Understanding the functions of the colon and what it needs to function well is a good first step towards a healthy colon.
Also called the “large intestine,” the colon is part of the digestive system, the system that nourishes and protects our bodies. It comes after the small intestine (into which food from the stomach flows) and before the rectum (in which stools are stored before being excreted through the anus). The colon is about five feet (1.5 meters) long and 2.5 inches in diameter. (Learn more about the anatomy of the colon.)
The colon makes a significant contribution to overall health and well-being.
The first of the functions of the colon is to absorb essential vitamins and vital salts (electrolytes) from about three pints of partially-digested food (a soupy concoction called “chyme”) that flows into the colon from the small intestine each day.
Most nutrients have already been absorbed by the small intestine but vitamins absorbed by the colon are important. For instance, they include some of the B vitamins and vitamin K, essential for blood clotting.
These vitamins are manufactured (“synthesized”) by numerous varieties of “friendly bacteria” found in a healthy colon. The same bacteria also fight harmful bacteria, contributing to overall health, and nourish cells lining the colon.
To perform these functions efficiently, friendly bacteria need fiber, using it nourish themselves as well as the lining of the colon. They are weakened by modern medicines, particularly antibiotics.
The second of the functions of the colon is to eliminate waste – toxins and harmful bacteria as well as indigestible materials not needed by or harmful to the body.
Waste is eliminated in the form of stools. Stools form gradually as water, along with nutrients and salts, is absorbed from the chyme by the colon wall. By the time it reaches the lower or “descending” colon, the three pints of chyme has become five or so ounces of solid stool.
Stools contain dead cells, mucus and importantly, toxins and harmful bacteria, as well as indigestibles such as fiber which give them their bulk.
Two or three times a day, muscles ringing the colon wall contract in a wave-like manner, to shunt the stool down to the rectum, ready for excretion through the anus. The bulkier the stool the easier it is for the colon muscles to push it along, which is why fiber in the diet is important. Stool movement is known as “motility.”
When all is well, the complete process of digestion takes 12 to 24 hours with two or three bowel movements a day.
By eliminating potentially harmful waste in this way, the colon plays a vital role in the defending the body against toxins – provided it is a healthy colon.
This is not always the case. Colon function is hampered by unhealthy diets and lifestyles, and medications, resulting in slow moving stools, an accumulation of fecal matter on the colon wall and potentially dangerous blockages.
In addition to causing problems in the colon itself, a dirty, malfunctioning colon impacts general health.
When the functions of the colon are impaired, vital nutrients are not manufactured and absorbed efficiently. In addition, toxins are absorbed into the bloodstream and must be processed by the other toxin-removing organs instead: the skin, lungs, kidneys and liver. This is why the health of the colon has an significant impact on overall health.
Fortunately achieving optimum colon health – and preventing colon problems – is easy. An important first step is a colon cleansing diet and there are many options for colon cleansing to strip the colon of harmful accumulated waste. It is also helpful to take more exercise and drink adequate water, both of which boost motility – the efficient movement of toxin-rich stools through the colon.
Copyright 2008 Lindy Sinclair