Put health and bowel in the same sentence and you automatically think of bowel cancer. This month’s column is not about scaremongering; it’s a guide for maintaining optimum health of an organ that doesn’t just digest food and store waste, but affects our whole well-being. Here’s how you can improve your bowel health..
Tips to improve your bowel health:
Two words: gut and bowel. The gut tends to mean the whole of our digestive system, from our mouth to our anus, and incorporates the bowel, which is made up of the small intestine and the large intestine. We chew our food and, with the help of enzymes, it makes its way to the small intestine, where valuable nutrients are absorbed into the body. The undigested waste heads on towards the large intestine, where excess water is absorbed by the body, leaving the leftovers as poo to be stored in the rectum, ready to pass out from the anus. It’s in the large intestine where the healthy bacteria, known as the gut microbiome, reside, not only affecting the intestinal environment and bowel movements but our whole well-being. These bacteria produce chemical messages that the brain uses to regulate processes such as learning, memory and mood. Amazingly, 95% of our serotonin is produced in the gut, and that particular hormone affects our entire body. It dictates our happiness levels (low levels are linked with depression) and also play a role in digestion, ensuring that waste matter doesn’t hang around festering for long… delicately put, I know… that it passes through the bowel quickly. Be gone, constipation.
We want our large intestines to radiate health and shine on the rest of our body. How can we have healthy bowels?
✣ Movement It’s no surprise I’m talking about exercise. Movement of your body will help to shorten the time it takes food to move through the large intestine, allowing it
to hold on to its water content and, therefore, shunt along quicker. Relaxing is also important. The vagus nerve (the longest cranial nerve in the body, connecting the brain to
the gut via the heart and lungs) influences digestive function, breathing and heart rate. Singing and humming (laugh ye not), along with reading and deep breathing all stimulate this nerve, and will aid digestion and peristalsis (bring on O-level biology).
✣ Fibrous foods The recommended 30 g per day refers to the part of the fruit, veg or grain that can’t be digested. Fibre bulks up the stools and makes them softer and easier to pass. Raspberries (7 g fibre per 100 g), peas, carrots and greens all score highly, but beans and pulses take the lead (12 g fibre per 50 g of kidney beans). Swap white bread (0.3 g fibre per slice) for wholewheat (2 g).
✣ Extend your range Taking on more fibre will not only help movement of waste matter, but also increase the gut microbiome. Experts tell us to aim for 30 different foods
a week, to include fruit, veg, seeds, nuts, herbs and spices. ‘The best way to increase microbiome diversity is by eating a wide range of plant-based foods, which are high in fibre, and limiting ultra-processed foods,’ says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College, London, and author of The Diet Myth and Spoon-Fed. Adding fermented foods to your diet, such as live yoghurt, kimchi and kefir, will nourish and feed this microbiome. In terms of regularity, everyone has their own normal. Don’t become too fixated on daily stool movement. If you’ve always been a 3–4 times a week person, that’s your normal. Without sounding too anal (pun intended), focusing on our bowels will benefit our whole well-being, as well as the smooth passage of our poo. A varied, fibrous diet, plenty of regular exercise, swapping the nightly G & Ts for kombucha and some singing on the way to (and possibly even reading on) the loo, will all help our rhythm and our health.
ALSO SEE HOW TO IMPROVE YOUR GUT HEALTH