Colon health is a broad and complicated subject about which many weighty books have been written. In terms of cancer prevention and overall health, the colon is one of the keys to maintaining longevity and well-being, and taking some very simple steps can significantly improve your health in the short-term and long-term.
What is the Colon and What Does It Do?
The colon or large intestine is an organ of elimination in the human body and is generally six feet long in the average adult. While the small intestine can be up to 22 feet long and is intrinsic to the absorption of many important nutrients, the large intestine does not play a large role in nutrient absorption other than some fat-soluble vitamins (like Vitamin K) and the mineral potassium. Most importantly, the colon helps to maintain the body’s water balance by reabsorbing most of the water in human feces, and this is why a person suffering from diarrhea runs a great risk of dehydration due to the amount of water that is lost in loose and watery stool.
The colon is also the organ where material that cannot be absorbed by the body is fermented by friendly flora (bacteria), and this all-important organ of elimination also removes unfriendly bacteria, parasites, and other unwanted materials from the body before they can pass into the bloodstream.
If most experts were to choose the single most important aspect of colon health, it would be fiber, also known as roughage. Fiber is basically the undigestible parts of plant-based foods that pass through your digestive system and make up a significant portion of normal human waste. Fiber is generally available through the ingestion of whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Since fiber cannot be broken down by the digestive system, it remains in the intestines and absorbs water, expanding its size within the colon. Fiber gives the colon something substantial to “hold onto”, and the action of moving roughage through the colon exercises the intestinal walls and prevents the formation of diverticuli. Diverticuli are pouch-like herniations along the intestinal wall that can slowly fill with particles and hardened balls of feces, potentially leading to problems like diverticulitis (inflammation and infection) and cancer.
In diets high in processed foods and low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, the colon becomes sluggish, the walls become weak, and diverticulosis, constipation and other conditions can quickly become chronic.
Along with fiber, water is the other most essential ingredient to colon health. Water lubricates the colon, separating sticky stool from the mucous membrane on the interior colon walls. Water also acts to stimulate hormones that promote the muscular movement of the walls of the colon, movement that is essential to the efficient transit of stool.
When considering how much water to drink per day, some experts classically recommend eight tall glasses of water in every 24-hour period. Other experts offer this simple calculation: drink half of your body weight in ounces of water every day (meaning that a person who weighs 200 pounds will drink 100 ounces of water each day).
In terms of beverages, remember that tea, soda, alcohol and coffee and many caffeinated energy drinks are actually diuretic in nature. These drinks can cause excessive urination, depleting your body of fluids rather than hydrating it. And while some experts promote sports drinks like Gatorade, pure water is truly the only beverage you need for hydration—even competitive athletes.