Next to the breast, the colorectum is the next most diagnosed site for cancer among women, according to World Health Organization. So how do you keep your colon healthy? What are the signs of an unhealthy gut?
We eat food – fact. We go to the toilet afterwards to relieve ourselves – another fact. It is such a natural process; someone would be forgiven to assume otherwise.
Food, nutritionists observe, provides us with energy. Life is an ongoing activity, says Kepha Nyanumba, a nutritionist with AAR Healthcare. For us to sustain life food has to be part of the equation – unless you are not a human being.
What you put in your mouth is flagged off by the tongue, on a long journey, through the stomach, via the intestines (where the bulk of food digestion takes place) and into the colon. Eventually, it is moved to the rectum and then out through the anus.
“Every food you eat goes through this natural process,” says Nyanumba. A problem could arise at any point during that process. And since you can’t open up your body to view how your gut functions, you may need to be keen on symptoms that would point to an underlying problem.
What are the signs of a healthy gut?
In an ideal situation, one should not be experiencing pain. According to Dr. Vladimir Schuckin, a bariatric surgeon at East African Bariatric clinic, a healthy gut should be free of wounds.
“One should observe their stool: it should not be bloody and should not contain puss. Both are signs that something is wrong somewhere,” he says.
Passing stool (what in domestic euphemism is called poo) is a natural process that should neither be difficult nor painful, he adds.
At the same time, we ought to be vigilant of the frequency of passing stool. For an individual who is used to normal three meals in a day, a bowel movement should occur once in 24 hours.
If three days go by without any bowel movements then one should seek a doctor’s opinion. When bowel movement is restricted, it elevates chances that one will develop colon cancer, says Kepha.
The stool, says Shchukin, should be soft and well formed – not watery or hard or rugged.
How do you know that you have an unhealthy gut?
Nutritionist Kate Kibara of Kate ‘s Organics says there are various symptoms that should cue for problems in the gut.
“In general, when you have digestive issues: irregular bowel movement, constipation, gas and flatulence, diarrhea; your gut is not doing well. Poor skin (acne), low energy levels, bad breath, food allergies, recurring infections, drastic weight changes and so on, are all signs that your gut has a problem,” Kate says. “The colon is the sewer system of your body. It eliminates the bulk of waste. If this waste is not eliminated your body is affected and becomes toxic.”
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At times, the experience one has at the toilet would be enough reason to visit a health professional. For instance, if you find yourself going into the toilet with a magazine – because the process will take long and you are not sure when you will be done – you need immediate assessment.
What is healthy stool?
Health professionals look at the following factors to determine if the stool has normal characteristics: appearance, texture, shape, color, form and smell.
“Healthy stool should not be watery or hard. It should be soft and well formed; preferably shaped like a banana or a sausage. It should be snake smooth or cracked on the surface – but not pebbled,” says Kate.
As for the color of the stool, which is mainly determined by the color of food consumed, drastic changes would be a sign of something sinister.
Dr. Shchukin says: “If one ate greens, they should expect the stool to appear greenish. If they ate lots of beet root they should expect it be reddish. But for food that is whitish in color, coloring agents that come from the pancreas, called bilirubin and biliverdin will give a yellow-to-brown coloration.”
Stool that is black may be a sign of bleeding in the stomach. Also, adds Kate, any funny unexpected smells should be a concern. Bottom line, any drastic suspect changes in the stool should raise alarm.
Is colon cleansing a good idea?
You have probably heard it from colleagues; telling you that they have undergone colon cleansing.
To Dr. Njoki Fernandez of Kam Medical Services, colon cleansing is more of a fad than a medical procedure.
“Our bodies are created in such a way that they are able to get rid of waste naturally. So, as long as one is eating health, and in proper proportions, colon cleansing is not necessary,” she says.
Kepha too observes: “In nutrition we don’t recommend colon cleansing because it does not address the root cause of the problem. If there is a problem, it is better to find out what it is before giving a recommendation. But the body should be able to regulate itself if one follows proper nutrition.”
What is proper nutrition for your gut?
According to Kepha, 50 per cent of a meal should be vegetables, 25 per cent should be proteins and the remaining quarter should cater for carbohydrates. “Two litres of water a day is also recommended but one should only drink before or after a meal: not during the meal,” he says.
How does fitness help in maintaining a healthy gut?
The human body exists to be active, says Dr. Shchukin. “If you are not active you are dead. We are born to move and be active. It is because of activity that the body’s systems are able to operate and run. Activity, therefore, means better digestion of food in the gut. The reverse is also true,” he observes.
Kepha points out that red meat tends to take long through digestion. To speed up the digestion of such meat, he says, one should maintain an active lifestyle. A sedentary lifestyle, he adds, is linkable to many non-communicable illnesses.
What is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common condition of the digestive system. It is characterized by symptoms such as gas, running stomach, abdominal pain, bloating and other abdominal flare ups, says Kepha.
“A case of IBS will need to be properly diagnosed before treatment can commence. Each patient may need different modes of treatment depending on the severity of their condition,” says Kepha.
Sometimes, he adds, people may suffer from such conditions like lactose intolerance and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO), both of which will need independent diagnosis and treatment. It is thus important that specialized review is performed on the patient.
How is the gut affected during pregnancy?
Due to hormonal changes in a woman’s body during pregnancy the gut is one of the systems that are hugely affected, says Dr. Fernandez.
“Expect possible bloating, gas, constipation, haemorrhoids and heartburn,” she says.
As the baby grows in the womb, and applies pressure to the abdomen, the gut finds it difficult to function properly. As such, Dr. Fernandez says, a pregnant woman should be prepared for a gut-wrenching nine months.
“However, anytime a pregnant woman feels strained by symptoms, they should not hesitate to report to their doctor. Sometimes, haemorrhoids may be too painful to handle and we may be forced to operate and excise them off,” she says.
Every woman has their own unique pregnancy experience. And while being expectant predisposes them to gut problems, it is not automatic that a woman has to suffer from them. This should not deter normal diet routine during pregnancy.
“A pregnant woman should eat normal three meals with healthy snacking in-between. They should not under-eat or over-eat,” offers Dr. Lyudmila Shchukina, an obesity specialist.
Colon Facts you should know:
80% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract.
Around one third of cancer deaths are due to 5 leading behavioral and dietry risks; high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, alcohol use.
Your colon is approximately 5 feet long, probably how tall you are.
It can take anywhere from 12-48 hours for the food that you have eaten to make its way through your colon.
Your colon is never empty but your rectum is always empty.
10 Signs of an Unhealthy Gut:
Indigestion, heartburn, reflux
Constipation or diarrhea
Irritation from friend foods
Bloating with meals
Skin issues (acne, psoriasis, eczema)
Foot or nail fungus
Seasonal or food allergies
Depressed immune system
Mood disorders (depression, anxiety)