Today I want to write about a topic dear to me: How to do everything possible to keep your colon healthy and in top shape.
A Touchy Subject
There is still a stigma related to the lower digestive tract. People have no issue talking about their tummy aches or sensitive stomachs. But as soon as someone mentions the health or lack of health of their colon, the room tends to get quite pretty fast.
Why? Because it usually involves talking about poop. Yes, one of the best ways to discerns the health of one’s colon is by examining their elimination patterns and the way their poop is in terms of color, consistency, frequency, and even the smell.
We won’t be talking about it here today (at least not much). I’ll leave it to the doctors. But I will talk about four areas of our lifestyle that matter when it comes to preventing colon troubles: eating, exercise, vitamin D levels, and vigilance.
What I want to focus on is what I am doing – given my history with colorectal cancer – to keep my lower GI tract healthy. I don’t want to have another colonoscopy end with these dreaded words, “You’ve got cancer”, or even any “lesser” problem like polyps or ulcers.
Colon Healthy Foods
What we eat does matter a lot when it comes to gut health. Not only in order to prevent colon cancer, but also to keep the gut healthy and happy in general. And what makes it happy? A correct balance of gut bacteria and other microorganisms such as fungi.
If these “bugs” are not in the proper balance between the good and the bad guys, our gut health suffers. We might get physical symptoms such as bloating or bellyache. But we might also get cranky and moody, as the gut flora plays a big role in the way the hormones and the feel-good chemicals are produced. Additionally, it is in the gut that our immunity resides to a large extent. If we want to be healthy physically and mentally, we have to have healthy guts. Period.
My Search for the Best Colon Healthy Diet
I wrote about my long search for the diet that suited me best here. I found that the Mediterranean style of eating was giving me the best results: no bloating, good elimination patterns, healthy colon. I don’t even call it a diet because the word “diet” has a connotation with deprivation and I find the Mediterranean style of eating the most satisfying out there.
Veggies, Whole Grains, and Fish
Some people call this way of eating pescovegetarian. It means that the main focus is placed on vegetables, healthy grains, and sustainably fished seafood, with minimal other animal products allowed.
A study presented in JAMA Network found that pescovegetarian diet led to a significant reduction of colorectal cancer risk.
Vegetarian diets are associated with an overall lower incidence of colorectal cancers. Pescovegetarians in particular have a much lower risk compared with nonvegetarians. If such associations are causal, they may be important for primary prevention of colorectal cancers.JAMA
This is the way I am eating with good results. I also omit cow’s milk and opt for nut milks instead. I’m ok with occasional cheese, the fact that cheese is fermented must be off-setting my lactose sensitivity.
What I Eat on a Regular Basis
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- Loads of veggies (especially leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower)
- Seasonal fruit (especially berries, kiwis, stone fruit)
If you don’t have your own garden or easy access to a farmer’s market or fresh groceries, you might want to inquire into weekly or bi-weekly deliveries. Before I had my kitchen garden I was relying on Farm Fresh to You service. The weekly large box delivered enough for me to juice all week and use the veggies for wholesome dinners.
- Whole grains (whole oats, wheat, rye, sourdough bread)
- Good fats (extra virgin olive oil, avocados, olives)
- Fermented foods
- Dairy (only if you can tolerate it, and if it is antibiotic-free)
- Fish and seafood (wild, sustainably fished is best)
- Red wine (glass per day is supposed to be ok)
- Meat (red meat sparingly, and only if it is organic, antibiotic-free, preferably grass-fed and finished)
- Desserts (often with sugar substitutes such as raw honey, dates, or monk fruit sweetener)
Adding pro-and pre-biotic foods to feed the good guys in the gut
Probiotics are foods that contain bacteria that might colonize the large intestine when consumed. They include fermented foods such as:
- brine pickles
- sourdough bread
- cultured dairy (yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese)
Prebiotics are foods that feed the bacteria that are already in the gut:
- Whole wheat
- Spirulina (I wrote an entire post on this superfood)
I started culturing my own after I discovered Cultures For Health. My first endeavor was sourdough bread. Then came kefir and yogurt. All are delicious and healthy. It’s also a much more economical way to get the cultures once and then to make your cultured foods at a fraction of the cost what buying them in a store would be. Click on the banner below to check out all the amazing cultures you could get.
Kombucha is an amazing on-the-go option. Super refreshing, low on sugar, and sooo gut for your gut health. I love these 12-packs delivered to my home. Especially the ginger-flavored ones.
Ginger Lovers Immunity Pack- Ginger Lemon, Cayenne Cleanse, Blood Orange Carrot Ginger Kombucha 16 oz – 12 pack
What I Try to Avoid at All Cost
Whereas what to eat is pretty wide open to interpretation, the no-no’s when it comes to colon health is very straightforward. I don’t eat or eat in great moderation:
- Processed meats like sausages or bacon
- Smoked meats
- Charred (grilled over high smoke) foods
For meat, there might be a substantial difference in whether the meat is processed or unprocessed. One study confirmed that.
We found little evidence that a higher intake of unprocessed red meat substantially increased the risk of CRC. On the other hand, we observed a significant and positive association between processed red meat and CRC, particularly distal colon cancer.Processed and Unprocessed Red Meat and Risk of Colorectal Cancer
Since 2015, red and processed meat have been designated as carcinogens by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). So it’s best to avoid it altogether.
Sunshine Vitamin for Colon Health
We all know about the dangers of prolonged sun exposure. What is lesser known are the risks of getting too little contact with sunshine. The risks include several cancers, including colon cancer.
The only way our bodies can start producing Vitamin D is by exposing it, without sunscreen, for a short amount of time to direct sunlight. 20 minutes of morning or late afternoon sun should be sufficient to create pretty good amounts of this important vitamin.
Studies have shown that Vitamin D deficiency can lead to developing colon cancer and also leads to worse outcomes.
The majority of studies found a protective relationship between sufficient vitamin D status and lower risk of cancer. The evidence suggests that efforts to improve vitamin D status, for example by vitamin D supplementation, could reduce cancer incidence and mortality at low cost, with few or no adverse effects.The Role of Vitamin D in Cancer Prevention
Scientists are not sure about how exactly vitamin D may lower cancer risk, but they offer some possible explanations. Some research has suggested that the sunshine vitamin has anti-inflammatory properties and may interfere with cancer cell pathways.
Another way to think about it is that people who tend to live healthier lifestyles might be spending a bit more time outdoors: hiking, doing sports, walking rather than driving. All this sun exposure allows for more production of vitamin D. All while being more active and doing exercise. It’s a win-win.
How do you know if you have enough Vitamin D?
The only way to really tell is to get a blood test to check for Vitamin D levels. Anything below 20 ng/mL falls into deficiency territory. Optimal levels are between 40-80 ng/mL. For more information on healthy levels, read up in this post from Harvard Health Publishing.
If you can’t get your “Sunshine Vitamin” from the sun, you should consider supplementing with Vitamin D. It’s best to talk to a medical professional to discuss your options.
My oncologist had me on Vitamin D supplement as soon as I was diagnosed. My levels of vitamin D were abysmal, even though I live in sunny California and was surely getting my 20 minutes of sun per day just doing chores outside like gardening or taking a walk or hike. Still, as soon as I was diagnosed, I started taking 5000 IU of Vitamin D3 daily, and my levels went up to 50.
Exercise for a Healthy Colon
A tiny bit of poop talk. Did you ever experience a need to run to the bathroom after exercise or a vigorous walk? I did. Many times. It tells me that moving the body helps move whatever waste needs to be moved down the colon and out of the system. Regular exercise is a great way to fight constipation. No pills required, just get up and move your body.
Aside from this help to move the waste, exercise has been proven to lower the risk of many cancers. The National Cancer Institute study involving more than 1.4 million participants found a clear link between physical activity and lower rates of colon cancer specifically.
How does exercise help reduce colon cancer rates?
First and foremost, exercise bolsters our immunity, and that can lead to better chances for our immune system to fight off the disease.
Secondly, regular exercise reduces insulin resistance and helps keep the weight down, which in itself can be a contributing factor to getting colon cancer in the first place.
Staying fit reduces inflammation in the body, which means that our immune system is not in overdrive trying to extinguish the chronic fire of chronic inflammation.
Finally, as already mentioned, being physically active improves gut motility, and helps to chase the food waste – including potential carcinogens – out of the body.
When I was first diagnosed, I was told that the primary tumor was growing inside me for about seven to ten years. Now, I have to admit that I wasn’t the best eater or the fittest person ten years prior to my diagnosis. But, I did change my ways drastically about a year-and-half before that fateful colonoscopy. Still, this apparently was too late.
Since I went through treatments and got a go-ahead from my doctors to resume physical activity, I have been spinning two or three times per week, sometimes more. I also try to play tennis with the family, go on hikes regularly, and walk whenever possible. And keeping my fingers crossed that this will keep my gut healthy and the cancer at bay.
Keep an Eye on the Inside of Your Toilet Bowl
Okay. I said no poop talk, but this needs to be said. When it comes to poop, the size, the shape, the consistency, and the frequency matter a lot. If your poop is always the same, even if it is not the optimal shape and consistency, you’re probably fine. But if your BMs suddenly change without any apparent reason, it is worth observing how the situation develops.
Another, most crucial thing to watch for is blood in the stool or on the toilet paper. If you see red, and you did not eat a bowl of beets the day before, this is a sign of concern. If it persists beyond a day or two, I would be running to a doctor.
I saw blood, I also was noticing being constipated, but I was never told to look at my poop. So for months on end, I just thought I was having hemorrhoids after giving birth to a big baby boy at the ripe age of 41.
Had I looked into the toilet bowl I would have noticed that the poop was pencil wide at most – the tell-tell sign of rectal obstruction. To this day I cannot believe that my proctologist who was treating the hemorrhoids did not ask me about my BMs! I could have been diagnosed several months earlier, had I paid attention to this one thing.
The Bottom Line (No Pun Intended)
I’ve been wondering for many years why I got colorectal cancer. I didn’t think of myself as an unhealthy person. I never ate junk food. I wasn’t an alcoholic. I wasn’t obese.
But when I dig deeper, I realize that my lifestyle was much less than optimal for keeping my colon in top shape. I can now list a bunch of culprits related to my lifestyle back then.
- Lack of exercise
- Too much animal protein, including processed meats
- Smoking tobacco for many years
- Drinking more than the safe amount
- Not sleeping enough
- Stressing too much
There you have, not an angel for sure.
What’s important though is that I am taking my cancer as a wake-up call to change the ways and to introduce my kids to a healthy lifestyle early on. Of course, this leads to many “fights” at our dinner table. Kids want mac and cheese and hotdogs. Mom is serving salmon and broccoli. Well, even if they hate me know, they’ll thank me later.
Give your colon some love! And it will love you back for years to come.