Most of us are pretty good at being our own doctors for common conditions. If we feel a scratchy throat or a runny nose, we get ready for a common cold and plan extra time to rest. Or, if you’ve recently taken up a new exercise routine and experience soreness, you know that the most likely cause of your discomfort is just your muscles growing stronger. But what about symptoms that don’t have such common, simple explanations? What happens when we experience illness or discomfort that we’ve never experienced before? It can be something relatively minor, like dull skin and hair or premature wrinkling, or it can be something much more serious, like painful skin problems or lethargy that just won’t go away.

These problems don’t have common cures, but that doesn’t mean solutions don’t exist—it just means we may not be looking for answers in the right places.

What would you say if I told you that the key to understanding health problems like these was inside you? And no, I don’t mean in your energy or your inner self. I mean literally inside you. I’m talking about your poop.

Looking for Answers in New Places (Like the Toilet)

So many health conditions can be traced back to the digestive system, and our understanding of what happens in the gut and how that affects what happens elsewhere in our bodies is still evolving. To find out what we do know, I talked to several doctors and experts in gut health.

Dr. Edward Catalano told me, “The main way your body eliminates waste and toxins is through your gut.” When it’s working properly, the human body is great at expelling toxins via the excretory system. Every time we poop, we’re clearing our body of unneeded or harmful matter left in our digestive system. So, according to Will Bulsiewicz. MD, MSCI and a board-certified gastroenterologist, “when you have a good, formed bowel movement, it’s because you have healthy amounts of gut bacteria” and your body is expelling toxins the way it needs to.

Unfortunately, our digestive and excretory systems don’t always work the way they should, which means we frequently don’t poop as often as we need to. When we’re not having good, regular bowel movements, we’re not ridding our bodies of those toxins, and instead, those toxins stay in the gut longer than they should, causing all sorts of problems, including “poor metabolism and a predisposition toward or amplification of many chronic intestinal or systemic illnesses,” according to Dr. Catalano.

Additionally, the body can’t just keep all of those toxins inside. They have to go somewhere, but if the excretory system isn’t doing its job, another system has to take over. Dr. Katrina Willhelm, a Switzerland-based primary care physician board certified in naturopathic medicine with a special focus on anti-aging nutritional medicine, explains it this way:

A lot of people are aware that the skin is the largest organ of the body, but few people are aware of the role that the skin plays as an organ of elimination. The primary elimination pathways are the kidneys and bowels, but when those become congested and the efficiency or ability to eliminate via those pathways is compromised, secondary elimination pathways, such as the skin, try their best to pick up the slack and help facilitate waste product removal. But because we’re now dealing with waste products the skin isn’t really made to process and eliminate, problems happen: the skin becomes red and inflamed, texture changes, and breakouts happen. And it becomes the toxic internal environment being reflected through the skin.

It’s abundantly clear from all the experts I talked to that the health of your gut has a huge influence on the rest of your body. If your gut isn’t working right, it can cause problems for your metabolism and your energy, as well as your skin and hair, which brings us back to the original point: your poop.

How to Become an Excretory Expert

When was the last time you paid any attention to your stool before flushing? If you’ve never given your poop a second glance, you’ll be shocked to know that your poop is a clear window into your digestive health. If you can get past the gross-out factor, you can learn a lot from examining your stool and making changes accordingly to improve your gut health.

Dr. Catalano recommends starting by tracking your “transit time”—the amount of time it takes for what you put into your body to be expelled as a bowel movement. To measure this time, he recommends taking a “concentrated dose of activated charcoal—the same sort as is used for treating gas and bloating—and then tracking when the charcoal shows up in your poop.” You’ll be able to tell when the charcoal has made it all the way through your system when your stool comes out black. A healthy transit time, he says, is anything “between 12-18 hours, but for all too many Americans, the transit time proves to be 36-96 hours or even longer

Here are a few tips from our experts to improve your gut health so that you can minimize toxin buildup in your digestive system while maximizing nutrient absorption.

Gastroenterologist Will Bulsiewicz’s Top Tip:

● Consume a plant-based, high fiber diet. It is the fiber in plants that feeds your gut bacteria and allows them to multiply. When you have a large, dare I say satisfying, bowel movement after consuming plant fiber, it is because you’ve allowed the bacteria in your gut to feast on the fiber and multiply.

Dr. Catalano’s Top Tip:

● Incorporate probiotic and fermented foods such as active yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut into your diet. These foods contain “good bacteria” that feed your gut and create a healthy intestinal environment.

Dr. Katrina Wilhelm’s Top Tip:

● Eat 2-3 tablespoons of whole flax seeds, freshly ground, each day. By freshly grinding, you get the healthy omega-3 oils plus the fiber. Not only does the extra fiber clean out the whole gastrointestinal tract and improve bowel movement quality, the combination of healthy fats and fiber also aids the elimination of environmental pollutants, which directly reduces the risk of developing chronic disease.

Studying gut health and its effects on the entire rest of the body was a powerful reminder that we are designed perfectly as whole beings, not just as a collection of separate, independent parts. To enhance the whole human health condition, we need to understand it, and to understand it, we must explore it. By opening your mind to new ideas about your health—even if that means taking a peek at your poop now and then—you can find real health solutions that go beyond the reach of conventional wisdom.

Photographer: April Anderson at Art As Air 

Sandra is an author, speaker and expert in life reinvention, authentic living, communication, beauty, holistic health, and intimacy. To learn more about Sandra and receive your FREE eBook “5 Steps for Better Communication, Sex, and Happiness (Did I mention better sex?) visit http://sandralamorgese.com/