I’m only a little bit embarrassed to admit that one of my favourite topics of conversation is in fact “moving of the bowels”. My fascination with poop started way before I became interested in nutrition, and long before I decided to become a Nutritionist. Maybe it’s because for many years of my life, I simply couldn’t poop properly – it’s not like I never went but it was a once or twice a week deal.
I remember my first nutrition teacher exclaiming to the class “can you imagine that some people only go once a week” and the class was dismayed to say the least. People were shouting in disbelief “NO! IMPOSSIBLE” to which I silently said “oh, it’s possible Sally and I’m living proof”. Going once a week isn’t normal, and all joking aside is a major indicator that something isn’t quite right with the digestive and gastrointestinal system. Since March is Colorectal Cancer Awareness month, I thought constipation was a good place to start in optimizing the health and balance of our colon and ultimately, entire body.
The Mayo Clinic defines constipation as infrequent bowel movements or difficult passage of stools. It feels unfomfortable and can leave people with bloating and gas and according to this BBC article, leads to “rabbit pellet” like bowel movements. When one is constipated, the bowel movements are normally small and hard which can tear the anus causing further discomfort and pain – and often causes people to “hold it in” to avoid more pain which further exacerbates the issue.
The issue with constipation is that it allows waste to sit and stagnate in your colon for a longer period of time than it really should. Imagine that the colon cell walls probably don’t like to have toxic waste touching them day in and day out. Over time, this toxic environment causes intestinal cells to become weak. In fact, not having a bowel movement daily increases your chances of getting colon cancer, heart attack, colitis, and IBS. Stagnating toxic stool, when sitting in the colon longer than it should, causes inflammation and allows toxins to be reabsorbed into the body where they can cause cellular damage system wide.
So, you can see that having a poorly functioning colon can negatively impact your entire body and we can safey “poo poo” constipation. Bowel movements are actually classified based on their appearance according to something called the Bristol Scale – constipation would be a 1 or 2 on the scale below. What we are actually aiming for is something more like Type 4 “like a sausage or snake…smooth and soft”.
Constipation is diagnosed as an infrequent bowel movement and so I think it would be helpful to quantify the term “infrequent”. Conventionally, anything less than three bowel movements a week is considered constipated. From in the holistic nutrition/naturopathic viewpoint a food should pass through your system between 18-24 hours after ingestion – so the long of the short is that you should be moving your bowels daily. The time taken, by the way, from when you eat a food to when you excrete it is called Oral-Fecal Transit Time (OFTT) and you can test this at home with one simple ingredient – sesame seeds. Swallow a tablespoon of sesame seeds in a 1/4 cup of water without chewing the seeds. Then wait and prepared to be amazed when you see those seeds again in your toilet – hopefully within 24 hours.
What if your OFTT is more than 24 hours? What is causing this? It’s likely due to lack of hydration or not eating enough fiber. Both of these elements are required to lubricate the intestine and bulk up stool so that it easily passes through your colon. Other factors include lack of movement because not getting enough exercise keeps you both physically and mentally stagnant and perhaps even a change in your routine could throw off your bowel balance. Another common culprit is stress and not taking the time to go to the washroom when nature calls. Some medications and illnesses are known to factor into a slow transit time but really, if you want to avoid constipation here are four simple steps.
STEP 1: drink lots of water. Start you day off with two large glasses of water with fresh lemon (1/4th of a lemon should do). Make sure that by bedtime you have had 10-12 glasses of water.
STEP 2: you need fiber to have healthy bowels. Aim for 50 grams a day. Good sources of fiber include beans, raspberries, leafy greens, whole grains (barley, brown rice, oats), flax seeds (milled), beets, carrots, Brussels Sprouts, apples, oranges, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, bell peppers, cabbage, celery, avocado, buckwheat, sweet potato, prunes, onions, bananas.
STEP 3: make time for going to the washroom. Enough said.
STEP 4: move your body and that will move your bowels. You need to get daily physical activity.
Some supplements that may help support your colon and healthy gut flora include omega-3 fish oil and probiotics which can lubricate the stool/reduce inflammation and help provide “good” bacteria respectively. If you have tried the above steps and are still experiencing less than ideal oral-fecal transit time, it could be related to a food allergy or sensitivity or a hormonal issue related to thyroid function – these are options which you can explore further with a Nutritionist (see the services page of this website) or a Naturopathic Doctor (click here for how to find an ND in Canada).
Stay tuned for more posts this month related to colorectal health and learn how you can keep your colon supported throughout the years to come.
* I would like to note that I no longer suffer from constipation…horray for water, fiber, and lots of veggies!
THE DAILY DL (Dalai Lama)
“Sex is interesting, but it’s not totally important. I mean it’s not even
as important (physically) as excretion. A man can go seventy years without a
piece of ass, but he can die in a week without a bowel movement.”
– Charles Bukowski