Working as a nutritionist, I hear a great deal about people’s bowels and am frequently astounded by what they consider to be normal behaviour on the part of their nether regions.
More staggering still is the amazing ‘sang froid’ with which too many people regard the dilatory nature of their 'regular' bowel movements.
‘My bowels move regularly, once a week, whether they need to or not!’
is often the attitude. Most people, indeed, see nothing wrong with this situation; but ideally, according to naturopathic principles, when two or three meals are being eaten daily the bowel should move at least once or twice a day. If this shocks you, you should probably read on…
Let us take a look at what the bowels should be doing and what may happen if they don’t do it properly.
To Start at the Top
It is vitally important that food should be chewed in the mouth, beginning the process of digestion correctly. The act of chewing starts to break the food down. As the Chinese say, ‘The stomach has no teeth’: if your food isn’t chewed in your mouth, it certainly won’t be anywhere else. Chewing also alerts the stomach to the imminent arrival of food, triggering the production of stomach acid and digestive enzymes.
The production of digestive juices in the stomach stimulates the rest of the digestive tract to produce digestive secretions. Most of the absorption of food constituents into the bloodstream takes place in the small intestine. If the original chewing doesn’t take place, or if you run around like a demented duck whilst eating, this won’t happen! You will then get partially digested foodstuffs fermenting and blowing you up like a balloon, causing gripping pain and inflammation, and generally creating havoc. What’s more, if your food isn’t broken down and absorbed effectively, you won’t get the nutrients you need from it, so you’ll become malnourished despite eating plenty of food. Bizarre but true. In fact, you often get hunger pangs because your body is looking for sources of the nutrients it is lacking. Sorting out your digestion can therefore reduce those troublesome cravings as well as removing stomach pains and abdominal cramps!
The main functions of the large intestine or colon are to absorb water and salts from the food residues. The longer the bowel contents hang around, the more water is absorbed and the harder and drier they become. Dry, compacted faeces are much harder for the bowel to grip and move along, so the bowel movements become slower and less effective. Thus, transit time (the time it takes your food to get from mouth to anus) increases and you’re on your way to constipation.
Wastes that sit around inside the colon for long periods of time can stick to the gut wall, gradually hardening there. The gut wall becomes inflamed and you get pain, cramping, bloating and all that IBS stuff that is so common these days. When the gut wall becomes suitably inflamed and irritated, new food arrivals trigger diarrhoea. Many people’s diarrhoea is caused by their long term constipation, little though they might suspect it.
What else can happen when the digestive tract is ‘under-functioning’?
Flatulence arises from the bowel contents sitting stewing instead of moving on. Diverticulitis comes about when the muscles of the colon sag, creating pockets that can fill with impacted faeces, creating inflammation and further weakening the tone of the gut wall.
A sufficient supply of water is vital for the whole body, but particularly the bowel!
Without sufficient water the bowel contents soon dry up, as described earlier. The lining of the colon also changes, becoming thicker and stickier rather than providing a smooth lubricant for the passage of the faeces.
Drink! Taking 1.5 litres of water a day is a cheap and effective way of improving health and raising energy levels. Try not to drink too much just before, during or after eating, as this will dilute the digestive juices. More than 20 minutes before or after eating is the best bet for effective drinking.
Avoid coffee, alcohol, sugar and tobacco particularly if you are constipated, as they upset the gastric secretions and deaden the response of the bowel when used long term.
- Foods that will help include:
- Short grain brown rice, cooked with lots of water and chewed well
- Figs, raw or cooked
- Dates, raw or cooked
- Carrot juice
- Prune juice
Exercise regularly, if only gently, as this stimulates muscle activity and assists peristalsis.
There are two main ways of encouraging better bowel movement with supplements, either by using bulking agents or taking laxatives.
Bulking agents include products such as linseeds and psyllium husks, which when taken with plenty of water, swell up inside the bowel to soften the stool and provide the bulk needed by the bowel wall.
If these simple remedies are not enough to get your bowel moving, you may need to use herb laxatives. Popular natural laxatives include senna, cascara and buckthorn bark. A middle strength product I recommend is an effective tablet which includes frangula, chicory, blessed thistle and fumitory.
For more intensive action, granules of linseed and senna are very effective. When using these laxatives, start with the smallest dose recommended and work up until your bowel is moving well. Don’t whack in with a huge dose or you may well have to increase your household expenditure on toilet rolls…
Once your bowel is working well, reduce the dose and use the bulking agents to continue the beneficial effect. Employ the lifestyle changes as well, rather than depending on the laxatives.
That’s you: no bloating, no bubbling and boiling, stomach flatter, skin clearer, eyes brighter, with a water bottle clutched firmly in your hand and a definite spring in your step.
Healthy bowels: healthy body.