Tell the truth: You've definitely taken a look in the toilet bowl after you've pooped.
Most of the time, it's probably a pretty standard view: solid, dark brown, kind of snakes around the toilet bowl. But some days, depending on how you're feeling or what you ate, it might look a little...different; a little runnier (or harder) than usual, for example.
Even that's likely not going to sound your alarm bells, but what if you actually see a floating log in the bowl—does that warrant a freak out? To get to the bottom (yes, pun intended) of this toilet bowl mystery, Health spoke to a gastroenterologist to get all the deets on floating poop—including when to when to relax and when to see a doctor, ASAP.
So, what causes floating poop?
Poop can float for a few reasons—the most benign being that it simply has extra gas in it.
That's because sometimes the foods that make us fart (think beans, cauliflower, and sugar-free candies) can cause such a buildup of gas that some of it gets lodged in our poop, Rabia De Latour, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, tells Health. When that happens, your poop floats simply because air is less dense than water. This is pretty normal, and only happens every once in a while.
Another reason for floating poop, however, is a bit more worrisome. “Usually when poop floats, it suggests that there's a very high fat content,” Rabia De Latour, MD, a gastroenterologist and assistant professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health, tells Health. Think of it like a separated salad dressing—the oil (fat) floats to the top.
But the solution isn’t as simple as cutting a few cheeseburgers or other fatty foods out of your diet. Just because floating poop is caused by excess fat in your stool doesn’t mean you’re eating too much fat. “No matter what you eat, unless it's something that's digestible like certain fibers which are good for you, it shouldn't really impact what’s ultimately manifested in your stool,” Dr. De Latour says.
Instead, floating poop and the excess fat that causes it are an indicator of several different health problems—all of which have the same symptom in common: malabsorption. "You’re basically not absorbing nutrients somewhere in your body," says Dr. De Latour. That means something in your digestive system is out of whack, making you unable to digest your food properly.
Okay, well is floating poop—and malabsorption—ever dangerous?
Dr. De Latour says malabsorption (and floating poop) is typically caused by three main conditions: celiac disease, lactose intolerance, or pancreatitis.
All three health conditions mess with your digestion. People who have celiac disease, for example, struggle to digest gluten (a group of proteins that exist in the starch of certain grains, like wheat), while people who are lactose intolerant have trouble digesting lactose (a sugar found in milk).
For pancreatitis, it’s damage of the pancreas that makes digestion difficult. (FYI: The pancreas is a large gland behind the stomach that secretes digestive juices, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.) Pancreatitis happens when the digestive juices in the pancreas start digesting the pancreas itself and therefore harm the gland.
Each of these conditions will likely lead to more fat in a person’s poop, says Dr. De Latour. But, luckily, that's not the only symptom that will accompany these conditions: With celiac disease or lactose intolerance, you may have to rush to the bathroom after eating gluten or lactose, and you may feel bloated, have frequent diarrhea, or feel nauseous frequently, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Pancreatitis is typically accompanied by nausea, vomiting, and unexpected weight loss.
If your daily glance into the toilet shows floating poop a few times a week for more than a month, it's definitely time to make an appointment with a doctor, who will likely test for any underlying causes and other vitamins or nutrients you may be deficient in (remember, floating poop is a sign of malabsorption), says Dr. De Latour.
But for those who only see a floater every now and then, there’s a simpler answer: Cut down on the foods that make you gassier than usual.