Bringing Up The Tail End
By: Dr. Celisha Gerber, DOM
Often forgotten, is the organ that has the great responsibility of handling and removing somewhat unpleasant metabolic and food waste products in a timely manner so as not to contaminate our nutritive blood. Along its walls of thin muscular tissue lies a population of friendly microbes that aid in metabolizing waste, creating nutrients, and protecting against unfriendly invaders. It is estimated that there are more than two pounds of enteric bacteria in the human digestive tract. Given the proper fluids, nutrients and fiber, things move along quite smoothly, producing a good size bowel movement on a daily basis. However, a breakdown in function and health of this respectable organ leads to dangerous consequences. In celebration of Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, we will be taking a closer at this important organ known as our colon.
The colon's function and health depend on a number of factors. One of these factors includes muscle tone. The colon has an inner circular muscle layer for squeezing and moving the waste along its ascending and descending tract. It also has three thin longitudinal muscles that slightly shorten the length of the colon when contracted, also acting to move the bolus along. We can help to keep the muscle of the colon toned through regular exercise and a diet supportive for muscle health. A sedentary lifestyle, low nutrient intake or absorption, and low fiber content increase the risk of weak colon muscle. In the case that the waste backs up, the pressure against the thin areas in the canal can lead to out-pouchings known as diverticulosis. If fecal material gets stuck in these small pouches, they can become a feeding-ground for unfriendly bacteria and lead to inflammation, at which point it is called diverticulitis. Concern occurs in this situation because the lining of the colon in that area can die, causing a break in the colon wall, allowing infection to occur outside of the colon. Whether interested in treating constipation to prevent diverticulosis, addressing diverticulosis to prevent diverticulitis, or trying to prevent another episode of peritonitis due to diverticulitis, we provide an individualized program to support colon muscle health.
Another factor that affects colon health is diet. Breakdown in colon muscle integrity can occur when the basic cell does not have the nutrients needed for proper function. Each cell wall is made up of a lipid bilayer. To create this wall, essential fatty acids are an important component. The common American diet is naturally high in saturated fats and low in essential fatty acids, leading to weak cell walls. Essential fatty acids include Omega 3, 6 and 9, and can be found in meat, dairy, legumes, nuts and seeds in varying amounts. There are certain amounts necessary for each of these, and it is common that one's diet is lacking in proper amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids in comparison to the other two. If for any reason, absorption of these fatty acids is impaired, such as in the case of liver or gallbladder dysfunction, supplementation may not be effective in providing the levels necessary for proper cell function; in which case, those organs must be addressed. If interested in finding out your personal essential fatty acid levels, come in for a Fatty Acid Profile. By knowing your levels, you can support your colon cell health appropriately.
Daily fiber intake along with plenty of water is another important dietary practice. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Insoluble fiber creates bulk for the stool, making it easier to move along its path. This type of fiber is not broken down by our body, but it is partially broken down by our friendly intestinal flora, creating important fatty acids called short chain fatty acids, which have been shown in studies to have impressive anti-cancer results in both animal and human experiments. 1,2,3,4 Soluble fiber, such as pectin, is also very important to cell health. Pectins lower cholesterol by binding it in the intestine so it is not absorbed into the blood stream. A balanced fiber intake includes eating fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
In addition to fiber, eating moderate amounts of bitter foods and herbs help stimulate the peristaltic action that pushes the contents of the colon along its route. There are varying strengths of bitters from slightly bitter to very bitter. The more bitter a substance is, the more stimulating it will be. However, consult a physician before taking large amounts of very bitter foods and herbs because they follow the law of diminishing returns in that too much can actually have the opposite effect that moderate amounts have. Some common bitters you may have heard of include dandelion, chamomile, gentian, and bitter melon. A good rule of thumb for getting your daily bitter intake is to eat a variety of dark leafy greens. If it tastes bitter, it stimulates the digestion, but if it is masked by another flavor, such as sugar, the effects are negated. At first one may need to acquire a taste for the bitter flavor, but then it is common for one to develop a craving for its acridness due to the systemic response that occurs. Give it a try and you will be pleasantly surprised by the results.
As mentioned earlier, proper colon flora are an important part of colon health. They help protect the colon from irritation and inflammation by controlling the growth of harmful bacteria, metabolizing harmful toxins, and producing nutrients that can be absorbed into the blood. There are several different types of organisms that are part of our natural flora. Those most widely studied are Lactobacillus acidophilus, Bifidobacterium bifidus, Lactobacillus sporogenes, Lactobacillus casei, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, and Saccharomyces boulardii. The use of broad-spectrum antibiotics kill off the good and harmful bacteria together, so supplementation is necessary to replenish the protective flora. It is important to consult a physician when choosing a probiotic because these organisms are very delicate. Poor quality supplements may not only be ineffective, but also contain contaminants that can be potential sources of infection. In cases where the bacterial population is not severely decreased by antibiotics, but is moderately impaired by various stresses, it is helpful to take "prebiotics". These are substances that the good bacteria use as food, therefore promoting their growth and activity. For example, rice fiber, onion, banana, oats, mushrooms, garlic, tomato, and asparagus all contain non-digestible components that are particularly attractive to our friendly mini cultures.
While providing the colon with a plethora of good food, it is important to be wary of including toxins that may have adverse effects on its function. For example, food allergies can have a deleterious effect on the integrity of the colon by creating inflammation, and therefore weaken its structure and function. Food allergies can be mediated by a few different immune globulins. IgA immune globulins are secreted by plasma cells and bind to the mucus layer on top of the our cells to form a barrier capable of neutralizing threats before they can enter the cell. If secretory IgA is low, it usually indicates an immune system deficiency. IgE mediated reactions are immediate and can lead to life-threatening symptoms such as fluid over-production in the nose and lungs, tissue reactions, and inflammation of the airway. IgG mediated reactions are less severe can be delayed up to 72 hours after exposure to the aggravating food and can appear as behavioral changes or physical inflammatory tissue reactions. Continued intake of an allergenic food leads to low-grade reactions that are easily missed. The most definitive way to test a food is to completely remove it from the diet for 3 months and reintroduce it, watching for reactions up to 72 hours after introduction. It is difficult to test several foods this way, so we offer a blood test that checks for IgG antibodies to 96 different major foods. The simple finger-stick test can be done in the office and will grade the reaction from 1-6 and help identify problematic foods.
In summary, the colon depends on the help of its little bacteria helpers, good substances coming in, and healthy muscle tone and function to move things out. Our colon deserves our attention, and with a little love and care, we can make sure it continues serving us well for years to come. After all, there is nothing better than the present to avoid a future predicament. We look forward to working with you in your journey towards better health.