The colon is a digestive tube about 1.5 meters long at the end of the digestive system, immediately following the small intestine. It consists of four main sections called the ascending colon, the transverse colon, the descending colon, and the sigmoid colon. It acts as the final processor of solid wastes before they are excreted from the body by absorbing remaining water, salt, and some nutrients from the waste matter.
The digestive process
The small intestine does the majority of the work in extracting nutrients from food and passes along a substance called chyme to the large intestine. At this point, nearly all the important nutrients and about 90% of the water present in the chyme have been absorbed. The large intestine then sets to work on drawing out the remaining electrolytes like magnesium, sodium, and chloride. The bulk of the chyme consists of indigestible fiber. The colon does not have any digestive enzymes to aid in its work, rather, the presence of beneficial bacteria, sometimes called gut flora, does the work for it. The bacteria dissolve some of the fiber to feed upon and release certain waste products that in turn feed the cells lining the large intestine. In this way, these beneficial bacteria not only help the colon finish the process of digestion, but they also provide nourishment.
The importance of the colon
The colon is a major player in the detoxification of the body, it maintains proper fluid balances, and absorbs important salts and nutrients that our small intestine cannot extract.
When the colon does not function properly, toxins may not be fully absorbed or eliminated from the body, leading to a host of health issues. Two major components of proper colon function are:
- Healthy diet – eating large amounts of toxins and little nutrients puts severe stress on the colon, and thus, our overall health. Especially important is fiber, as it not only works to feed the bacteria that in turn feed the cells lining the colon, but it also helps keep waste matter moving through the body in a regular fashion. This keeps wastes from collecting in the body and reduces the risk of toxins being re-absorbed.
- Bacteria balance – some researchers say there are more bacteria in the colon than cells in the entire body. Thus, the proper balance and health of these bacteria is vital for optimal colon function. The balance can be rather delicate and may be easily swayed by different foods, environmental toxins, stress, medications, and illnesses. Some research suggests that when this balance is upset, it can lead to a range of problems including arthritis, asthma, heart disease, and cancer.
As mentioned above, the colon can be a sensitive organ, which means that it can develop quite a few different conditions. The most common include colitis, colon cancer, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, and Crohn’s disease. There are many lifestyle changes that one can make in order to prevent or treat these conditions. These include:
- Healthy diet including fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, lean protein, fish, low fat dairy, legumes, nuts, and plenty of water.
- Some detoxification diets, supplements, and processes might be helpful.