March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, and at this time of year, many of us are reminded to schedule colonoscopies for the early detection of colorectal cancer. But colonoscopies aren't the only tool we have for maintaining the health of the colon. By understanding how the colon works and making a handful of small lifestyle changes, we can help to prevent colorectal dysfunction and disease they start.
I always find it interesting when I bring up the subject of a client's bowel habits. Unless the focus is on a specific bowel-related symptom such as constipation, diarrhea, cramping, urgency, flatulence, or a disease or syndrome of the bowel such as colorectal cancer, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, or irritable bowel syndrome, many clients are unaware of their elimination patterns and the quality of their stool, which I prefer to refer to as "poo." When advising these clients, I am often reminded of one of my all-time favorite quotes: "No one thinks straight when his mind is focused on the toilet," from the book The Second Brain by Michael D. Gershon, MD. It's essential to pay attention to our daily elimination and the quality of poo, even if we'd prefer not to think about it. After all, our poo reflects not only the health of the colon, but also the health of the whole body, mind, and emotions.
Understanding the Colon
To recognize the central importance of the colon to the body and mind, let's briefly review its structure and function.
The colon is made of several parts: the ascending, transverse, descending, and sigmoid colons, as well as the rectum and the anus. Like the rest of the bowel (except for the stomach), the colon resembles a garden hose, and food, liquids, and waste are moved through it. The colon and the small intestine are occupied by an estimated 100 trillion organisms, which weigh in at about 3.5 lbs. Particularly significant is the Bifido bacterium species, as it supports the integrity and health of the colon through several mechanisms.
The colon is primarily responsible for maintaining the body's fluid balance. It is also the site of the body where fiber, small amounts of water, and vitamins blend together with mucus and the local bacteria, thus initiating the formation of fecal matter. As the feces move through the colon, the majority of water and some of the vitamins and electrolytes are reabsorbed. The movement of the fecal matter through the colon exposes the Bifido bacteria to the undigested fiber, which they ferment to produce a short-chain fatty acid that nourishes the cells that line the colon. The fecal matter is finally moved into the rectum and eliminated by the anus.
When the health and function of the colon is compromised, toxins from our waste are reabsorbed into the bloodstream. This has both a local and a systemic impact. Symptoms local to the colon range from gas and constipation to candida overgrowth, diverticulitis, and more.
Now that we understand what the colon does and how it works, let's move on to determining the health of our colon. One indication of a healthy colon is healthy "poo," which takes on the following attributes:
Color: Should be medium to light brown
Shape: Should be log-like and shaped like an "S"
Size: Should be about 2 inches wide and up to 18 inches long
Void: Should be gently eliminated and sink to the bottom of the bowl
Texture: Should be uniform throughout with no evidence of undigested food
Flush: Should disappear upon flushing
Smell: Should have a "poo," not "repulsive," odor
Frequency of Elimination: Daily
If your stool, process, or pattern of elimination does not measure up to the above suggestions, then you may need to adjust your diet and other lifestyle habits to ensure the health of your colon and to reduce your risk of colorectal dysfunction and disease.
Simple Solutions for a Healthy Colon
As you embark on the process of increasing both the health and performance of your colon, follow the simple steps highlighted below to achieve the long-lasting health of your bowel and to prevent bowel-related disease.
Ensure adequate hydration—Drink at least 8 glasses of pure unflavored water a day. In addition, for each caffeinated or alcohol beverage you consume, drink an additional 16 ounces of water.
Eat enough fiber—Consume a balance of both soluble and insoluble fiber from fresh vegetables, small portions of fruit, whole grains, legumes, and nuts and seeds. Start or end your day with our fiber-rich gruel recipe at the bottom of this page. Just don't let the word "gruel" scare you—it actually tastes good, we promise!
Consume natural laxative foods—Garnish your meals with natural laxatives such as organic apples, pears, grapefruit, blueberries, figs, and dates, as well as flax, chia, and hemp seeds.
Add a probiotic to your regimen or eat cultured foods—Rotate a Bifido-bacterium-rich probiotic and cultured foods like yogurt, kimchi, or kombucha into your weekly routine.
Drink a half glass of aloe vera juice at bedtime—Aloe vera juice increases peristalsis, the movement of food and waste through the digestive tract.
Take a magnesium supplement—Often referred to as the forgotten mineral, magnesium citrate acts as a natural stool softener, encouraging easier elimination.
Move your body, move your bowels—Daily exercise, such as walking or light jogging, will help to stimulate a bowel movement. Too much sitting will suppress it.
Soothe your stress—Stress can have a direct impact on your bowel habits. Incorporate meditation, yoga, and other forms of decompression into your lifestyle.
Yum Yum Fiber Gruel
Not only does this recipe contain enough fiber to get you moving, it's also an excellent source of omega-3s, healthy fats, and protein. Eat it daily for maximum benefit
In the morning:
Serve cold or heat gently, and then add:
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