Many bowel problems start in the stomach!
If your digestive system is not working efficiently, then the chyme that enters the colon is not properly broken down, meaning it is not the correct pH for optimal functioning of the colon. The colon becomes stressed and loses both form and function. In turn, this creates bowel irregularity and toxins are re-absorbed into the lymph and circulatory systems, leading to disease. Faecal waste matter is retained, coating the colon wall that leads to mal-absorption and inflammation.
Regardless of whether your diet is highly nutritious or you take vitamin and mineral supplements, you could still experience fatigue and a variety health disorders if you fail to resolve this problem. If your gut is not working efficiently, you do not utilise nutrients from the food you eat and that will impact on the bowel function. So, it is not just about diet - it is how you metabolise and assimilate! Stress, for instance, can impact on how your gut works.
Constipation is the difficult or infrequent passage of stools (bowel movements). Some medical advice may define constipation as a bowel movement fewer than three times a week, but I have also been told by people I have met that their doctors advised them once a week was acceptable if that had been their pattern for a long time. I beg to differ here! We should, in fact, eliminate at least once a day. Some people have a slightly faster motility genetically and therefore they may eliminate 2-3 times a day. If they are normal stools (like a ripe banana!) then that is fine for them. Those with a slow motility may find they only eliminate once a day or suffer more from constipation. If the stools are not well formed - "rabbit pellets", thin dry stools or receding stools - it is considered to be constipation.
When you are constipated, the colon may be holding 4.5 – 9 kilos or more. This is a huge problem since the colon is overstretched and contains heavy stools that irritate the intestinal mucosa and anal canal. This toxic mass causes fermentation with rotten waste unable to be expelled. Overstretching to accommodate excess waste can lead to pockets forming in the colon. It's a bit like finding another 'cupboard' space for your rubbish!
Constipation causes a person to strain during a bowel movement and sometimes causes anal problems such as fissures and haemorrhoids. Straining can also put pressure on the pelvic floor creating weakness and even creating a prolapse.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Often the term Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is used loosely to suggest that a number of symptoms are present, affecting how the bowel is working. Causes could be changes of routine, emotional stress, infection, pharmaceutical medication and diet.
If you experience any of the following fairly consistently over a two month period you may have IBS.
Abdominal/belly pain with one or more of the following: relief by defecation (opening the bowels/passing stool)change in frequencychange in consistency of stool (faeces)
Irregular pattern of defecation for at least two days a week which involves at least three of:altered stool frequencyhard/loose stoolsaltered stool passage - straining/urgency/sense of incomplete evacuation of bowelpassage of mucusbloating or feeling of abdominal distension/cramping
Other symptoms could include:very loose watery stools with urgency to go to the toileta need to go again after first eliminationexcess flatulence/gas
People with IBS often have stronger/more irregular contractions in their bowel while food is digesting.
Spastic colon is also referred to as IBS; it is not a disease. Instead, it is a functional disorder, meaning the bowel simply does not work as it should. Spastic Colon is characterised as a brain/gut dysfunction. This involves the enteric nervous system and is often referred to by naturopaths as the gut/brain/mind connection. In other words, everything that affects your mind/emotions will affect the function of your gut. Too much mental stimulus or stress, anxiety, constant worries or being overwhelmed emotionally for lengthy periods has a negative effect on the function of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT). Upper GIT symptoms are not a typical part of this disorder. In women, attacks can occur with menstruation. An uptight person can have an uptight GIT, so laxatives would not be appropriate for initial treatments.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
Ulcerative colitis (UC) is a type of inflammatory bowel disease affecting the large bowel (colon and rectum). It is a condition which causes the bowel to become inflamed and red. Colitis refers to inflammation of the colon. Causes of Colitis can be Crohn's disease, radiation therapy, ischemic colitis due to not enough going to the colon, infection or simply be unknown.
Crohn's disease can affect any segment of the alimentary canal, from the oesophagus to the anus. It occurs more in the last portion of the small intestine, known as the ileum. When occurring in the small intestine, it is referred to as regional enteritis and if present in the colon, known as granulomatous colitis. Inflammation extends deep into the lining of the affected organ, causing colicky pain and diarrhoea.
These diseases are called Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). IBD tends to develop between 15 and 30 years of age, but can start at any age, with very young children increasingly diagnosed with Crohn's Disease.
Colitis and Crohn's conditions are associated with increased frequency of colonic cancer.
Some people have small pouches or pockets in their colons that bulge outward through weak spots distorting the colon. These pouches are called diverticula. The condition of having diverticula is called diverticulosis, which becomes more common as people age. When these pouches become infected or inflamed it is referred to as diverticulitis. Diverticulosis and diverticulitis are also called diverticular disease. Impacted waste can lodge in these pockets and create toxicity and inflammation. Parasites can infect and breed here leading to other health disorders.
Polyps are benign (non-cancerous) growths in the tissues lining the colon and rectum. Cancer develops only when polyps grow and abnormal cells develop invading surrounding tissue. Removal of polyps can prevent the development of colorectal cancer. Many precancerous polyps can be removed painlessly using a flexible lighted tube called a colonoscope. Cancer can spread throughout the body if polyps are not removed. Early forms of colorectal cancer do not cause symptoms, so early screening is important. When symptoms occur, the cancer may already be quite advanced. Symptoms include blood on/mixed in with the stool, a change in normal bowel habits, narrowing of the stool, abdominal pain, weight loss, or constant tiredness.
Colorectal cancer is detected in one of four ways:By screening people at average risk for colorectal cancer beginning at age 50Screening people with family history or a personal history of colon polyps/cancerInvestigating the bowel in patients with symptomsA chance finding at a routine check-up
Early detection is important.
A healthy GIT has a particular set of bacteria living within it. Alterations in the bacteria count or population can influence our health. Bacteria in our digestive tract produce many vitamins, micronutrients and chemicals, contributing to good health and well being. When these bacteria are out of sync, chemicals that are detrimental to health are produced in larger amounts causing dysfunction. Probiotics containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium are usually recommended. However, each set of symptoms or disorders requires specific live bacteria formulas so it is not that simple.
Often, there is bacterial overgrowth in the gut resulting in increased amine production, which, in turn, causes cognitive/attention deficits, depression and fatigue.
The two main types of bacteria found in the large intestine are:Aerobic bacteria that need oxygen to surviveAnaerobic bacteria that die in the presence of oxygen.
The most common aerobic bacteria in healthy intestines are:Escherichia coli (E.coli) - approximately 90-95% of all the aerobic bacteriaEnterococcus (second most common) averaging 5% in the gut.
Research indicates E. coli is often lower in IBS, around 50% compared to the normal 90-95%. Some cases with IBS showed a 20% streptococcus overgrowth overriding E.coli. Changes to anaerobes/bacteria (types that die when oxygen is present) are often indicated. There is usually a significant decrease in Bactericides, with an increase in the number of Bifidobacteria in faeces of IBS patients. E.coli and bactericides help production of an important amino acid tryptophan, which helps break down proteins in your diet.
IBS sufferers often have lower levels of neurotransmitter precursor amino acids, along with other organic acids that contribute to energy production and muscle metabolism.
Serotonin is manufactured in the gut as well as in the brain and the amino acid tryptophan is essential to ensure a balance. Tryptophan is a precursor of serotonin, an important brain neurotransmitter helping the entire GIT motility and function, aside from helping us feel emotionally stable and happy.
Tryptophan levels are known to fluctuate significantly over the course of the menstrual cycle, which could contribute to bowel changes some women experience during certain times of their cycle.
The above examples are the most common disorders affecting the large intestine/colon.
Ensure you have good quality fats/oils in your diet. A little animal fat on chicken or meat will be beneficial. Dietary fat stimulates the release of bile from the gallbladder, which, in turn, stimulates the gastrocolic reflex. This, in turn, stimulates peristalsis, which, in its own turn, stimulates defecation. Olive oil and flaxseed are highly nutritious with many other health benefits that ought to be incorporated into your diet on salads, vegetables or even on pre-soaked grains (rice flakes, rolled oats, barley, quinoa and amaranth).
However, some research indicates that all grains are actually contributing to the many types of bowel disorders people are experiencing. When asked, I only recommend those quoted (unless the person is gluten intolerant) but you may wish to abstain from all grains to see if you experience any improvement. They must all be pre-soaked overnight in water, not milk!
Basically, if you have no fat in the diet you may experience insufficient bile.
I have met two women who were strict vegan or vegetarian who had no animal fat and only ate skim milk and low fat dairy. In both cases, they had chronic constipation and both had had their gall bladder removed. Oils lubricate the gall bladder and help it work better.
How can natural therapies help?
You are better placed to draw upon the effectiveness and safety of many different natural therapies for any of the above mentioned disorders rather than using harsh chemical/synthetic anti-inflammatories or laxatives, which often irritate an already inflamed mucous membrane of the GIT.
Obviously, if any structural issues or cases of polyps exist then you must seek medical attention and possible surgery. You should also seek a medical diagnosis if you see any blood, especially dark blood, in your stools. This needs to be investigated immediately.
Herbal and homoeopathic remedies can be used to help with any of the following:Counteract inflammationEliminate parasites/worms/toxinsHeal the mucous membranes of entire gastrointestinal tractAssist with healthy bile productionTreat any liver/gall bladder issues that could be contributing to bowel issuesRe-educate natural peristalsis movement in the intestines/colonHelp normalise digestion to assist bowel functionAct as a toner/astringent action for loose bowelsOffer laxative action (several laxative herbs offer varying degrees of cathartic action, so it is important to select the correct type for the relevant disorder/constitution)Ongoing maintenance without side effects or irritation
A wide array of formulas has been created for specific GIT disorders.
Probiotics containing Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium are pretty general formulas. Other formulas may contain any of the following:Lactobacillus plantarum - often used for inflammatory bowel problemsLactobacillus rhaminosus/acidophilus/casei/fermentum, Bifidobacterium lactis/bifidum/breve/longum or Saccharomyces cerevisiae (Boulardii), Streptococcus thermophilus. Galacto-oligosaccharides, Arabinogalactans along with Oligofructose are also used in some formulas. Some blends incorporate colostrum and inulin.
As you can see, it is important to select the right formula for the disorder being treated and this is why you are advised to seek professional advice.
It is important that these bacteria are only taken for a certain period to re-populate the GIT. When taken for too long you could even create an imbalance.
Supplements and EnzymesVarious amino acids such as glutamine (depending on your symptoms/disorder)Correct digestive enzymes can help if you have diminished stomach/pancreatic/liver enzymes to help metabolise food. Avoid those with Betaine HCL on the label.Minerals and vitamins - if deficiencies are present or if the disorder requires higher supplementation to assist in healing:Magnesium (helps with constipation)B6 (IBS)Vitamin D (reduce cancer cell growth)Antioxidants such as Vitamin E, seleniumZincCalcium, to name a few.
I recommend anyone with any GIT health disorders to have slippery elm powder in their cupboard. You can take one dessertspoon each morning for about 7-10 days and then depending on symptoms take on alternate days for a while. Add to a pre-soaked cereal (I only recommend grains quoted above), or mix with goat yogurt. Grains must be soaked overnight with any dried fruit or nuts. You can add cinnamon for flavor, a few dried sultanas/raisins/cranberries/apricots and, depending on your disorder, ground (not whole) almonds or walnuts. Never eat dried fruit that has not been soaked. Cook through with water the next day till creamy and thick and serve with chopped banana. You will not need to add any further liquid on this cereal. If you must use a small amount of rice milk, mix the slippery elm powder with this. Do not use cow's milk on any of these grains.
Therapies such as acupuncture, Bowen therapy, reflexology, remedial/sports massage, aromatherapy and meditation can assist with various bowel disorders.
Very warm to hot Epsom salt baths prior to bed can help. This old remedy relaxes all your muscles and your internal organs including your mind (if you add 3-4 drops of Vetiver essential oil). Use about 3-4 cups of Epsom salts in a full bath. They are high in magnesium which helps detoxify and aides with elimination.
Long-standing disorders need to be addressed and you need to seek help from qualified naturopaths on for these natural remedies and GPs for any tests you may require. Stool tests can be obtained to check on GIT bacteria (if colonisation is required), along with worms/parasites and other discrepancies.
Herbalists and naturopaths of old have always quoted that the 'Stomach is the seat of disease'. By improving your stomach health, you will help bowel function. In turn, your entire health will improve, allergies will start to resolve, skin disorders heal, proper weight will be maintained more easily and many other health disorders.
Avoid harsh pharmaceutical laxatives. The bowel will become lazy with their overuse and you dry out and irritate the intestinal lining.
Some people like to receive colonic irrigations. I find that the best subjects are usually more sedentary people with a lazy bowel rather than those who are uptight and have a tight stressed colon. Enemas may be more applicable for the latter.
Never put off the urge to go to the toilet. To keep doing this because you are 'busy' means the body gets lazy. The sphincter muscle contracts and helps the descending colon/rectum to release waste; failure to acknowledge this 'message' means waste then recedes back up the rectum waiting for the next 'message'. Failure to eliminate again because you are 'busy' means more waste recedes. This can become impacted and the descending colon bulges out with excess waste. A bulging colon can be seen by iridologists and often it may be causing pressure on surrounding organs. Constipation can contribute to high blood pressure with some people.
Case examples: One woman I met with only passed bowel motions every 10-12 days! Her doctor advised her that since this had been the case for many years, this appeared normal for her body! She came to see me not for the bowel, but for her skin disorder. I gave her herbs to help with the liver, kidneys, bowels and her mind, but no laxatives. She advised me she was eliminating every day, and this really freaked her out! She was not used to this frequency and felt uncomfortable with the daily visits. Unfortunately, she stopped the remedies after three weeks. She refused to eat any plant food except peas, carrots and lettuce, preferring hamburgers and Coke every day for lunch and sometimes dinner.An elderly man was on warfarin and a couple of other pharmaceutical drugs which appeared to be interfering with his digestion and bowel function. Again, I never gave laxatives. From his case history, I gave him appropriate live bacteria, created a formula to help relax the digestion and improve liver and gall bladder function and he returned saying he was having daily elimination.A case of dysbiosis whereby the man was constantly eliminating and it became quite loose and watery. His case was chronic and had been left untreated for a long time. Appropriate live bacteria for this type of bowel disorder along with slippery elm powder and herbal remedies helped considerably.
Many herbs will help to heal the colon wall but most are not available retail. Some people need to take ongoing maintenance remedies, but that is a small price to pay for acquiring a healthier functioning GIT.
Sleep is very important. You must have at least 7-8 hours every night of unbroken sleep to help heal and regenerate your body. The need to relax the nervous and endocrine system is very important when you are looking at the function of the GIT.
Practise meditation, yoga or Tai Chi. Learn to chill out and relax your mind. Release your mind from stress and mental chatter, along with daily worries and the over stimulus that can occur during work hours and using the computer at work and home.
Sydney-based Lyn Craven is a practitioner of naturopathy, nutrition, medical herbalism, Bowen therapy, Reiki energy healing and meditation, and is a corporate health presenter/consultant with 19 years' experience in natural therapies. Lyn has recently created a Meditation CD for anxiety, stress and self healing.
Lyn Craven is a practitioner of Naturopathy, Bowen Therapy, Energy/Reiki therapist, meditation teacher and Corporate Health Consultant. She is also a health researcher/writer and has produced a meditation CD assisting people to manage anxiety and stress. She runs a private practice in Sydney and can be contacted on +61403 231 804