Discussing bowel habits is often not an attractive conversation (but it can be witty for those with ‘potty humor’). The conversation is important, however, as a healthy lower digestive system (which eliminates fecal waste) is critical to overall balance and well-being.
What is the Colon?
You have many feet of coiled tubing in your body, made up of the small intestine and the large intestine. The average length of an adult’s small intestine is approximately 20 to 23 feet when uncoiled, and the large intestine is about five feet when straightened. The large intestine is known in gastroenterology (the study of digestive function, health and illness) as the colon.
The colon is the last passageway of the journey that foods and supplements take when you consume them. It all starts with the mouth (wherein certain enzymes such as amylase are released to begin the breakdown process while chewing), and goes through the esophagus into the stomach, then the duodenum, into the small intestine, and finally into the colon and out the rectum.
Image courtesy of American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons
What’s the Difference Between the Small and Large Intestine?
The small intestine is where the majority of the work to break foods apart into macro and micronutrients occur. Absorption of those nutrients (and anti-nutrients) takes place in the small intestine as well. Note that the phrase “you are what you eat” literally takes place in the small intestine, and this is also why you want to ensure your food has as many beneficial compounds than junk. Think about it: would you rather have the beneficial nutrient beta-carotene, used as an orange colorant or the synthetic FD&C Yellow No. 6, a petroleum derivative used as orange coloring coursing through your bloodstream?
By the time your meal, snack or supplement enters the colon, it is mostly liquid; the colon absorbs the water and here is where the universe of probiotics spring into action. Some strains in the probiotic colony lining the large intestine help break down the remaining material, which is then shuttled via peristalsis (the rhythmic movement of the colon) into the rectum, which is the last stop before it exits as stool. When stool enters the rectum, this is when you feel the “urge.”
Speaking of the urge, individuals vary in how frequently or regularly they defecate. In general, people range from three times a day to three times a week, all considered normal. Most common is once a day, and usually at the same time of day (hence, “regularity.”) A Healthline survey of 2,000 people found that nearly 50 percent of us go once daily, and most, 62.3% do the number two in the mornings.
What Foods Support Colon Function?
According to the organization Stop Colon Cancer Now, a colon-support diet includes vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Specifically, for every 1,000 calories, attempt to consume 14 grams of fiber (eg, brown rice, oats, couscous, quinoa, whole wheat) as well as cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Garlic and omega-3 EFAs (found in salmon, tuna and other delicious fish), are also recommended.
There are some standout foods that do a superb job of keeping your colon functioning in optimal health. One mechanism of colon health is how the aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR) maintains gut barrier function – the better the AHRs function, the healthier and more robust the gut and colon functions to prevent toxins from entering your blood stream.
Broccoli: Broccoli and its relatives Brussels sprouts and cabbage contain compounds called indole glucosinolates, which are transformed into indolocarbazole (ICZ), which binds to AHRs, therefore increasing immune efficacy in the colon. One way it does this is maintaining gut flora. A mouse study demonstrated that broccoli positively impacted intestinal health via increased AHR activity.
Artichokes: Artichokes have high amounts of both fiber and antioxidants, which are both necessary for healthy colonic function. The antioxidants in artichokes (Vitamin C, quercetin, rutin and polyphenols) reduce oxidative stress in the large intestine by disarming and absorbing free radicals. Several studies substantiate that the antioxidant cocktail in artichokes can reduce the proliferation of abnormal cells.
Garlic: Besides protecting you from vampires, garlic also protects the colon from cellular damage. It contains sulfur, arginine, oligosaccharides, flavonoids and selenium, a nutritious cocktail for health. One meta-analysis has shown that the more raw and cooked garlic consumed, the lower the risk of developing colon cancer. The good news is that if you personally find the taste and odor of garlic in meals unfavorable, you can take garlic supplements.
Psyllium: Psyllium husk is both a food and a dietary supplement, although it is mostly found as the latter either in capsules or as powder. People use the powder in healthy shakes and in baked-good recipes. Psyllium has been shown in multiple studies to help regulate bowel function – constipation, diarrhea, irritable bowel.
Which Probiotics Support Colon Health?
Overall, according to one recently published scientific review, studies “have found that probiotics can significantly reduce the incidence of diarrhea and the average frequency of daily bowel movements.”
One meta-analysis of human randomized clinical trials (RCTs) looked at how a variety of probiotic species affected colonic performance. The authors concluded that, “Probiotics may improve whole gut transit time, stool frequency, and stool consistency, with subgroup analysis indicating beneficial effects of Bifidobacterium lactis in particular.”
Bifidobacterium longum helps to stabilize the acidity in the GI tract and staunch proliferation of pathogenic bacteria. In one study, individuals who experience frequent constipation increased bowel movements after two weeks of consuming a blend of B. longum BB536 with milk or yogurt.
Fructooligosaccharides, or FOS for short, are a powerful prebiotic that serves well for colon health. It is often found in combination with probiotics, such as Lactobacillus paracasei LP-DG® to support digestive wellness; this combination is known as a “symbiotic.” In the body, FOS travel to the large intestine where it stimulates production of friendly bacteria (probiotics) that help prevent pathogenic bacteria from attaching and/or entering the bloodstream.
Investigators found that a novel strain, Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM was responsible for reducing pro-inflammatory markers interleukin and tumor necrosis factor-alpha, which are present in high amounts when polyps are present in the colon.
Note that although some studies have looked at effects of probiotics and colorectal cancer (CRC), probiotics are NOT meant to be used as a preventative or as a cure in case CRC has been diagnosed. Instead, choose your probiotics to support how your colon functions and to even out and resolve occasional constipation or diarrhea due to diet or stress.
Probiotics and the prebiotic FOS not only provide outstanding support for healthy colon function, they help regulate your bowel movement and keep you regular – whatever regularity your body prefers.
If you are concerned about developing colorectal cancer, your primary care physician can recommend a gastroenterologist to perform a colonoscopy. Last year, based on new data about the increased risk of colon cancer in adults younger than 50, the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgery announced that it recommended adults have their first regular screening at age 45, not the previous 50. During this minor procedure, any polyps that may be present are easily removed for testing. If they are found to be benign, and most are, your gastroenterologist will be happy to see you again in 10 years.
If you have a loved one with CRC and you want to join the efforts to find a cure, you can participate in any of a number of walks and runs as well as other fundraisers for Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month every March by visiting the Colorectal Cancer Alliance.