Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Colon: What It Does and What Can Go Wrong

Consisting of the large intestine, the rectum, and the anus, the colon is quite possibly one of the most important organs in your body. It is part of a complex system designed to eliminate food waste and the waste generated by your body as effectively as possible and is the part of the body where bowel movements are created out of digestive matter for excretion.

Aside from water and sodium, the colon is usually not associated with the absorption of food nutrients which is technically the job of the small intestines. However, the colon plays an extremely important role in overall health. It is the site of the fermentation of food materials that the small intestines cannot absorb (i.e., soluble and insoluble fibre) by bacterial flora. This is the reason why dietary probiotics have started to gain popularity in recent years. Bacterial flora in the colon are responsible for producing vitamin K-2 which has been shown to aid in proper blood clotting and the formation of strong bones. As a matter of fact, it is believed that one of the reasons why Japanese woman from Okinawa (an area famous for it's high number of centenarians and high average life-span) have much lower incidences of osteoporosis is that they consume healthy bacteria in their diets which increases the amount of vitamin K-2 that their colons absorb.

Evidently, the colon is an important organ for overall health, however things can go wrong. Like most bodily organs and tissues, the colon is susceptible to infection, inflammation, and cancer. There are a variety common conditions that can affect your colon:

Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Irritable bowel syndrome is a condition in which the muscles of the colon contract abnormally, causing diarrhea, constipation, cramps in the abdomen, bloating, and gas. It can be managed through dietary changes/food avoidance and medications.


Colitis is an umbrella term referring to several conditions characterized by inflammation of the large bowel. The different types of colitis include ulcerative colitis (cause unknown), Crohn's disease (cause unknown), ischemic colitis (when there is a lack of blood going to the colon), infectious colitis (the result of infections of the large bowel), and radiation colitis (caused by radiation therapy in the treatment of cancer).

Symptoms often depend on the cause of the colitis but common symptoms include abdominal pain and bloating, diarrhea, bloody stools, joint pain, nausea and vomiting, and a constant urgency to go to the bathroom.

Much like the symptoms, treatments also depend on the cause of the colitis but may include immune moderating medications, antibiotics to target infections, dietary changes, and possibly surgery if necessary.

Diverticular Disease

Diverticular disease consists of diverticulosis (where small pouches form in the colon when it is pushed through small openings in surrounding muscle walls) and diverticulitis (when these little pouches become inflamed). There is no official cause but it is believed that a diet low in fiber can lead to diverituclar disease.

Symptoms include cramping, bloating, and constipation if only diverticulosis is present but can include lower abdominal pain and nausea and vomiting if it becomes diverticulitis.

Surgery, medications, and dietary changes are usually the only common treatments for diverticular disease.

Cancer of the Colon and Rectum

Cancer of the colon and rectum occurs when the cells that make up the lining of the colon begin to reproduce uncontrollably. This leads to the formation of tumours which can ultimately be fatal. The first sign of cancer of the colon or rectum are pre-cancerous polyps, or small protruding growths on the tissues of the colon. These in themselves are not yet actually cancer but can develop into a serious cancerous growth.

There usually no symptoms associated with pre-cancerous polyps but once cancer of the colon or rectum occurs, symptoms may include blood in the stool, bowel obstruction, anaemia, and abdominal pains.

Treatment for cancer of the colon or rectum resembles the treatment of many other cancers and involves either chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or some combination of the three.

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned above, it is recommended that you advise your doctor so that together, you can rule out any of the above conditions. You may also like to look into some medical diagnostic tests such as the common colonoscopy or a small bowel follow through procedure, as they are the ideal way to catch any problems early before they worsen.

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