The colon, or large bowel, is often a neglected organ considered least important since its major role is elimination and one can arguably live without a colon.
So how do we look at the colon: The main job of the colon is to release a bowel movement when it is socially acceptable, but more importantly it is to absorb water and electrolytes, something which becomes painfully apparent when this function is disrupted by intestinal infections.
Between one and two quarts of liquid stool reaches the beginning of the colon every day, but little more than one cup of feces is expelled. Starches and other non-digestible fibers are not broken down by the small intestines and reach the colon, where the bacteria ferment them.
The resulting byproducts are very important and serve as fuel for the cells lining the colon. The colon is occupied by trillions of bacteria, with more than 500 different species that are quite important for our health.
Healthy bowel habits are hard to define, but we follow the "rule of three", declaring as normal any pattern from three bowel movements a day to one every third day.
What is important for a healthy bowel activity is intake of sufficient roughage or fibers (fruits, vegetables, legumes), proper hydration, exercise and taking time "when nature calls", since the suppression of this urge can lead to painful constipation.
Many of our patients skip breakfast, which is a mistake. We know that food intake in the stomach sets up a cascade of electrical waves, which help to move matters downward.
Subsequently, we are diagnosing a number of ailments related to slow and sluggish bowel habits, such as hemorrhoids or diverticular disease, an out-pouching of the colon wall. Any family member that suffers from long-standing constipation can testify to misery it causes.
Fortunately, no study links constipation with colon cancer and we do not advocate regular colon cleansing applications, since they can lead to the loss of volume and the colon typically gets colonized again with the same bacteria. In general, there is no scientific basis, and these techniques benefit mostly the person who sells the product.
Again, the healthiest intervention for our colon is to eat a diet that is balanced, contains lots of fruit and vegetables, and the often forgotten food group, fiber.
Dr. Harald Schoeppner is a gastroenterologist at Providence St. Mary Medical Center.