8 Things You Need to Know About Your Colon

Don't put up with cramps, bloating and other bellyaches: Get relief with this guide.

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Think of it as your personal garbage disposal: Your colon (aka your bowel or large intestine) absorbs minerals and water from food before pushing the remains out into the toilet where they belong. A lot can go wrong in that seemingly simple process, though, leading to conditions from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and constipation to age-related maladies like hemorrhoids and diverticulosis. Keep your colon running smoothly—and reduce your risk of diseases such as cancer—with our prescription for the best foods, natural cures and cutting-edge treatments.

Problem No. 1: Irritable bowel syndrome

The lowdown IBS "is a term doctors use to describe gastrointestinal issues such as recurrent diarrhea, bloating and/or constipation that they can't explain," says Alex Ky, MD, a colorectal surgeon at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

What it feels like The clinical diagnosis is abdominal pain or discomfort for at least three days a month in the past three months, plus at least two of these symptoms: pain that gets better after a bowel movement (BM), changes in BM frequency or a difference in how your BMs look. In some cases, symptoms can become so intense that you don't want to travel for long distances or even leave the house.

MORE: 18 Reasons Why Your Stomach Hurts

Rx Treatment might include over-the-counter medications such as stool softeners, fiber supplements, probiotics or prescription antispasmodic medications to relieve abdominal pain. Low-dose tricyclic antidepressants can reduce the intensity of pain signals going from gut to brain. You may also want to keep a food diary to see if any specific foods are causing flare-ups.

Fact: 60 percent of irritable bowel syndrome sufferers are women. No one is sure why we're so prone; it may be that the nerve cells in our digestive tracts are more sensitive.

Problem No. 2: Diarrhea

The lowdown When food and fluids aren't properly absorbed by the colon walls—most commonly when you have a virus causing inflammation in your intestines—they wind up exiting your body instead. Hello, diarrhea. Other, nonviral culprits include food poisoning, taking antibiotics or a lactose or fructose intolerance.

What it feels like Loose, watery, sometimes explosive stools, often with cramps and bloating.

Rx Traditional advice is to stick to the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) or other bland, low-fiber foods. You may lose electrolytes (minerals in your blood) after many episodes of diarrhea, so snack on stuff that's rich in potassium, like avocados, and drink electrolyte-containing fluids, such as Gatorade or coconut water. Check with your doctor before taking over-the-counter antidiarrhea products like Imodium; while they can help with symptoms, they may mess with your body's natural process of getting rid of infection. Most of the time, symptoms resolve on their own within 24 to 48 hours. See a doctor if they don't, if you become dehydrated (signs may include dark urine and a headache) or if you have bloody or black stools.

Problem No. 3: Constipation

The lowdown Clinical constipation is defined as having fewer than one BM every five days. But "everyone's normal is different, and you can go fairly frequently and still feel constipated if you're struggling when you do go," Dr. Ky says.

What it feels like Your poops are hard and dry, so you really have to strain to pass them. You may also have bloating or lower-abdominal discomfort.

Rx Fiber is your best friend, since it bulks up and softens stool, making it easier to pass. Aim for at least 25 grams a day—21g if you're over 50, says Alberto Barroso, MD, a gastroenterologist at Houston Methodist Hospital. (A cup of cooked black beans has about 15g, a medium apple has 4.4g and a cup of instant cooked oatmeal has 4g.) Just follow up all that fiber with water—at least 2 quarts a day—since without it, fiber can actually slow things down.

MORE: 20 Best Foods for Fiber

And don't put off bathroom time! Waiting (say, to squeeze in one more errand) can make you chronically constipated, Dr. Ky says, because the stool stays in your colon, which absorbs more of its fluid, making it drier and harder. If you're really plugged up, try an over-the-counter stool softener, such as Colace. Coffee works, too: The caffeine can stimulate your intestinal tract. For chronic constipation, you can talk to your doc about prescription meds.

Stuck? Try this move
A simple abdominal massage can help relieve constipation, according to a 2009 Swedish study. How to do it: Using both palms, stroke your tummy from the rib cage to about an inch below your belly button six times, then in a clockwise circular movement six times. Repeat for about 10 minutes.

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Hallie Levine Sklar
Last Updated: May 07, 2014

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