14 Dec Bowel Health: A Conversation Starter for Your Next Party
(Originally published as a newsletter for The Dragontree Holistic Day Spa)
Bowel health is a topic that rarely comes up in everyday conversations. 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 see digestive imbalance as the root of a wide range of diseases. This concept is especially central to Ayurveda, which views virtually all disease as originating with faulty digestion. Hence, the treatment of everything from acne to insomnia begins with correcting this system.
Chinese Five Element philosophy explains that the functions of our bodily organs go far beyond their biomedical roles. The colon is more than an organ that extracts water from the stool and moves waste out of the body. The expanded concept of the colon is that it represents our capacity to recognize and get rid of garbage in all areas of our lives. It lets us 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, but the use of medication for this depends on the diabetic supplies and various other treatments which an individual is already using.
Optimal bowel transit time – the time it takes from eating something until it’s eliminated in the stool – is about 16-24 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, is a major contributing factor in colon cancer. 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 six 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.
Here are some principles of good bowel health which should be part of everyone’s routine:
• Adequate water: Water is essential for moist stool that moves freely. If the stools are dry, dehydration is the first thing to consider.
• Adequate “good” fat consumption: These lubricate the bowels to keep us regular. Sesame seeds, almonds, walnuts, olive oil, avocado, flax seed meal and oil, salmon, hemp, chia, coconut and coconut oil are good lubricants and healthful foods.
• Adequate 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 (glucomannan), prunes, bran, peas and beans, apples, pears, and most vegetables are good sources. We also sell a blend of different kinds of fibers in a tasty wafer form at the spa.
• Adequate exercise that engages the abdominal muscles: The abdominal muscles support intestinal movement, so regular exercise helps keep the bowels regular.
• Adequate “good gut bugs”: The healthy microorganisms or “flora” that live in the bowels are essential for food absorption, they support immune function, and they synthesize vitamins. If harmful microorganisms in the gut outnumber the beneficial ones, this leads to production of toxic byproducts which promote disease. We frequently prescribe “probiotics” to seed the gut with healthy bacteria.
• 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. As explained in the section on Chinese medical philosophy, if you’re “holding onto something” this may show up physically as “holding onto” your stool.
• Routine: Having a regular eating and sleeping routine helps the bowels be more regular.
• Some medications, foods, and dietary supplements can disrupt bowel function. Iron and calcium, for instance, can slow motility. Large amounts of fiber tend to speed it up. Big doses of magnesium or vitamin C can cause loose stools. Spicy foods may cause burning as they leave the body.
• 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.
• Chinese medicine says the ideal time for a bowel movement is between 5-7 AM (6-8 AM now, in Daylight Savings Time), 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.
• Consider Triphala. Triphala is an Ayurvedic herbal formula consisting of three fruits (amalaki, haritaki, and bibhitaki) which, taken together, regulate the bowels and support digestive health. It is traditionally taken as a powder, but you can also find it in capsules.
Let go of as much as you can when you have a bowel movement. In light of the Chinese view of the colon’s role of 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 a bad habit – imagine you’re directing it into your bowels and expelling it with the physical waste. All’s well that ends well.
Copyright 2009 by Peter Borten. No unauthorized reproduction in any form without permission.
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