The colon is obviously one of the most important organs of the body. We all realize that a main function of the colon is to form and eliminate waste (feces), but it also serves to absorb water and minerals.
In addition, the colon also contains nearly 60 varieties of microflora or bacteria to aid digestion, promote vital nutrient production, to maintain pH (acid-base) balance, and to prevent proliferation of harmful bacteria. These “beneficial” bacteria provide important functions such as the synthesis of folic acid and valuable nutrients from foods, including vitamin K, which is especially important as the daily ingestion of vitamin K is not normally enough to maintain adequate blood coagulation. They also synthesizes vitamin B12, thiamine and riboflavin. Recent studies reveal that microflora may also play a part in weight control and respiratory allergy prevention, as well as immune system response.
Smart Food and Beverage Choices
Obviously, it is crucial that we keep our colons in good health. Unfortunately, most Americans don’t, primarily due to a poor diet. The average American diet is high in fat and low in fiber, both of which predispose to many types of chronic diseases, including obesity and colorectal cancer (CRC). This is why cutting back on eating processed meats and increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables we eat can be preventative of these diseases; for example, such meats increase the risk of developing CRC by 5.6% but fiber rich foods such as fruits and vegetables decrease the risk by up to 50%.
Fruits and vegetables contain various nutrients, as well as fiber, the latter which is also essential in the proper functioning of the colon. The fiber is also important for maintaining the important microflora; the bacteria break down some of the fiber for their own nourishment and create acetate, propionate, and butyrate as waste products, which in turn are used by the cell lining of the colon for nourishment.
Overindulgence of alcohol can also be harmful to the colon. It may impair muscle movement in the large intestines, can inhibit the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine, and increases the transport of toxins across the intestinal walls. Alcohol use has also been linked with a higher risk of cancers of the colon and rectum. The evidence for such a link is generally stronger in men than in women, although studies have found the link in both sexes. Moderate alcohol use is not harmful, but overdoing it is.
Physical activity is important for colon health as well. Exercise has been demonstrated to have benefits that include a reduced risk of colon cancer, constipation and other diseases of the GI tract, including gallstones. This is because being sedentary can often slow the digestive system, making stools harder, less frequent and difficult to pass. In addition, adults who increase their physical activity, either in intensity, duration, or frequency, can reduce their risk of developing colon cancer by 30 to 40%.
Certainly our lifestyles impact colon health greatly. But there are other factors that may disturb colon function as well, including age, taking birth-control pills, surgery, taking antibiotics, and environmental pollutants, all of which can destroy microflora. For that reason, probiotics are highly recommended if this occurs, as well as for general colon health and protection. Probiotics contain the beneficial microflora and replace them in the GI tract and colon.
However, there are some caveats you need to know:
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- There are numerous species of microflora and innumerable products containing various combinations of these bacterial strains, some that may be more beneficial than others. Each person may respond differently to a specific probiotic.
- Many products need to be refrigerated, or the bacteria will die; but there are many shelf-stable products, usually containing prebiotics, which promote the growth of probiotics.
An important problem is that there is no guarantee that the product contains the number of organisms listed on the label or that the organisms are alive or survive digestion. Testing in 2014 by ConsumerLab.com showed that only five out of nineteen products tested before their “best by” dates had only 16-56% of the number of live organisms claimed on the label.
Many people think that regular yogurt contains beneficial bacteria, but most products do not contain the most effective ones.
The bottom line is that our colons are crucial to good health and affect many other organ systems as well. So take good care of yours and it will take good care of you.
Larry Altshuler, M.D. is the author of DOCTOR, SAY WHAT? The Inside Scoop to Getting the Best Health Care and DOCTOR, SAY WHAT? The Guides: What Works and What Doesn’t for Over 90 Medical Conditions. He is a practicing Internist, Hospitalist, and Integrative practitioner at a major cancer center in the Midwest.