Everything You Wanted to Know about the Colon But Were Afraid to Ask

Since March marks Colon Cancer Awareness Month, we decided to talk to Little Company of Mary expert Dr. Michael Hurtuk, a Colorectal Surgeon. We know the colon is a sensitive topic. While the fact remains that “everybody poops,” it is probably equally true that almost everyone is embarrassed to talk about it. We decided to lay the facts bare and bring the topic about the health of your colon where it belongs—in the realm of discussions that can improve your health and wellness. Below are Dr. Hurtuk’s thoughtful answers to your basic questions about colon health.

HurtukWhat is the colon, and what does it do?
The colon participates in three main activities: metabolism, salvage and storage.
1. Metabolism: the colon can digest complex carbohydrates and proteins by fermenting them into various things, some of which can be used in your body.
2. Salvage: the colon can absorb water from digested food, approximately 90 percent of the water that the colon sees is reabsorbed by the colon.
3. Storage: the colon allows you to store products of digestion until you are ready to part ways with them.

What are signs of a healthy colon?
No one ever thinks about what a healthy colon does because, when your colon is healthy, it allows you to live a normal life, and sometimes we take this for granted. A healthy colon will allow you to have a normal bowel movement regularly without much straining. The bowel movement should be well formed, not liquid and free of blood. A bowel movement also shouldn’t take a lot of work or time. Everyone gets constipated occasionally, but if it’s a norm for you to sit on the toilet for a long time working on a bowel movement, something may be wrong.

What are the most common colon problems?
If I took a sampling of the most common issues people have with their colons, probably number one would be polyps, which for the most part get removed, and the patient never has to see me. Tied for number one or a close second would be diverticulitis. In my practice, I typically see patients for colon cancer, polyps that cannot be resected through colonoscopy, hemorrhoids, constipation, and various anal and rectal problems.

What is the easiest way to improve colon health?
With two simple ingredients—water and fiber. For hemorrhoids and various anal and rectal complaints such as fissures, simple things such as fiber, increasing water in your diet and avoiding constipation could go a very long way. Anything with fiber is great to maintain a healthy colon. In order for fiber to be beneficial to you, it must be consumed with lots of water to do its thing in your colon. The key is to take in around 30 grams of fiber a day. If you can do it with the foods you eat, God bless you, otherwise, God created Metamucil and Citrucel.

How much and what kinds of exercise help improve colon health?
There are no true ‘colon’ work outs, but for the most part, what is good for you is good for your colon.

What kind of a diet promotes good colon health?
I would say a well balanced diet rich in fiber promotes good colon health. In addition to this diet, drinking plenty of water also helps.

What food/drinks should be avoided?
This is relatively controversial—the risk between diet and colon cancer, at this moment, is unclear. While it makes sense that a diet high in fat or red meat may contribute to colon cancer and a diet high in fruits/vegetables and fiber may decrease the colon cancer, the studies are conflicting. My best advice is to eat a healthy well balanced diet—it can’t hurt. In terms of drinks, high alcohol consumption has been linked to the development of colon and rectal cancer. Smoking has been linked to every cancer known to man, including colon and rectal cancer. There are other foods and drinks like coffee/beer/tomatoes/ and spicy foods that have implications in anal and rectal health and continence, but have not been linked to cancer.

Can you share any favorite high-fiber recipes, foods or ways to incorporate it into meals?
Outside of cooking on the barb-q, I’m not much of a cook. My main advice to incorporate fiber into the diet is to look at the food labels while at the grocery store. You want between 30 and 40 grams of fiber a day in your diet. If this isn’t possible, start yourself on Metamucil after consulting with your doctor to make sure you are able to take it. There are a few conditions in which a high fiber diet may not be recommended, and it’s up to you and your doctor to decide if this is right for you. In the end, you cannot overdose on Metamucil and fiber. It not only helps out your colon but has some role in other aspects of your health like lowering cholesterol and helping in your blood sugars.

What lifestyle changes can improve colon health?
The main factors in improving colon health are eating a healthy diet high in fiber and consuming a good amount of water. Other not-so-well-known or talked about things are toilet behaviors. It’s common in our culture to take a newspaper, magazine or your phone to the toilet with you for something to read while having a bowel movement, and this is one of the worst things you can do for hemorrhoids other than spending a decent amount of time straining to have a bowel movement. A trip to the bathroom to have a bowel movement should be treated like Black Friday Shopping—you get in there, take care of business as soon as possible, and get out. The longer you spend on the toilet, the larger your hemorrhoids get and the more problems you can have.

And get to know our expert, Dr. Michael Hurtuk. If you’d like to make an appointment to visit Dr. Hurtuk, call (708) 422-8500.

Dr. Hurtuk is hosting a special free colon cancer awareness seminar on Monday, March 9th at Little Company of Mary Hospital from 11-noon. To register call 708-423-5774. You can also learn your personal risk for colon cancer by taking our online Colon Cancer Risk Test.

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