The Colon, a.k.a. Large Intestine, is considered the most neglected organ of the body, possibly due to embarrassment or lack of knowledge regarding its importance in health. It wraps around the border of the abdominal cavity starting with the cecum, which connects to the [terminal] ileum of the small intestine, coming up the right side of our abdomen (ascending colon), then crosses the midline behind our belly button (transcending colon), subsequently coming down the left side of our body (descending colon) before curving around to attach to the sigmoid colon and on to the rectum.
It’s the health of the colon and the presence of bowel bacteria (good bacteria) that help to extract the last of the important minerals from our food. When we think about this, the shape, both literally and figuratively, of the large intestine is what allows us to absorb these key minerals from our food. Its primary job is absorbing leftover water to condense soft by-products into solid waste; associated with electrolyte balance, and is a key part of the digestive process.
It is referred to as the large intestine, not because of its length, but due to its diameter - 5 feet in length and 2.5 inches in diameter in the living body (becomes much larger postmortem as the smooth muscle tissue of the intestinal wall relaxes).
As mentioned earlier, the function of the colon and most digestive processes can be embarrassing. When we were young, some of us were raised to keep our body noises to a minimum – no farting, no belching in public. Some people even go so far as not pooping in public restrooms (or at family/friends’ homes) and will wait until they get home to eliminate. Most likely this is because their shit stinks – literally (we’ll talk later on how the stinky part is not normal). If the delay is too long, or too frequent, ignoring the urge to “go” can lead to constipation and fecal compaction. Both can cause stool transit time (time from eating to elimination) to slow down. If undigested food remains in the body for too long, proteins putrefy (producing toxic ammonia, hydrogen sulfide & other toxins), carbohydrates ferment (creating ethyl alcohol or lactic acid) and fats turn rancid (generating highly reactive toxic molecules that destroy nutrients and vitamins). By waiting, you can potentially make the foods you consume harmful instead of beneficial. Rotten food collects inside the colon, making regular bowel movements (BMs) increasingly difficult.
Medically, constipation is defined as fewer than three stools per week and severe constipation as less than one stool per week. In functional medicine, however, good elimination is having one to three healthy bowel movements per day. And I agree with the functional approach. If you’re not having a minimum of two soft & easy to pass BMs daily, then waste is accumulating in your system and you are constipated. Even going regularly can still have pounds of hard compacted fecal matter in the intestinal tract. Other symptoms of constipation include increased bowel sounds, bloating, gas, fatigue (from toxins), bad breath and skin blemishes. We’ll talk more about what healthy stools look like later.
So okay, say I’m constipated. What can I do to alleviate it? There are many options available from laxatives to hydrocolonic therapy performed by a hydrotherapist. Personally, I’ve had colonics done by those trained, as well as enemas done in my own home; and years ago I probably had my fair share of laxatives.
First let’s discuss the benefits of regular intestinal cleansing and how it helps to eliminate constipation:
- Cleans the encrusted buildup from the walls of the intestinal lining, increasing the absorption of vital nutrients
- Helps promote more frequent BMs
- Helps promote better consistency and volume
- Makes it easier to pass without straining
- Greatly reduces chances of developing constipation-related diseases
- Reduces number of toxins absorbed into the blood
- Improves bowel transit time. Optimal time is 18 hours, however the average is closer to 36 hours.
Not sure I can say that laxatives are the most popular, however, their sales exceed $700 million annually and probably the first thing that comes to mind when you think about constipation relief. However, they often bring serious health risks. Did you know that there are different types of laxatives? I was surprised to learn there are three categories: osmotic, stimulant and bulk-forming. Examples of each are:
Osmotic – Mira LAX, Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia, Dulcolax – these cause excess fluids to be drawn into the intestines in a slow process that can take up to a few days to increase the stool’s fluid bulk. It can cause severe dehydration and electrolyte depletion from water loss, as well as cramping & bloating due to gas buildup during the initial waiting period. It basically turns the stool into diarrhea so it is easier to pass.
Stimulant – Correctol, Fleet Liquid Glycerin Suppositories, Traditional Medicinal’s Smooth Move Herbal Stimulant Laxative Tea, Senokot – and are often made with harsh toxic chemicals or herbs that cause the intestinal muscles to spasm and contract. Their popularity comes from the fact that they start working within a few hours. They can cause the same issues as osmotic, however, these can be addictive and can cause long-term damage to the intestinal lining. It can create a condition known as “lazy bowel syndrome” which ultimately results in a long-term battle with chronic constipation and the loss of bowel muscle tone and strength.
Bulk-forming – Metamucil Psyllium Fiber, Benefiber, Citrucel – these use highly absorbent materials to increase overall stool mass. As the stool increases in size, the bowels are forced to expend more energy to force out the mass. Not to say that fiber and increased stool mass are necessarily bad things, however bulk-forming laxatives can be dangerous since they have the potential to clog the bowels, with the most troublesome of the fiber laxatives being Psyllium (used in most OTC fiber laxatives). Long-term use of Psyllium may negatively affect absorption of certain essential vitamins and minerals such as iron. There have been numerous reports of serious allergic reactions following its use, which include labored breathing, skin irritations or hives, and potentially life-threatening anaphylaxis. Obstruction of the GI tract has also been regularly cited in studies of patients taking Psyllium products. Many herbal colon cleansing products are bulk-forming laxatives.
So I mentioned I have done at-home enemas, one of the oldest known techniques for cleansing the colon as it has been around for centuries. I have added coffee, lemon and have heard of adding herbal blends and diluted clay. These have been useful at times, however, they only loosen the waste sitting at the last part of the bowels.
One therapy that I have used less often is colon hydrotherapy. I remember having one done many [many] years ago at the suggestion of my chiropractor. And more recently, having a few sessions not because I felt constipated, but simply wanting to clean the pipes. My experience with the “closed” process was good and I highly recommend it to all my clients. There are two types of colon hydrotherapy – open and closed – and it is truly up to each individual on their preference. I highly suggest doing some research before making your decision. AND it may not be suitable for people suffering from severe hemorrhoids, malignant polyps, active Inflammatory Bowel Disease or active Diverticulitis.
There are so many components to our large intestine, and maybe you can see why it is the last in the series [not just because it is the end of the line]. And we still need to talk about what your poop looks like and the best way to eliminate.
Let’s talk about how to eliminate before we discuss the end result. Too bad the manufacturers of [U.S.] toilets don’t know that their product is completely unnatural for us as they constrict the anal canal, resulting in incomplete evacuations. Squatting is by far the healthiest position to adopt before having a BM if you want to avoid constipation and maintain healthy intestinal function. We use a Squatty Potty™ in our home.
So have you ever looked at what comes out of you? It can be very informative and useful. I encourage all of my clients to journal what they eat, and what they eliminate. It is very telling on how often we eliminate, and what it looks like and the journal is key for making changes to diet, dietary habits including chewing your food completely, and so much more. Plans of action can be made based on this feedback.
So let’s look into the toilet bowl, shall we? Normal stools are soft & easy to pass. As mentioned previously, if bloating, gas, bad breath, skin blemishes, hard or pellet-like stools, less than three BMs daily, or if you have to strain, are indicators of the colon and body not being healthy.
Ideally stools should be brown or golden brown, shaped like sausage and resemble peanut butter in overall texture. The Bristol Scale was developed in 1997 depicting seven types of stools, and we want to be either type 3 or 4. Stools with a really four odor may result from imbalance of intestinal bacteria or from consuming too much animal protein. A putrid foul-smelling odor lurking around three or more minutes in the bathroom is a definite sign to cleanse as your colon is practically screaming at you!
Mucus experienced occasionally is not concerning. However, if produced for more than a few weeks, or if a foul smell or bleeding occurs, consult your health care professional. Mucus-covered stools may indicate ulcerative colitis, IBS, infection or bowel obstruction.
Green stools, in most cases, are harmless. White stools may indicate trouble with the kidneys or biliary system (liver, gallbladder). Or if your body digests food too quickly, you may experience white stools. Yellow stools are not normal and may indicate the large intestine, liver, small intestine or stomach are affected by a serious condition.
Dark black and sticky stools may indicate blood in the upper part of the digestive tract and you should seek immediate medical attention. Very dark brown may indicate recent wine consumption, an excess of salt, or lack of veggies. Beet red may indicate red food consumption (especially red beets). Super thin, like a ribbon, may be indicative of polyps developing in the colon. Greasy looking may be insufficient absorption of nutrients. There is a self-test developed by Dr. Edward Group III located on my website to see how healthy your colon is.
Before I conclude, I would like to talk about Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) as it seems to be more prevalent. IBS is also known as spastic colon which affects up to 20% of American adults, and can be managed through a combination of lifestyle and dietary changes. Symptoms include (experienced for at least three months, or occur at least three days each month):
- abdominal pain
- alternating diarrhea and constipation
- thin stools
- mucous in stools
- fat in stools
- gas & bloating
Those with IBS typically suffer from depression and anxiety, which can worsen the symptoms. Unfortunately no specific cause has been identified. Those with IBS lack beneficial probiotics bacteria in their bowels. The neurotransmitter serotonin that is produced in the gut may act on digestive tract nerves. Those with diarrhea may have increased serotonin levels in the gut, while those with constipation -predominant IBS - have decreased amounts. Common causes include:
- caffeine sensitivity
- dairy allergy or sensitivity
- large meal
- lack of fiber in the diet
- hormonal imbalances
- environmental sensitivities
Researchers believe that the underlying cause of IBS symptoms is abnormal functioning of the nerves, enzymes and muscles within the digestive tract. These help manage the absorption of nutrients after you eat, fluid levels, gas and the release of bowel movements.
Who’s at Risk? IBS occurs in 70% more of women than men, it tends to begin as adults, and genetics do play a part. It is often difficult to diagnose and often is mis-diagnosed.
Lifestyle, Food and Supplemental Treatments
- colon massage (following the line of the colon)
- stress management/reduction techniques
- smaller meals
- chew well & completely
- avoid eating raw fruits and veggies for a short time
- avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates
- avoid caffeine
- avoid dairy
- consider an elimination diet to detect food trigger
- slowly introduce more fiber
- consider adding bone broth, collagen or gelatin
- aloe juice (2-4 oz)
- enteric coated peppermint oil
- freshly ground flax seed
May this information empower you in taking care of your colon. There is so much ground to cover with our digestive system that has not been covered, so if there is an area of The Digestive Journey that you want to learn more about, please let me know.
Future blogs will talk about our connection between our brain and our gut. Did you know that we have a “second brain”? We do and it is located in our gut!
And, I want to talk about how our subconscious mind plays an important role in our health. Studies have shown vast improvement in diseases such as IBS through the use of clinical hypnotherapy.
Until then ~
To Your Health & Happiness,
Michele Root ~ Empowering You!