The colon (large intestine) is a toxic place. It is where all the solid waste material of the body is collected for removal. It is also the main route that toxins are removed from the body. Normal colon function is essential for normal health.
The colon is home to trillions of bacteria. In fact, the colon harbors the highest concentrations of bacteria in the body. At least 400 different species of bacteria are possible. Most are friendly, but there are always potential pathogens (disease-causing microbes) in the mix. Imbalance in the gut microbiome (which is the sum of all the microbes in the gut) can be a source of great misery.
Consumption of refined carbohydrates (bread, pasta, cereal, pastries, sugar) stimulates growth of gut bacteria. Overgrowth of bacteria in the colon is referred to as “dysbiosis”. Dysbiosis results in general abdominal discomfort, gas, bloating, and either loose stools or constipation (frequently alternates between the two).
Bacterial overgrowth causes mild chronic inflammation which slows the rhythmic contractions that move solid material through the colon. Chronic emotional stress also tends to slow the movement of food materials through the intestinal tract. Things get backed up and solid material becomes compacted. Bowel movements slow or stop.
Bacterial overgrowth can be associated with a shift toward pathogens. Certain pathogens produce toxins which damage the lining of the colon. When things get backed up, toxins accumulate and damage to the colon is accelerated. The damaged lining of the colon “leaks” fluid into the lumen (cavity). Accumulation of fluid and toxins stimulates the colon, resulting in explosive diarrhea. Once the colon is completely evacuated, the cycle starts over again.
Sources of “Bad” Bacteria
The types of dysfunction a person ends up with is very dependent on the spectrum of bacteria present. Every person on the planet has a slightly different combination of bacteria in the gut microbiome. At birth, a person’s bacteria is the same as his or her mother, but that quickly changes with exposure to the surrounding environment. Anything introduced into the oral cavity, including food, liquids, or foreign objects, introduces bacteria. Initially, the void is quickly filled with well-adapted friendly flora, but new microbes are added throughout life… and not all of them are friendly.
Spoiled or contaminated food can be a source of pathogens. Getting the wrong bacteria can happen at any time during a person’s life. Most of the time, the problem is transient, but a bad offender can cause a lifetime of misery.
Prolonged use of synthetic antibiotics destroys normal flora (friendly bacteria), causing a shift in the microbiome toward pathogens. There are always pathogens present in the gut microbiome (everyone has them), but they are continually marginalized by friendly flora. If friendly flora are destroyed, pathogens can flourish.
Clostridium difficile is one of the most notorious of the disease-causing pathogens associated with antibiotic use (though there are many others). C. diff can show up after extended use of any antibiotic, but it is more commonly associated with a certain antibiotic called clindamycin when it is taken orally. Outbreak of C. diff is associated with severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea.
High concentrations of pathogenic bacteria can result in severe inflammation and ulcerations of the intestinal lining. This problem tends to be chronic and debilitating.
Mechanical Problems in the Colon
The wall of the colon contains bands of muscles that rhythmically contract to move stool downwards. Weakening can occur in the wall of the colon between the bands of muscles, causing out-pouches to form. These pouches are called diverticula. Formation of diverticula can occur in anyone, but some people are more susceptible than others. The presence of diverticula in the colon is not a problem as long as everything is moving on through. If movement is slowed or bacterial overgrowth is present, however, material and can become trapped in the diverticula and stagnate. An inflamed diverticula can cause abdominal pain and sometimes fever.
Tips for a Healthy Colon from Dr. Rawls
- Fiber is extremely important for colon health, but the type of fiber matters. Dietary fiber should come mostly from vegetables. Half of your food should come from fresh vegetables. Fruit is also a good source of fiber, but should not be your predominant source because of all the sugar. Grain-derived processed foods of any variety (including whole-grain wheat products) are the worst enemies of good colon health.
- Ginger offers potent anti-inflammatory properties for healing the gut. Make a gallon of ginger tea and drink it several times each day. (Note that ginger tea can cause mild constipation in some individuals).
- Carefully chosen herbs can do wonders.
- Stealth microbes grow slowly, can live inside cells, and exist in low concentrations in the body, rendering conventional antibiotics as mostly ineffective.
- Stealth microbes change genetic signature continually, making vaccines ineffective (if you could actually find them).
- In general, they have very low potential to cause severe disease (they can make you miserable for a lifetime).
When Things Won’t Move
Becoming chronically backed up with stool is a miserable feeling. And while some people can eat anything and never have a problem, others can look at the wrong foods and become backed up. Tendencies generally start at an early age.The primary culprits are modern processed food products. Foods made from wheat are at the top of the list. Yes, wheat. And yes, that raisin bran you’ve been packing in (because you have been told it is good for you) is actually making it worse. Wheat products wreak havoc on the entire intestinal tract and stimulate growth of abnormal bacteria in the colon. This completely inhibits normal function.
In addition to processed foods, many medications also inhibit colon function and the movement of food matter. Inadequate fluid intake, decreased physical activity, hypothyroidism, and chronic stress can also be contributing factors.
Tips for Getting Unstuck
If things are really stuck, you may need enemas to get things moving. First, a mineral enema to soften the stool, and then one or several regular enemas. Packaged products (such as Fleet Enema®) from the pharmacy are the easiest to use.After that, you may need to flush your entire intestinal tract. 1-2 bottles of magnesium citrate from the pharmacy will usually do the trick (they typically come in lime or cherry flavors; try it over ice). Drink a bottle in the afternoon. If you have not had a full response within 2-4 hours, drink another bottle. Occasionally laxative pills will be necessary, but not that often.
Now that your colon is clear, you will want to keep it that way. Normal function returns very slowly. The safest laxative to use on a regular basis is Milk of Magnesia from the pharmacy. Magnesium does not harm the colon. It can be used regularly. You will have to play around with the dose until you are having 1-2 formed stools daily. This may be 1-2 teaspoons 2-3 times daily. Regular bathroom schedules help retrain your colon. (Note that use of magnesium can make Lyme symptoms worse in individuals with Lyme disease.)
IT IS IMPORTANT TO HAVE A BOWEL MOVEMENT EVERY DAY. Even if you have to use a mild enema to get things moving, you should. Every day you go without a bowel movement, toxins build up and damage occurs to the colon. You should also try and have a bowel movement at the same time every day. Some people actually do better going twice daily.
Note that this is one place where herbal products may not be the best choice—especially for chronic use. Most all of the herbal products for constipation contain either senna or cascara. Even though they are natural, these substances work by damaging the lining of the colon and causing it to leak fluid – not something that you want to do on a regular basis (though occasional use is acceptable).
Restoring normal balance in the microbiome often helps restore normal function in the colon.
The one exception is Triphala, an age-old herbal combination from India that has been used for thousands of years to restore normal colon function. Triphala contains three dried fruits, amalaki, bibhitaki, and haritaki, in powder form. Triphala provides a mild safe laxative action, but also helps restore normal muscular tone in the colon. Triphala is safe to use on a regular basis.
Cooking with ghee (clarified butter from grass-fed cows) is beneficial for digestive function. Ghee lubricates stool and allows for easier passage. Ghee also provides high concentrations of butyrate, a short-chain saturated fatty acid used by intestinal cells for energy.
Other over-the-counter products to be aware of include Miralax® and fiber supplements. Miralax® is a mild stimulant laxative. Most people experience minimal benefit, but it is safe for long term use. Natural fiber laxatives, especially those containing psyllium often cause significant gas and bloating and generally should be avoided.