The large intestine, AKA the colon, AKA the large bowel (who knew?) is where things get a little gross and the poop discussions start: you’ve been warned! But talking about the colon is so important. I can easily name 20 people among my friends and family that suffer from colitis or IBS, and it’s a miserable situation to be in. I’ve also had my own share of digestive difficulty and am making chances for a happier, healthier colon.
Even though the colon is also known as the large intestine, it’s actually only between 3 and 5 feet long, but it’s wider than the small intestine. Anything that wasn’t absorbed in the small intestine will move into the large intestine, mostly fiber, bacteria and water.
The large intestine basically has 3 jobs:
- Absorbs Water: A healthy colon absorbs 80% of the water that passes through it. The longer food sits in the colon, the more water is absorbed which means constipation. Not good. If food doesn’t spend enough time in the colon, not enough water is absorbed and then you end up with diarrhea. Also not good.
- Feeds Bacteria: The colon is a haven for bacteria. Sounds terrifying, but it’s not supposed to be a bad thing. When the colon is healthy, we have about an 80:20 ratio of good to bad bacteria. We need the good guys to fight off the bad guys, which means bacteria are part of our immune system! Bacteria also basically eat fiber, which passes through most of the digestive tract untouched. Unfortunately, if the small intestine isn’t working properly these bacteria will also feed on any undigested food particles, will produce hydrogen, methane and carbon dioxide. Then there’s gas. And if sulfur is there, well then there’s a smell…
- Produces Vitamins: When they’re not producing unwanted gas, bacteria feed on the waste to produce vitamins; Vitamin K and biotin to be exact. We need vitamin K for blood clotting and biotin is great for skin, hair and nails. In fact, E.Coli is actually the bacteria that produces Vitamin K. So we actually NEED a little bit of E. Coli in our lives. Weirdly fascinating, right?
All of these things happen as the waste moves from one end of the colon to the other. Mucus keeps everything from sticking to the colon walls (gross, I know), especially as less and less water is present further down the line. When the colon reaches a certain point of fullness, muscles everything into the rectum and then guess what? You guessed it: poop.
When and How Often? A Note on Transit Time
Transit time is the time it takes for food to go in your mouth and come out the other end. If everything works like it’s supposed to, it should take between 18-24 hours for food to move from the mouth to the rectum.
That means you should also have a good poo at LEAST once per day, three times maximum. Any less means you’re probably constipated. If you go once per day but have to drink three cups of coffee and smoke a cigarette before anything moves down there, you’re probably still constipated; caffeine and nicotine are both laxatives.
On the other hand, if you are going more than three times per day, food is probably moving through your digestive system too quickly. You might have diarrhea and/or see food particles in your stool. Corn, anyone? If this is the case for you, dehydration and nutrient deficiencies could both be issues.
Basic message: you have to poop. What steps can you take to improve your number 2’s and keep your colon in tip-top shape? Here are a few places to start:
Drink Water: This may sound like a no-brainer, but can be difficult. Eight 8 oz. glasses is a great place to start. But keep in mind that caffeinated beverages (that includes soda!) dehydrate the body. So for every caffeinated beverage you drink, you need two glasses of water to replenish.
Eat Probiotic Foods: Getting these good bacteria through food is always better than taking capsules. The most well known and easily available probiotic food is yogurt. But be careful because many popular yogurts don’t actually have ANY good bacteria and are loaded with sugar. Look for labels that say “live active culture” and always buy organic dairy products. If you have problems digesting dairy or just want more options, here are a few:
- Kombucha: A fizzy, fermented tea beverage.
- Miso: You’ve had miso soup, right? The miso part is fermented soybean paste, that also tastes great in dips and salad dressings.
- Sauerkraut and Kimche: These traditional, fermented vegetable condiments are tasty, full of good bacteria, and make from just veggies and salt. Preparations made with vinegar won’t have the good effects.
Increase Fiber Intake: Remember that fiber is what we use to make Vitamin K and biotin. It also bulks up stool and makes it softer and easier to pass. Fiber is only found in unrefined plant foods, so fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Most doctors will say you need a bare minimum of 20 g per day; we like to see closer to 35 g. It’s easier than you think! For example, 1 cup of raspberries has 8 grams! Throw that in your morning smoothie and you’re well on your way.
This may seem like a lot, but try to make one simple change per week. Maybe this week it’s water. Then next week you can try to eat more fruit. Remember, baby steps and small, manageable changes are key. Do what you can, and leave the rest for later. And as always, let me know if you have questions.