(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Bowel health is a topic that rarely comes up in everyday conversation. More often we talk about what we should or shouldn’t consume at the other end of the digestive tract. But let us remember the Zen fable of the master who pours tea into the student’s cup until it overflows: we must first empty our cups before we can fill them. In the same way, the food and supplements we consume are just one facet of digestive health. How efficient we are at getting rid of waste is just as important.
Ayurvedic, Chinese, and Western naturopathic medical philosophies all regard healthy elimination as a cornerstone of good health, and they see digestive imbalance as the root of a wide range of diseases. This concept is especially central to Ayurveda (the traditional medical system of India), which views virtually all illness as originating with faulty digestion, and supreme health as emanating from good food that’s digested well. Hence, the treatment of everything from acne to depression often begins with correcting digestion. This isn’t just some wacky alternative idea – even in the medical mainstream, the emerging fields of neurogastroenterology and psychoneuroimmunology are demonstrating the many ways in which gut health affects the mind, emotions, and immune system.
Traditional Chinese medical philosophy explains that the functions of our bodily organs go far beyond their biomedical roles. The large intestine is more than an organ that extracts water from the stool and moves waste out of the body. The expanded concept of the large intestine is that it represents our capacity to recognize and get rid of garbage in all areas of our lives. It encompasses our ability to see what we’re carrying around that perhaps was once good for us but no longer is. When this faculty isn’t working well, we become clogged and cluttered, and our ability to perceive and assimilate what is good for us declines.
Waste products from all body systems make their way to the colon for disposal. The lungs and the skin, in particular, are critically dependent on the colon’s “taking out the trash” in order to function optimally. Acne, dry and scaly skin, brittle hair and nails, dandruff, eczema, psoriasis, asthma, and allergies all tend to benefit from improving bowel health.
Optimal bowel transit time – the time it takes from eating something until it’s eliminated in the stool – is about 18-24 hours. Digestive transit needs to be slow enough for you to extract all the nutrients from your food, yet fast enough so that the toxins in your stool are not kept in the body any longer than necessary. Slow transit time, and thus prolonged exposure to these toxins, plus the holding of a large volume of poop in the colon, is understandably unhealthy. It may contribute to polyps and tumors of the colon and irritation of its lining. Slow transit time may allow the body to draw too much water out of the stool, making it dry and potentially contributing to hemorrhoids, bleeding, and discomfort. You can test your transit time by eating several activated charcoal tablets or some beets. See how long it takes until you see black (charcoal) or red (beets) in your stool. Transit time isn’t the only indicator of bowel health, but it’s an important basic foundation.
Now for some principles of good bowel health which should be part of everyone’s routine:
- Water: Water is essential for moist stool that moves freely. If the stools are dry, dehydration is the first thing to consider. Drink half the number of pounds you weigh as ounces of non-iced water evenly over the course of each day. (For instance, if you weigh 140 pounds, you’ll drink 70 ounces of water a day.)
- Good Fats: These lubricate the bowels to keep us regular. Sesame seeds, almonds, olive oil, avocado, flax seed meal and oil, salmon, fish oil, chia, walnuts, hemp seed, and coconut are good lubricants and healthful foods.
- Plant Fiber: Fiber scours the digestive tract, drawing out toxins, old stool, and “bad” cholesterol (LDL), while supporting “good” cholesterol (HDL). Fiber has a huge list of health benefits, including protection against heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Fiber also makes us feel full, helping to prevent overeating. Oats, konjac, prunes, bran, peas and beans, pumpkin seeds, apples, pears, psyllium seed husks, and most vegetables are good sources.
- Exercise That Engages the Abdominal Muscles: The abdominal muscles support intestinal movement, so regular exercise helps keep the bowels regular.
- Good Gut Bugs: The healthy microorganisms or “flora” that live in the bowels are essential for optimal nutrient absorption, they support immune function, protect against harmful microorganisms, fortify the intestinal wall, and synthesize some vitamins. If harmful microorganisms in the gut outnumber the beneficial ones, this leads to production of toxic byproducts which promote disease. It’s important to regularly replenish the helpful critters by eating cultured foods, such as sauerkraut, kefir, miso, and kimchi. We frequently prescribe “probiotics” to seed the gut with healthy bacteria. Not every species is optimal for every person’s body, so if you don’t have a good experience with one brand, try another. (Occasionally, when you begin a new probiotic, you’ll experience some temporary bowel changes, gas, or discomfort while your gut microbiome – the whole community of flora – adjusts.)
- Relaxation: Tension is probably the biggest factor in bowel irregularity. The gut is extremely sensitive to our thoughts and emotions. Stress can speed up or restrict bowel motility. If you’re “holding onto something” this may show up physically as “holding onto” your stool. Sometimes we do this in a subtle, unconscious way. Other times we do it more consciously – like sucking in the abdomen because we don’t like how we look.
- Routine: Having a regular eating and sleeping routine (going to bed and waking up at the same time every day and eating our meals at the same time every day) promotes regularity of our bowel movements.
- Be Mindful of Bowel Disruptors: Some medications, foods, and dietary supplements can disrupt bowel function. Iron and calcium, for instance, can slow motility, as can meat. Large amounts of fiber tend to speed it up (though fiber can also clog us). Big doses of magnesium or vitamin C can cause loose stools. Spicy foods may cause burning as they leave the body.
- Squat: Squatting is a healthful posture. Humans used to squat much more than we do nowadays, and always squatted to move the bowels. Sitting on a toilet is not natural and tends to “crimp” the colon (but it became widespread after the chair-style toilet was popularized by European aristocracy in the 1800s). Try squatting with the thighs against the abdomen on a regular basis – while gardening, watching TV, or writing. If you’re adventurous, squat when you poop. Stand on the toilet seat and go.
- Take Advantage of Natural Rhythms: Chinese medicine says the ideal time for a bowel movement is between 5-7 AM, when the colon is strongest. If you sit on a toilet during this time and wait, the bowels will often move and you can train yourself in this way to go every morning. Sometimes having a glass of hot water can help (adding a little honey may help even more). While sitting, don’t push. You can learn to feel the peristaltic waves (the wringing movement of the intestines) and relax with them to allow them to move the stool along, rather than squeezing and halting this movement.
- Let Go of as Much as You Can. In light of the Chinese view of the colon’s role in helping us to let go of anything that we’re ready to be rid of, try practicing mindfulness while having a bowel movement. If there are things you want to let go of – say, some resentment or sadness – imagine you’re directing it into your bowels and expelling it with the physical waste.
I hope this discussion has made you a bit less squeamish about poop and better able to make this act as productive and healthy as possible. All’s well that ends well.
Copyright 2009 by Peter Borten. No unauthorized reproduction in any form without permission.