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Digestion is an intensive process, taking time and energy to produce the end products plus waste from our food. It is the colon that completes the work started by the rest of the digestive system. The colon takes over work from the small intestine and receives fluid from it. In the small intestine your food is very liquid, corrosive and alkaline. Part of the work of the large intestine, or colon, is to absorb water and the remaining nutrients while creating an environment where waste products can be easily eliminated. But it is also responsible for much more, as you shall see. In many ways the digestive system is the focal point of the body; it is our earthy centre. Whatever we eat, we must have the ability to absorb and make use of. Most illnesses, from chronic disease such as cancer to many modern food allergies, arise out of gastrointestinal debility. Even when the debility arises from the stomach and pancreas it will also have an effect upon the colon.
Navigating the bowel
A major role of the bowel is to absorb water from the liquefied food mass and return it to the bloodstream in a lovely clean state. When you have diarrhoea, there has been a rapid transit time of liquid through the large bowel and not enough water has been absorbed. This is why diarrhoea can be so devastating and can quickly dehydrate a baby or those who are already weak, especially with accompanied vomiting. As well as water absorption, the colon completes digestion of some foods. The digested or undigested food passes from the small intestine into the large intestine via a kind of flapping door called the ileo-caecal valve. Because the colon is often sluggish this valve may not open and close properly – rather like a non-operative 'kissing gate'. Consequently, a toxic and decaying build-up of old food can accumulate in this area, making it potentially a prime site for general disease or parasitic infestations. It is also at this point in the colon where your digestive system has to work against gravity, which is never easy. The ascending colon starts to move up near the junction and just there is the appendix. It plays a vital role by secreting fluid which helps lubricate the faecal matter, reducing the possibility of it becoming sluggish or 'stuck'. In this lubricating substance are antibacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal fighters, which are vital for the colon; hence the appendix has an important role in the immune system. The ascending colon is a common site for problems and cancers. Weakened muscular tissue in the colon frequently collapses or pushes outward to form diverticuli and hernias. Partially undigested food arriving from the small intestine, low-quality food, deficient bowel flora and candida will all contribute to poor bowel tone. Combine this with other factors such as lack of exercise, poor general circulation, tension, smoking and many prescription or recreational drugs, then add possible gallbladder disease or an imbalanced liver, and it is easy to see why the colon is at the end point of accumulated and crushing stresses.
The journey of our food has not yet been completed. After the contents have pushed up along the ascending part of the bowel there is a corner to navigate that lies under the liver. This can often be another problematic area. As matter passes through the bend it leaves residues, in much the same way as rivers leave silt as they meander through valleys. The debris left here can build up and create bulging and distortion. The faecal matter then continues its journey across to the transverse colon. The transverse colon can sag when elasticity has been lost, particularly when overburdened with faecal matter or because of poor muscle tone. The colon then goes downhill via a bend and like all navigational changes this corner can be badly managed with a build-up of faecal matter that can start to change the shape of the bowel. Once around the bend the journey is downhill through the descending colon and finally, it is on into the rectum. Without sounding relentlessly pessimistic, however, problems can and do arise here too!
Elimination is strained if the incoming food is deficient in fibre, over-processed or lacking in key digestive nutrients. As one of the major eliminative channels, it is vitally important that your colon functions freely; and this will mirror good health in the entire body. Imagine old, toxic faeces poisoning your bloodstream, lymph system, brain, liver and more. The liver may eventually become exhausted and congested especially if there is also pre-existing disease such as cirrhosis. The stomach may become disabled, resulting in abnormal function and the pancreas can inflame due to its inability to produce enough digestive enzymes. In short, the internal task force will generally be in trouble in a myriad of ways with resultant symptoms and diseases – all caused by general bowel toxicity and auto-intoxication.
An overwhelming number of people have a colon that is overloaded and misshapen with old faecal matter. This can cause sagging and ballooning, distortions and constrictions where disease will lurk along with old glue-like partially digested food which can often become stagnant, making it an ideal breeding ground for disease. Every year nearly 31,000 people in Britain (according to 1995 statistics) are diagnosed with colon cancer, and 20,000 will die. It is the third most common cancer, and could easily upgrade to second if our eating trends and accompanying lack of exercise continue.
When the colon starts to become clearer and cleaner, the symptoms of many diseases begin to slowly ebb away, layer by layer. Remember, if you do not keep these pipes clean and freely flowing, then other organs and your blood will not be able to cleanse their wastes either. Many bowel problems such as constipation run in families so check with close relatives, especially older members of your family. This way you will be able to see if your own tendencies might be hereditary. As always, prevention is the key.
A healthy colon & what can go wrong
Old faecal matter piling up by the kilo can create distortions and pockets in the colon, with areas of intense narrowing followed by huge ballooned areas. In these balloons, old faecal matter slowly becomes part of the bowel wall itself, hardening and impacting, layer upon layer; encouraging viruses, bacteria and fungi to take hold and thrive. Many common viruses and bacteria lurk in bowel pockets of both men and women. Candida is commonly found in the bowel pockets of women in particular and can often stubbornly proliferate due to the presence of parasites, which can also set up home in the same areas. The ensuing strain on the colon walls also causes thinning and, where the wall has become too thin, fluid bowel matter can slowly seep into the rest of the body. And it is not only toxins that can cause problems: positive microbes inside the colon help synthesize vitamin K and folic acid (as well as having many other roles) but when a struggling colon allows them to enter the bloodstream, they too can create disease. All of this can drain the body of health and vigour.
Regular colon cleansing will greatly assist a sluggish bowel. We have products for this on our website and you might like to read articles and books by Dr Richard Schulze such as his “5-day Bowel Detox” available as a free online read or download.
How often should I have a bowel movement?
Ideally you need at least one daily bowel movement, but this can be twice or three times a day, dependent on the daily food intake. In fact you should be eliminating four-fifths of your food intake over an 11-19 hour period.
Every 8 hours there is a peristaltic urge triggered by the gallbladder. If a bowel movement is achieved upon waking at 7am, then the next one should be at approximately 3pm. Many people find that having a meal triggers a bowel movement. This is because the filling of the stomach triggers the emptying of the colon. If you only have a few bowel movements a week then this idea may appear horrendous and ridiculous – you may feel that you don't want to give away that much!
Food transit times
Most of us do not check the time that we take to process food and eliminate waste. Try swallowing some whole sunflower seeds – the white seeds show up well against the other colours and are a useful way to measure the amount of time food takes to pass through your system. Sweetcorn kernels are another food to try. If you have not passed the seeds or sweetcorn within 24-36 hours you are constipated and we would recommend that you start changing diet and consider some herbal remedies to clean and tone your colon. If you have frequent bowel motions each day you may have irritable bowel syndrome; in this condition too-frequent bowel movements can sometimes alternate with periods of constipation.
What does a normal bowel motion look like?
Your GP or practice nurse will have a pictorial stool chart to help you identify the quality and texture of your stool – this is an important health indicator.
You need to become comfortable about looking at your bowel movements if you are to begin a self-help programme. The ideal bowel movement should preferably float in the toilet bowl, though very few bowel movements do! However, if they float and do not flush away, or if they leave a greasy film on the water, it may be a sign of too much fat in the stool. This may indicate that you have a problem absorbing healthy fats. Sinking stools that are hard to flush away suggest compaction due to the faecal matter having spent too long in the bowel. The stool may be congested with mucus but don't become concerned if there is some mucus: better out than in, however it lands. Bowel movements should come out of the rectum effortlessly and break up slowly. The colour should normally be a mid-brown. However, greenish-browns will suggest you've eaten many green things recently, darker reds may indicate that you've eaten beetroot and so on. But white and yellow movements could signify liver and gallbladder problems. Fresh blood should never be present. Don’t simply assume haemorrhoids if you see fresh blood – consult your GP. Look and think. Lastly, your bowel movements shouldn't be pungent, and there should be no wind, pain or foaming. Click on the link for more information about a naturopathic lifestyle.
- Working out which foods suit you and can be processed efficiently by your body is a key factor in the upkeep of your digestive system and balanced health. As a general rule, you should vary and rotate foods and increase fibre intake via whole grains, vegetables and fruit, beans and seeds.
- Some people with delicate bowel conditions will not be able to consume as much fibre, and then mucilaginous botanicals can help. Slippery Elm Plus Powder or arrowroot powder are two such botanicals.
- It may be necessary to take a probiotic ("good bacteria") supplement occasionally. Look for a good quality one at your health food store. Pineapple, papaya and cider vinegar can also help digestion.
- Many people find that wheat and often dairy foods produce excessive amounts of mucus in the gut which hampers digestion and in turn creates dysfunction, pain, allergies and general sickness. Finding alternatives to these foods can benefit your digestive system.
- Eat a diversity of food types, according to your individual needs. The most important thing to remember is that all foods must be completely digested in order to successfully move through the colon.
- Linseeds (flax seeds) act like little brooms pushing the stool along and giving grip to the bowel wall. Soak whole linseeds; or grind them, store in the fridge and add to soups, cereals etc.
- Water is your best lubricant so aim for 1-2 litres a day.
- Herbs can improve digestion by encouraging "good bacteria" and many have gentle stimulating qualities. Garlic, basil, oregano, chicory, turmeric, cardamom, and chilli pepper are some examples.
- Anything that helps the process of digestion will be useful. Start with sound sleep and exercise accompanied by cleansing programmes where necessary, especially of the colon and liver.
- Eating with other people in a happy convivial atmosphere is always beneficial. Try to avoid emotional upsets at the table, and avoid watching television or even reading while you are eating, especially if the subject is in any way upsetting or emotional – all of this distracts from the process of digestion.
- The spinal column provides the nerve supply to the bowel; if the lower vertebrae are misaligned, this may cause problems in the bowel. Consider a visit to an osteopath or chiropractor in order to make sure that your vertebrae aren't hindering the correct flow of nerve impulses and fluids.
- Massage will help, especially along the whole length of the intestine, where it will encourage and increase its vitality.
- You can also practise belly breathing exercises.
- Yoga will also be of great benefit, as some of the postures deal directly with internal massage.
- Bowel cleansing is an obvious "must do". Click on the link for more about Cleanses & Detoxification.
Our herbal formulae are strong flavoured and effective. Our herbs enjoy a long history of use. A large proportion of them are grown in English soils, harvested using bio-chemistry analysis and many of them are processed fresh, which heightens their remedial properties. The majority are grown organically and are sustainable and wild-crafted. All manufacturing is carried out using licensed good manufacturing practice.