Digestive Health

10 February 2009

Sensible colon practices

People often harm their gastrointestinal tracts in an attempt to induce daily bowel movements or to 'cleanse' their systems. Find out why this could be dangerous.


People often harm their gastrointestinal tracts in a vain attempt to induce daily bowel movements or to "cleanse" their systems.

It is important to keep in mind that a healthy colon with a viable population of microflora does not need to be cleaned out. In fact, excessive purging or removal of the contents of the colon can lead to the total malfunctioning of this vital organ.

Foolish colon practices

a) Forced regularity
One of the most harmful practices you can subject your colon to, is to insist that you have a bowel motion every day. It's important to realise that some people have only one bowel motion every second or third day, or even only once a week.

But, humans in the 21st century do not listen to their bodies and try to force their colons to pass a motion every day. After all, there are hundreds of advertisements that tell you to be regular, to cleanse your system of toxins, and purify your body.

Taking harsh laxatives, which contain various herbal extracts, like senna, or chemical preparations, which contain phenolphthalein, will make your bowels work overtime causing diarrhoea. Diarrhoea induces the loss of water and can lead to dehydration. It also removes "good" microorganisms, which perform certain vital functions (vitamin synthesis, immunity boosting etc).

Another Catch 22 situation caused by the use of harsh laxatives, is the loss of normal peristalsis. The colon is a tube mainly consisting of strong muscles that contract and relax rhythmically to propel the colon contents towards the rectum. This wave-like motion is called peristalsis.

If you repeatedly interfere with the function of these muscles by taking harsh laxatives and inducing diarrhoea, the muscles lose their ability to contract and relax and you actually cause constipation as a rebound effect.

If you are caught up in the vicious cycle of purging, diarrhoea and constipation, it's a good idea to stop taking laxatives and apply the advice listed below under "Sensible colon practices".

b) Abuse of laxatives for slimming purposes
Many slimming pills and products contain harsh laxatives, which induce constant diarrhoea. The results are the same as mentioned above, and while you may lose small amounts of weight, you stand the risk of developing deficiency diseases. You may also sacrifice the natural function of your colon.

c) Colon cleansing or irrigation
If you suffer from an impacted bowel and need an enema, that's okay. But if you do not have a medical emergency, having treatments to "clean" out your colon forcibly by so-called "irrigation", is neither necessary, nor healthy.

Why anyone would want to remove all the "good" bacteria from their colon, is a mystery. If you suspect that the harmful colonic bacteria are gaining the upper hand, supplement the "good" bacteria, but don't wash them away so that they can't do their vital tasks of making vitamins and boosting your immunity.

Don't buy these products – rather spend your money on buying microflora supplements and eating a healthy colon-friendly diet.

2) Sensible colon practices
There are many things you can do to keep your colon healthy and happy and regular without resorting to harsh laxatives and purging and colon cleansing.

  • Ensure that your diet is healthy and balanced and that it is rich in dietary fibre, both soluble and insoluble (unsifted and unprocessed grains and cereals, fruit and vegetables, legumes).
  • Eat foods that contain oligosaccharides, such as Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, onions, garlic, and mushrooms, and Neutraceuticals (foods enriched with inulin and other oligosaccharides).
  • Eat yoghurt and fermented milk products on a daily basis.
  • Take microflora supplements which contain Lactobacilli, or Bifidobacteria (you can purchase these products at health shops and some chemists: products such as Lactiflora and Acidoforte - to combat Candida; Bifidoforte and Bifidoforte - to promote normal bowel function; Intestiflora and Intestiforte - to boost immunity).
  • Drink sensible amounts of water (3-4 cups a day) to help with peristalsis and to regulate bowel movements, but not so much that it washes valuable minerals like potassium, magnesium and calcium out of the body.
  • If you suffer from constipation, and increasing your dietary fibre intake is not making a difference, take a gentle laxative such as Fybogel or Agiobulk, which swells up in the colon and promotes normal peristalsis.
  • Do regular exercise like going for brisk walks to stimulate your overall metabolism and get your digestive tract functioning properly.
  • Learn to relax - excessive stress can cause diarrhoea or constipation

Above all, give your colon time to adjust to a new regimen, like eating more fibre. It can take up to two weeks for normal peristalsis to be restored. If the results aren't positive within 24 hours after resorting to a new treatment, don't revert to foolish practices again. Give your colon a little more time. – (Dr I.V. van Heerden, DietDoc)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc


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Digestive Health Expert

Dr. Estelle Wilken is a Senior Specialist in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology at Tygerberg Hospital. She obtained her MBChB in 1976, her MMed (Int) in 1991 and her gastroenterology registration in 1995.

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