What are Healthy Bowels?
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 sang froid with which many people regard the dilatory nature of their 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.
However, as the colon is the main exit route for food waste and toxins, naturopaths would have to disagree with any hint of complacency over the functioning of this vital organ. 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...
To start at the top
It is vitally important that food is chewed in the mouth, commencing the digestion process correctly. The act of chewing starts to break the food down. If your food isn’t chewed in your mouth, it certainly won’t be anywhere else. Food that isn’t properly broken down is likely to cause digestive pain as it moves on.
Once in the stomach the food is worked on by the digestive juices, with protein being broken down, and bugs that might have entered with the food being destroyed. The production of digestive juices in the stomach stimulates the rest of the digestive tract to produce digestive secretions. The stomach contents now enter the small intestine where absorption of food constituents into the bloodstream takes place. Moving On
The small intestine meets the large intestine (or colon) at the right hand side of the lower abdomen and the food residues now journey up the ascending colon. As this part of the passage is working against gravity it can be a tricky area; people often get pain up the right hand side of their abdomen where food residues have stuck. The main function of the colon is to absorb water from the food residues, which are pretty sloppy at this stage. 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.
- Moreover, when the intestinal contents are moist and bulky, they fill the space inside the bowel and press on the bowel wall, sending a message to the brain that the bowels need to evacuate. Hard, dry faeces can’t do this.
So why does it matter if wastes hang about a bit longer inside you?
Waste products that are left sitting in the colon dry out and fester and so they breed germs and kick up a stink. The bowel wall is absorbent: water and vitamins are supposed to be absorbed through it into the bloodstream. However, toxins from stagnant waste products may also be re-absorbed through the bowel wall into the bloodstream instead of leaving the body. No wonder you feel irritated, lethargic and low.
Many people’s diarrhoea is caused by their long term constipation, little though they might suspect it. The gut wall becomes inflamed by the wastes that are hanging around there, and new food arriving irritates the inflamed area, triggering diarrhoea.
Flatulence arises from the bowel contents sitting stewing instead of moving on. It can also be caused by under-secretion of digestive enzymes, which leaves partially digested foodstuffs fermenting as they travel through the gut. Poor gallbladder function can be spotted by the faeces appearing chalky instead of brown. Diverticulitis comes about when small, impacted faeces force the muscles of the colon to push much harder to grip the bowel contents. This intense pressure on the intestinal wall finally causes the muscle to sag, creating pockets that can fill with impacted faeces, creating inflammation and further weakening the tone of the gut wall. The weakened wall can bleed if impacted matter later breaks away.
If you habitually consume vast quantities of coffee, non-herbal tea, dairy products, wheat, chocolate and red meat, you will be much more likely to have bowel problems than someone eating heaps of fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, wholegrains and dried fruit.
A sufficient supply of water is particularly important for the bowel!
Without sufficient water the bowel contents soon dry up. The lining of the colon also changes, becoming thicker and stickier rather than providing a smooth lubricant for the passage of the faeces.
Exercise regularly, if only gently, as this stimulates muscle activity and assists peristalsis. Yoga is a good idea as it strengthens muscles and increases mobility without being beyond anyone’s ability. To give your bowel more individual attention, massage gently in a clockwise circle around your belly, going up the right hand side and down the left, gently but firmly.
There are two main ways of encouraging better bowel movement with supplements: using bulking agents or taking laxatives.
These 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.They can be very effective and do not have any adverse effects if they are taken with sufficient water.
They are suitable for long term use and will give you softer, more bulky bowel movements and for many people this, with a few dietary changes, is all they need to get their bowel back in business.
When using laxatives, start with the smallest dose recommended and work up until your bowel is moving well. 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.