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Keep Your Colon Healthy

by Ellen Lovinger Eller

Has indigestion become a way of life for you? Do you often feel bloated or gassy? Are you plagues by frequent diarrhea or constipation? Your colon is telling you something.

It may not seem politically correct or socially acceptable to talk about it, but the colon, or large intestine, deserves your respect. It is one of the body’s major waste-removal organs (along with your lungs, kidneys, liver and skin), and its proper functioning is integral to the functioning of the rest of you.

What’s more, heeding the signals your colon sends can save your life. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, cancer of the colon is the second leading cause of death from the disease. Young people are not immune to it, and the risks increase steadily after age 50—especially if you’re overweight, smoke cigarettes, eat a lot of processed foods, and/or have a family history of inflammatory bowel conditions, such as Crohn’s Disease or ulcerative colitis.

Yet far short of major illness, the simple day-to-day discomfort caused by an unhealthy colon is something no one wants to experience…or needs to.

Healthy vs. Unhealthy Habits

Symptoms associated with an unhealthy colon cover a wide spectrum. They include not only those you might expect, like indigestion or hemorrhoids, but also headaches, joint pain, backaches, impaired sexual response, irritability, anxiety, depression, memory loss, skin blemishes, respiratory problems, even bad breath, PMS and chronic fatigue. (And you thought heart disease and cancer were the primary concerns.)

Many of the reasons for poor colon health have to do with habits and lifestyle: a diet that’s high in sugar, white flour and heavily processed foods…too much dairy…an excess of coffee or tea…insufficient water intake…lack of exercise—not to mention nutritional deficiencies, food allergies, thyroid imbalances, viruses, bacteria, parasites and possible side effects from prescription drugs.

Happily, many common problems can be corrected simply by paying attention to your colon’s requirements: drinking eight to 10 glasses of water daily, adding fiber to your diet and making sure to exercise regularly. Water keeps the colon’s mucus lining slick and softens stools so they can move through easily. Fiber and exercise enhance peristalsis, the contractions of the smooth muscles in the colon wall that move waste out of the body. Fiber also absorbs fats and toxins, and provides necessary "bulk" to help eliminate that material efficiently.

So for people who are concerned with their colon’s health, the objective is to focus on healthy foods—whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds—and to steer away from red meats and refined foods filled with chemicals and preservatives that clog the colon and form a breeding ground for parasites and unhealthy bacteria.

FYI, many kinds of bacteria are good for you. There are trillions of "friendly" bacteria living in your colon right now, breaking down material that isn’t properly digested and keeping "unfriendly" bacteria, like candida, in check. Fermented foods (see below) actually restore beneficial bacteria, which is why health-care providers often recommend eating yogurt or taking acidophilus supplements to help keep that unseen population well balanced.

Colon Cleansing for Health

After nutrients from the food you eat are absorbed through the small intestine and distributed to the rest of the body via the bloodstream, "leftovers" move into the large intestine to be eliminated. But if that waste collects in the colon instead of exiting, problems arise. Perhaps you feel bloated…or maybe you feel the effects of systemic intoxication, a condition that can cause confusion, irritability, depression, nutritional deficiencies, diverticulitis or cancer.

"Colon cleansing" in various forms has long been an accepted means of dealing with the many physical ailments often attributed to a blocked, unclean colon. A colon cleanse may involve some degree of fasting and/or a special diet to remove toxins and impurities from the body. Fasting for about three days is safe for most people (it’s always wise to check with your health-care provider before beginning), with the exception of pregnant or lactating women, because it doesn’t necessarily mean going without food. Often, you start by eating only raw fruits and vegetables for a day or two, then drinking plenty of water and pure juices, as well as herbal teas with cleansing properties, like dandelion root and slippery elm, for the next 24 hours.

Colon Hydrotherapy, or colonics, is another excellent means of clearing the colon. Water is used to gently flush out the large intestine—the amount of water required varies with the individual—stimulating the colon and removing waste more effectively than an ordinary enema.

Holistic Colon Hydrotherapists are often trained in other alternative healing methods—massage, acupuncture and aromatherapy, for example—and will incorporate that knowledge into your treatment as needed. They are likely to massage your belly to help eliminate waste from the colon…or manipulate certain reflexes in your feet, known to stimulate the nerves of the colon…or work on Meridian points that enhance the body’s detoxification.

A colonic, which will take about an hour, isn’t offensive or painful, although if you have a lot of gas you may experience slight cramping during treatment. Your therapist will tell you how to prepare ahead of time and will stay with you throughout the procedure, explaining what’s going on, attending to your needs and answering any questions you might have.

After the treatment, the therapist should be able to tell you which organs need more attention; whether your system has sufficient healthy bacteria or an overabundance of unhealthy bacteria and/or parasites; how well you digest your food; and which foods are not being digested and should be avoided.

"You Are What You Eat"

(and Drink)

Unhealthy food habits can be ridiculously hard to break, as anyone with a craving for sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol or fast-food burgers can attest. But when it comes to colon health, you can take big steps in the right direction…

Green foods, like alfalfa, wheatgrass and spirulina, are rich in chlorophyll, and that makes them ideal for keeping your colon clean. Chlorophyll, sometimes called "the internal deodorant," soothes and heals damaged tissue in the digestive tract, helps the body maximize oxygen and draws out toxins. In other words, even if you’re not a fan of wheatgrass, you should at least make sure to have green leafy vegetables on your plate each day.

Fermented foods, such as yogurt, kefir, miso and sauerkraut, replenish the friendly intestinal bacteria lost through a diet that is high in refined carbohydrates and low in fiber. Those beneficial bacteria synthesize vitamins from food remnants, degrade toxins, prevent a build-up of disease-causing micro-organisms, stimulate the immune system and produce fatty acids that provide energy for cells lining the colon.

Fiber sweeps debris from the intestines, stimulates peristalsis and holds moisture in the colon, softening stool. Ideally, your body needs between 20 and 35 grams of soluble and insoluble fiber every day, though many of us average between 10-15 grams. Soluble fiber, found in beans, peas, rice, citrus fruits, strawberries and apples (with skin), increases beneficial bacteria, producing natural antibiotics that eliminate harmful bacteria like E. coli. It also aids in cholesterol’s passage through the body. Insoluble fiber, from foods such as whole wheat, brown rice, cabbage, beets, carrots and cauliflower, improves elimination. (Note that flax seed tops the list of foods highest in both types of fiber. One tablespoon of ground flax seed contains four to six grams.)

Water is the universal solvent. It’s necessary to avoid constipation and toxicity in the bowel and kidneys, and of course your need for water is increased by physical activity, fever, hot or dry climates, salty foods and eating red meat. The best time to drink a glass of water is between meals or 20 minutes or more before eating, rather than with a meal. How much water do you require? One rule of thumb is to drink half your weight in ounces. For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, drink 60 ounces (eight glasses) of water per day. Herb tea or diluted fruit juices can be part of the tally, but not caffeinated beverages because they are dehydrating. Alcoholic drinks don’t count at all.

A Few Words About Colon Screening

Doctors often recommend regular screening to detect and remove precancerous growths, or polyps, in the colon. The most common tests, sigmoidoscopy and colonoscopy, are visual observations of the colon by a gastroenterologist using a special scope. But these days, a patient may be eligible for a less invasive test called a Virtual Colonoscopy (VC) as well. It combines MRI or CT scans with sophisticated computer software to produce three-dimensional images of the colon.

The test is customarily performed in the radiology department of a hospital or medical center. As with conventional colonoscopy, VC patients follow a strict bowel-emptying procedure the day before the test, but the procedure itself requires no scope and no sedatives. However, because a VC is less detailed than a conventional colonoscopy and does not allow the removal of polyps, a conventional test is called for if abnormalities are found.

No one looks forward to colon screening, it’s true, and while the procedures are not actually painful, the air pumped into the colon as part of them may create temporary cramping. Yet because it can detect signs of an unhealthy colon—conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, gastrointestinal bleeding, diverticulosis and colorectal cancer—screening can save your life. Speak to your health-care provider, voice your concerns, and decide what’s right for you.

Ellen Eller is a freelance writer and editor residing with her husband, Mike, in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. She is a regular contributor to local newspapers in addition to Wisdom magazine.

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