Poop, feces, stool – it’s a bit of a taboo subject in polite conversation. However, just by briefly stealing a glance at one’s stool can indicate general health (or potential health problems). In particular, the color of poop can indicate digestive tract health. Black stool, also known as melena, can have benign or serious consequences, so understanding the potential dangers of black poop and what causes it are essential pieces of knowledge. Despite the unmentionable nature of the subject, it is crucial to remain aware of one’s body this way.
What causes black poop?
Black or darker-than-average stool can be caused by a number of different circumstances, some benign and some harmful. Black poop can be caused by diet, supplements (vitamins or minerals), or medication, as well as blood in the digestive tract. Dietary, supplemental, or pharmaceutical causes for black poop indicate a much different problem than blood in the digestive tract, as changes in dietary or medicinal practices can alleviate the problem.
Dietary causes for black poop include foods that are dark blue or black in color and consumed in larger quantities. Blueberries and blackberries, for example, or black licorice can all make stool appear black. In addition, quantities of iron, lead, or bismuth (Pepto-bismol) can change the appearance of stool into a darker color. While dietary causes and iron supplements are benign causes of black poop, a doctor should be consulted immediately if one of those explanations is not readily available.
If diet or supplements do not seem to be the cause of black stool, a few explanations remain; one of these is blood in the stool. The black color indicates that the blood is older and came from somewhere further up the digestive tract (as opposed to blood in the stool which indicates an issue in or closer to the colon or rectum). Potential causes could include: a bleeding ulcer, tears in the esophagus or stomach, or gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining). These cases would be diagnosed by a physician using a colonoscopy or rectal exam, or asking the individual to collect a small stool sample for examination in the lab. These are the primary methods available to test whether blood is in fact present in the stool and if that is the genesis of the discoloration.
The most important thing is for all individuals to monitor changes and discolorations in their stool and discuss differences with their physician. Poop is a taboo but telling byproduct of the body’s systems, and it can tell a lot about overall health.
Sources: Tresca, Amber J. “Causes of Black Stool.” About.com, 8 April 2010. Accessed 3 May 2010.