detoxification and metabolism as well as for proper digestion and elimination.

What bad bacteria lurk in your system? What good microbes are missing in action? An impairment or imbalance contributes to intestinal problems… and also to allergies, asthma, sinus congestion, fatigue, moodiness, joint aches, skin problems, hormonal imbalances, yeast infections, cold sores, urinary tract infections and more.

…Then What?

If you experience symptoms such as chronic diarrhea, allergies or fatigue, ask your physician to perform a stool culture. Health insurance usually covers the cost, but always check first.

If the results indicate an imbalance of bacteria, Dr. Rubman said you’ll need to shift your focus from what comes out of your body to what you are putting in it. To flip your intestinal balance of flora from negative to positive, keep these tips in mind…

Garbage in, garbage out. Cut back on sugary desserts and refined white bread, white rice, etc., that encourage the growth of disease-causing microorganisms in the gut and result in difficult and often foul-smelling bowel movements. Instead eat plenty of fiber-rich ripe fruits, deeply pigmented vegetables, beans and breads that list whole grain as their first ingredient. Fiber promotes healthy flora and normal bowel movements.

Pump up on probiotics. These beneficial bacteria in your digestive tract are naturally present in foods such as yogurt with live bacteria… miso (a fermented bean paste)… kefir or kombucha (these are fermented beverages)… raw sauerkraut or Korean kimchi… and pickled beets, tomatoes, carrots and other produce.

When in doubt, check it out. If you experience any sudden change in bowel habits, see your doctor. Also report symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, allergies and frequent infections.

When a stool culture shows an imbalance, Dr. Rubman prescribes dietary changes along with dietary supplements — e.g., digestive enzymes, fiber and/or probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum to turn the situation around, creating a balanced ecosystem in the gut and resulting in better health overall.