Have you ever asked yourself if your bowels are smart? Of course they perform the basic functions that all bowels are supposed to, which is to excrete waste from our body in the form of stool. But are they smart?
Do they know how to function at a capacity that we can be satisfied with? This beckons the nature versus nurture scenario:
- Have we nurtured our bowels to be optimal?
- Do we provide the right avenue for our bowels to “blossom”?
The same way a parent would nurture their child, providing the best opportunities for a child to achieve his/her full potential or the way we spend thousands on skin care products to give it a healthy glow, bowels too need nurturing.
First, let’s break down the components involved. Bowels are also known as guts or intestines. We have small bowels and large bowels, which make up a part of our digestive system. Our small bowels consist of the duodenum, jejunum and ileum, and are connected to our large bowels also known as the colon. Our digestive system is in continuity, the moment we put food in our mouths, they go through a process of breaking down, absorptions of good and bad nutrients, water, fats, to name a few and what remains is transformed into stool and expelled through our anus.
What are the signs of a sluggish bowel?
The first tell-tale signs are your bowel movements. An altered bowel habit causing reduced frequency from your regular pattern indicates a sluggish bowel. There are no set rules to what is considered “regular” bowel habits, only averages. Some people may go once a day, some more and some maybe every other day, there are some as infrequent as twice a week. Good bowel habits on the other hand would be passing motion once or twice a day, indicating that we are expelling toxins out of our body at a healthy rate. The types of food we take, working or living environment, and our stress levels, all play a role in our bowel movement.
When we are faced with a stressful situation, our body switches to its sympathetic function, also known as “fight or flight mode”. To be able to pass motion in a normal manner we need to switch to parasympathetic function, which is known as “rest and digest mode”. Our parasympathetic function is controlled by pathways that increase peristalsis (wave like muscle contraction to move food along), secretion and ultimately relaxes our sphincter to allow stool to be expelled. Hence to be able to pass motion we need to be in a relaxed state of mind. To aid this process, most people pass motion at a regular time each day, such as during their morning rituals before heading to work which is the optimum time of day, or midday once they have carried out a certain number of tasks and are relaxed. Whatever makes you comfortable is the best time for you. If you feel you do not have regular bowel movements, chances are your bowels are telling you that they are not working at their optimal pace. (Take this test to find out if your bowels are doing their job!)
Here are a few tips on practising good bowel health:
Drink enough water
It is very important to stay hydrated. Our bowels are made up of cells like the rest of our bodily organs and they also have muscle linings to aid movement and gut flora to aid conjugate metabolites. All these components require adequate amounts of water to ensure smooth function. A dehydrated system that is busy trying to survive, absorbing any source of water and nutrients to keep it from shutting down is not doing its job. A good amount of water to consume in a day can easily vary from about 2.2 to 3litres a day, but there is no fixed amount. This can vary based on gender, our body weight and our daily activity. If you lead an active lifestyle and tend to sweat a lot, chances are you will require more water compared to your counterpart with a sedentary lifestyle. If you sit in an air-conditioned environment, you will need more water to avoid dehydration.
Make water a little more interesting by adding a slice of lemon or any other fruit, chia seeds or any supplement of your choice into your water tumblers to remind you to drink. Changing your options for the supplements to your water regularly provides a sense of excitement to drink and with time cultivates the habit. Food we eat has water content as well and all of it contributes to the daily total. Optimising your water intake will take time and how our body feels and responds is the best judge, to know that you are taking in enough.
The right kind of food keeps our bowels from becoming sluggish which could lead to constipation. Fats are essential to our digestive system. All fats, regardless of their source provide the same number of calories (9kcal/g), hence too much of any type of fat can induce weight gain. Stick to unsaturated fats which contain a higher proportion of unsaturated fatty acids and can be found in vegetable oils such olive, rapeseed, avocados and nuts. It functions as a lubricant for our bowel movement, by stimulating our gallbladder to produce bile, which is essential for digestion.
Fibre is also essential to our bowel health - a good portion of greens and fruits essentially provide the bulk for the movement of formed stool via peristalsis. We have soluble and insoluble fibres. Soluble fibres can be digested and increase our water content to provide softer texture to our stool whilst absorbing cholesterol and promoting its excretion. Examples include oats, lentils, celery, fruits such as pear and apple. Insoluble fibres on the other hand, generally pass through undigested, serving as bulk which aids peristalsis, such as wholegrain, bran and corn. If you have a tendency to pass out watery or poorly formed stool or are constipated, you could be physiologically lacking fibers to produce a smooth bulk of stool.
In our bowels we have natural flora, which is a community of microorganisms, mainly comprising of bacteria. Besides providing immunity, the flora also helps with vitamin synthesis and metabolism. The composition of our natural flora changes over time, but change can also be precipitated by our food types and certain medications such as antibiotics. Probiotics are strains of beneficial bacteria that provide support to the natural flora in our bowels. Functioning to boost the efficiency of our natural flora, probiotics such as Lactobacillus can be found in yoghurt and fermented food, like pickles and soft cheese. Signs that our body exhibit to indicate poor natural flora, could include degenerative diseases, hair loss, eczema and anemia. This is due to the synthesis of Vitamin B-7, B-12 and Vitamin K by our flora, which are essential for a healthy body. A deficiency in synthesizing could result from a deficiency of our gut flora and this is where prebiotics can help in proliferating microflora gut.
To round up healthy nourishments for our bowels will include a gas build-up remedy. Gas is generally formed by fermentation that occurs in our bowels; a relatively normal process, but excess amounts can lead to a good amount of discomfort and bloating. Ginger helps by relaxing and calming the muscles in our digestive tract and relieves the trapped gases. Other causes of excessive gas in our bowels include swallowed air, a rapid switch from low to high fiber diets, food intolerance and artificial additives. Hence it is advisable not to talk while consuming our food, make gradual changes to a diet if intended, and to chew and swallow at a regular pace. The more we chew, the less work our bowels have to do to digest our food.
Good bowel movement should take no more effort than passing gas or urinating. The habit of reading or using our cell phones while on the toilet may give us a more relaxed state of mind but this also leads to more time straining on the toilet, leading to complications such as hemorrhoids. Advisably, we should spend no more than 5-7minutes on the toilet - the fundamentals are to pass out stool and get off the toilet. Walk into the toilet with a relaxed state of mind, do your business and get out. Remember, a full evacuation of bowels indicate good bowel movement, so when you leave the toilet you should feel lighter and ‘empty’ inside.
Treat our bowels right and give them the care they need. As they play such a pivotal role in our well-being, being smart and efficient are essential. A little attention to our digestive system goes a long way, ensuring we live a full life (capable of enjoying good food!).