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Guide Health: Your bowel – don’t take it for granted

Yes, your bowel habits are very personal, but get your symptoms checked sooner, not later

You don’t really think about your bowel until something goes wrong like constipation or diarrhea. Your digestive tract includes everything from your mouth to your rectum, but often the word “bowel” is meant to be your small and large intestine.

The small intestine is made up of three parts, specifically the duodenum, jejunum and ileum, and is about 10 feet long. Then the large intestine is about five feet long, including the cecum, ascending colon, tranverse colon, descending colon, sigmoid colon, and rectum.

Together the large and small intestines absorb nutrients and water, while moving waste products through until they are eliminated.

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Your bowel normally has between 10 and 100 trillion organisms in it, mainly bacteria and mainly in the large or lower intestine. These micro-ogranisms protect against harmful bacteria, promote good bowel function, and are involved in your immune system as well as your metabolism.

Everyone has their own normal flora or combination of micro-organisms, and you may never even know they are there until you have a bowel problem like constipation or diarrhea. However, it is this flora that is the focus of all those advertisements for probiotics and prebiotics.

Your unique gut flora is a result of factors like genetics, diet, geographical area where you live, surgery, smoking and even your overall health. When you take an antibiotic, especially a broad-spectrum one, some of the micro-organisms may die, which means others over-grow, resulting in infections like Clostridioides difficile or “c diff”.

Prebiotics are specialized plant fibres upon which your gut bacteria feed. The ideal prebiotic is a food that is not broken down in your upper digestive tract and thus ends up intact in your lower intestine where microbes can feed on it. Some of these foods include bananas, garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus and yams. Note that they are mainly fruits and vegetables.

Psyllium marketed for bowel health and treatment of constipation has prebiotic characteristics.

Probiotics are the actual micro-organisms that your bowel needs to stay healthy. Probiotics are also found in various foods, such as yoghurt, bacterial fermented foods like sauerkraut, kombucha and kimchi. The idea is that you improve your bowel health by adding bacteria it needs.

However, the digestive process may destroy many of the micro-organisms. Thus, by the time the food reaches your lower intestine, stomach acid and digestive enzymes may have reduced bacteria counts.

Probiotics are available as supplements, but remember that because they are living organisms, they usually require refrigeration.

Regardless of whether you take your bowel’s functioning for granted, be alert for symptoms of problems like diarrhea and/or constipation that are ongoing and seem to have no cause. Also be alert for bleeding of the bowel which ends up as blood in your stool, and even stomach pain or bloating that cannot be explained.

Of course it might seem so much simpler to ignore your bowel, but looking after your bowel can make a real difference in your health. And of course, do the colon cancer screening tests. Delay can mean a delay in treatment. and wouldn’t you really rather know?

About the author


Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.



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