Part 4 The Colon and How to Keep it Healthy
As adults, talking about your bowel movements is often ‘poo-pooed’ (pun intended), but as taboo as the subject may seem, when it comes to digestive health, this is an important conversation to have.
Hosting the final leg of the journey through the digestive system, your colon (or large intestine) is responsible for proper elimination of wastes, absorption of certain vitamins, and is an ecosystem of friendly bacteria. Colon health is a key component not only to the digestive system, but also to the health of your entire body.
Troubles such as constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel and diverticulitis are all symptoms of imbalance related to the colon. Your bowel movements are a good way to gauge how efficiently the previous stages of digestion have worked. The frequency, form, color and consistency of your bowel movements are all indicators of how well your food is being utilized by the body and how effectively your body is removing waste and toxins.
When suffering from constipation, toxins are staying in the body longer than intended and can be reabsorbed back into the bloodstream. Alternatively, when experiencing loose stools or diarrhea, food is moving through your system too quickly without the nutrients being adequately absorbed.
Is Fibre the Golden Key?
While advertisements in the food industry would have you believe fibre is the golden key to unlocking colon health, it’s just one of many factors to consider. Nutrition, stress, emotions and physical activity all play a part in the health of your colon and bowel function. Certain medications such as pain-killers, laxatives or chemotherapy drugs can also affect the natural rhythm and function of your colon, as can holding back when you have the urge to go.
Having two to three bowel movements each day is ideal. This will be different for each individual but the key here is complete emptying of the bowel. Strained, slow or incomplete movements are all signs of constipation.
Colon health can often be reflective of, not only your nutritional and digestive health, but also, your emotional and psychological well-being. Constipation commonly occurs in individuals going through stress. Just as your body tenses up under stress, so does your colon. Emotionally, it may be reflective of having “difficulty letting go”, feeling the need to control everything and holding on to the past. To the same degree, chronic diarrhea can be reflective of a state of feeling completely out of control.
So what can you do to to keep your colon in tip-top shape? A happy colon requires the following:
Hydration is a commonly overlooked component to bowel health. As the focus always tends to be on fibre, fibre, fibre, it’s important to note that some fibre draws and requires water to move through your digestive tract efficiently. If you don’t have enough water each day, that can contribute to or worsen constipation. You need adequate water to hydrate your body and your bowels.
A definite component to regulating bowel movements, there’s more to fiber than just eating bran or adding psyllium husk to the diet. There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. You need a proper balance of both for optimal colon and digestive health.
Soluble fiber attracts and dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance. This can be particularly helpful when suffering from diarrhea, but can also assist in regularity. Some examples of soluble fiber include oatmeal, beans, peas, lentils, blueberries and barley.
Insoluble fibre provides bulk to the stool and supports efficient transit time. Insoluble fibre can be helpful in relieving constipation. Some whole-food sources of insoluble fibre include: whole grains, dark leafy greens, broccoli, nuts and seeds, raw vegetables and fruits.
We can often get enough fibre simply by focusing on a diet based on whole foods; that is, foods that are unprocessed and as close to their natural state as possible. In addition, focusing on increasing your plant-based choices will provide nutrient-dense and natural sources of both soluble and insoluble fibre.
Healthy fats support colon health by providing lubrication. Focusing on fats such as olive or coconut oils, wild salmon, avocados and raw nuts and seeds such as chia, hemp, almonds, or walnuts can provide an excellent source of anti-inflammatory and lubricating fats for the colon.
There are over 700 different strains of bacteria living in the body, most of which reside in the colon. The term ‘Probiotic’ has become a buzzword lately but what do probiotics actually do? Enzymes produced by these friendy intestinal bacteria are important in the metabolism of several vitamins including vitamin K and some B vitamins such as B12, folic acid and biotin. Probiotics also support your immune system and digestion, including healthy bowel function.
While many people supplement with probiotics and advertisers are having a field day with probiotic enhanced yogurts, there are natural ways to support your healthy intestinal flora. Fermented foods such as miso or tempeh, kimchi, true sauerkraut and the popular drink, kombucha, all provide wonderful plant-based sources of probiotic culture. For those who tolerate dairy, kefir and plain old yogurt (even without all the fancy labeling) will also provide cultures to support digestion.
We all need to keep moving to keep things moving! The muscles of the colon that help move waste out of your body respond well to physical activity. Movement is also a way to reduce stress and therefore relax the muscles of the colon wall.
By keeping stress in check, listening to your body when you need “to go” and applying these five components – water, fibre, fats, probiotics and exercise – you will be well on your way to having a happy colon and supporting the health of your entire body.
Watch for the final part of the series, where we will wrap up all you’ve learned and summarize your digestion.by Hillary Krupa, RNCP, Nutritionist InspireHealth Vancouver Island – Victoria