“Hello! How’s your bowel today?”
Not a very socially acceptable greeting is it? But it could be a good question to ask of yourself. Your bowel actions should be regular, consistent and free from troubles like constipation and diarrhoea. If not, then you need to have a think about the reasons why it isn’t as healthy as it should be. So what is a healthy bowel? Everyone’s bowel routine is slightly different, and about one person in 50 has poor bowel control. But most problems are not serious and usually temporary.
Some people pass stools a few times a week, others a few times a day, and this is fine. However it’s worth noting that long term or persistent constipation (for instance having less than a few bowel movements a week) can cause a build up of toxins, and has been linked to serious health issues such as bowel cancer.
It is therefore important to encourage healthy bowels and regular movements. There are quite a few things you can do to make sure you remain regular. A healthy bowel depends upon six main things:
- What you eat
- When you eat
- How you eat
- Your gut flora
What you eat
Fibre helps to keep your bowel healthy and prevent constipation. You should be eating around 18g of fibre every day, which you could get from bran cereal for breakfast, salads for other meals, and five portions of fruit and vegetables. Vegetarians and vegans will almost certainly be getting their necessary amounts of fibre, but others may not be getting enough. The five a day rule is good advice not just for the bowel but for health in general. Eat the skins of fruit, and cook vegetables such as potatoes in their skins because they contain the most fibre. If you want to increase your fibre intake, you can eat more bran cereals, but check the packet to see how much of the outer layer (husk) of the grain has been included. Keep to sensible levels because bacteria in the colon (large intestine) convert soluble fibre into energy which in the process produces gas, so too much soluble fibre can cause bloating and wind. Water is also important, and you should be drinking at least 1.2 litres a day or 2 litres if you increase your dietary fibre.
There are two types of dietary fibre which have different effects on the bowel, and you need to eat a selection of both. Soluble fibre helps to keep food moving through the digestive system, softens stools and so helps evacuation. It also has the benefits of lowering cholesterol and slowing the amount of sugar entering the bloodstream which will keep energy levels constant. Most foods contain some soluble fibre, but those with the most include lentils and beans, root vegetables such as potatoes and onions, Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, broccoli, and fruit. If you do suffer from bloating or wind, or have an irritable bowel, cut out the lentils and beans.
Insoluble fibre has the ability to soak up water which is helpful to the bowel. It increases the bulk of stools, which in turn encourages the contractions that move the contents along to keep bowel movements regular. Foods rich in insoluble fibre are whole grain foods such as oats and brown rice, nuts, seeds, potato skins, avocados, bananas, tomato skins, green beans, cauliflower, courgettes and green beans.
When you eat
Try to have something for breakfast every day, even if it’s just cereal or fruit. This starts the metabolic process going and keeps the gut moving (there is still food in there from yesterday!) and it also boosts your energy. While we have fixed mealtimes such as lunchtime, teatime, suppertime etc, it’s actually better for us to eat small amounts regularly. There’s no harm in having healthy snacks at any time of the day.
How you eat
How you eat can affect the efficiency of your digestive process. Try to eat your meals slowly, and chew each mouthful well. If you rush you can be tempted to swallow bits that haven’t been properly chewed, which gives extra and avoidable work for your digestive system. Taking time over your meals also helps to prevent overeating, and you will feel satisfied before you have eaten too many calories. Small portions eaten slowly can be just as satisfying as large meals eaten quickly.
The bowel loves routine. It will tell you when it’s time to go, and ideally you should respond to the message as soon as you can. Putting it off can back up the waste matter, and possibly result in constipation. When you answer that call of nature, it should be carried out in a relaxed and private moment so you can devote enough time to it. You shouldn’t need to strain, and don’t try to force it to save time.
Your gut flora
The bowel wouldn’t function at all without the presence of trillions of bacteria working away at breaking down food and extracting vitamins and minerals. These intestinal micro-organisms (collectively known as the intestinal microbiota or gut flora) constitute a very large part of all the bacteria humans, with at least 17 families of bacteria in addition to more than 1,000 species and an indefinable number of strains. Sometimes all the friendly bacteria (probiotics) have problems in being strong enough to do their essential jobs that keep you healthy, perhaps because you are run down after an illness or are taking medication, or if you are taking antibiotics. Supplementing these beneficial bacteria in the form of a probiotic can keep up their strength in numbers, and this can be a great way of supporting your gut naturally.
Exercise not only burns calories, it also stimulates your metabolism and speeds up the digestive process, which is good if you have been feeling sluggish or slightly constipated. Your bowel will also thank you for giving it a helpful nudge to maintain regularity.
Now, how’s your bowel today?