Why is the bowel important?
The main function of the bowel (or large intestine) is to polish off the digestive process and neatly package waste products for excretion.
When digested food enters the bowel it contains a large amount of water. The bowel absorbs most of this water to ensure that the body doesn’t lose it.
The bowel at work
Each day, approximately 1500 ml of digested food matter and water enter the bowel. This reduces to around 150 ml (100 ml liquid and 50g solid) as the water is absorbed into the body.
But first, when digested food matter enters the bowel, it needs to contain sufficient fibre so that after water has been absorbed, the resulting matter (which then becomes waste) is well-formed and bulky. If the waste isn’t well formed, it tends not to move as quickly and you can become constipated. Conversely, if the waste moves too quickly through your bowel, your body doesn’t absorb sufficient water and you can end up with diarrhea.
Most of the bacteria of the digestive tract are found in the bowel. This is because the acidic environment throughout the rest of the tract is too harsh for their survival.
While the idea of bacteria living in our bodies may seem slightly disgusting, these little critters offer us a lot of benefit! They synthesise vitamins B1, B2, B12 and K, and they breakdown bile, bilirubin (a yellow breakdown product of old red blood cells found in bile), cholesterol and some drugs and food additives.
The bacteria also ferment any carbohydrates still present and release hydrogen, carbon dioxide and methane gases. Yes, you guessed it! These gases are responsible for the malodorous gas that is released as flatulence.
Keeping the bowel healthy
Bowel problems can range from the common and relatively harmless (such as mild constipation and diarrhea) to the more serious (such as inflammatory bowel disease).
Many of these conditions can be prevented by looking after the health of your bowel and following a few simple guidelines.
1. Drink lots of fluid
Low fluid intake can cause constipation. The National Health and Medical Research Council (NMHCR) recommends that adults drink between 2.1 to 2.6 L of fluid per day to maintain good health.
2. Eat lots of fibre
High fibre intake is associated with healthy bowel regularity. You can easily increase your fibre intake by filling up on fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains, and cutting back on high sugar and high fat foods such as cakes, cheeses, processed foods and meats. Fibre increases the softness and bulk of the faeces which makes them easier to pass.
3. Exercise regularly
Regular exercise helps to prevent constipation, especially physical activity that involves the use of abdominal muscles. Brisk walking is also very good for bowel health.
How do I know if my bowel is healthy?
Healthy stools are usually well formed, but soft and easy to pass. You should not need to strain and it should generally only take a minute or two to empty your bowels.
Healthy regularity varies from person to person, but anything from several motions a day to several motions a week can be quite normal.
If you find anything unusual in your stools, such as dark blood or any other unusual change in colour, it is best to consult your doctor or other health care professional.
4 Tips for a healthy bowel motion
- Avoid rushing
- Never strain or hold your breath
- Have a straight back, leaning forward with your feet raised so your thighs are angled upward
- Don’t ignore the body’s natural signals to pass a stool