8 Things You Need to Know About Your Colon
Don't put up with cramps, bloating and other bellyaches: Get relief with this guide.
Getty ImagesThink 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.
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.
Next Page: Problem No. 4: Hemorrhoids [ pagebreak ]
Problem No. 4: Hemorrhoids
The lowdown If you've ever been pregnant, you've likely had them: inflamed arteries and veins in your rectum or the skin around it. You can get them from straining during a bowel movement (which is why you're more susceptible if you have chronic constipation) or from increased pressure on these veins during pregnancy, says Carol Burke, MD, director of the Center for Colon Polyps at the Cleveland Clinic.
What they feel like You may notice bright red blood on your toilet paper or dripping into the bowl but have no other symptoms; otherwise, you may have some itching or irritation around that area, or even feel a hemorrhoid sticking out.
Rx See your MD. Mild hemorrhoids can be treated by eating a high-fiber diet (to prevent constipation and reduce straining) and using over-the-counter pads with witch hazel, like Tucks, to relieve pain and itching. If your hemorrhoid is protruding from your anus, a colorectal surgeon can place a rubber band around it to choke off its blood supply so that it eventually falls off, Dr. Ky says. If that doesn't work, you can have the hemorrhoid removed surgically (which usually requires local anesthesia with sedation but is an outpatient procedure).
Watch out for this pain
Diverticulosis—a condition in which you develop small bulging pouches in your colon—afflicts about a third of adults over 45, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Usually, you don't realize you have pouches. But when one gets infected, a condition known as diverticulitis, you may experience abdominal pain (usually on your left side) that could send you to the ER. Don't worry: Antibiotics calm it down.
Crazy for colonics
Celebs such as Madonna and Janet Jackson have reportedly undergone colonics, a process in which a colon hydrotherapist places a tube in your rectum and flushes water into your colon. Why? The procedure is based on the theory that toxins build up in the colon, causing issues such as weight gain and fatigue, and need to be removed. But medical experts say that this is bogus. In fact, a 2011 Georgetown University review concluded that colonics have no benefit and could lead to side effects ranging from cramping to even death. Same goes for enemas—which Kourtney Kardashian has had—and other supposed colon cleanses. Bottom line: "Your colon does a great job of cleaning itself," Dr. Ky says. "It's not meant to be pristine."
Getty Images What is inflammatory bowel disease?
A constellation of diseases that involve chronic inflammation of your small intestine and colon, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) occurs when your immune system goes into overdrive and views food, bacteria and other normal residents of your digestive tract as invaders. The two most common in women are ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. Symptoms of both include chronic diarrhea, cramping, abdominal pain, fever, rectal bleeding and unexplained weight loss (since inflammation can keep the colon from absorbing crucial nutrients). Prescription anti-inflammatory drugs, such as azulfidine, along with immune-system suppressors, like Remicade or Humira, can help. To prevent IBD, try loading up on olive oil: According to one British study, people with the highest consumption of oleic acid—found in olive, peanut and grape-seed oils and in butter and some margarines—had a 90 percent reduced risk of the condition compared with those with the lowest intake.
The best way to beat colon cancer
Fecal occult testing, sigmoidoscopy, double-contrast barium enema—there are a plethora of new colon cancer screenings out there, but experts agree that a colonoscopy is the most comprehensive. "It's the gold standard because it doesn't just find cancer—it can prevent it by allowing the surgeon to get rid of potentially cancerous polyps immediately," explains Mark Pochapin, MD, director of the division of gastroenterology at NYU Langone Medical Center.
(Other screening tests, including virtual colonoscopies—which rely on X-rays and computer imaging instead of a scope—require a follow-up, usually a traditional colonoscopy, if anything suspicious appears.) Get your first colonoscopy at age 50—earlier if you have a family history of polyps or cancer. Got no polyps? You don't need to go back for 5 to 10 years.