Plant-Based Lifestyles: Colon Health, Part 1

The digestive tract, which extends from the oesophagus right the way through to the rectum, is the barrier between the outside world and the inside of our bodies! In other words, look after your gut and you protect your body!

On average the colon is about 6m long and – when one includes all the little folds (villi) – covers a surface area of approximately 45 m². This is a huge absorptive surface which, when carefully looked after, allows “good” into the body.

By looking after the colon, through good diet and minimising exposure to environmental toxins, one is improving the overall health of all organs, and protecting oneself not only from colon disorders, but from a variety of cancers, kidney disease, heart disease, liver disease – to name but a few.

There are many different types of gastrointestinal disorders and yet by maintaining a healthy gut, many of these can be avoided. Correct diet AND stress-management are also key to the management of all of these disorders.

3 key elements in diet should be considered when both preventing and treating colon disorders:

  • FIBRE
  • PREBIOTICS
  • PROBIOTICS

By consuming the right foods, including those containing fibre, probiotics and prebiotics, and digesting these properly, the whole body will function at its optimum. As one detoxes naturally (by improving colon, liver and kidney function) removing waste products efficiently through consuming these elements, one feels less sluggish and symptoms such as bloating are minimised. There are many added benefits to looking after one’s colon health through diet, such as easier weight loss and maintenance, as well as lowering of cholesterol levels.

GUT FLORA

The colon has about 100 trillion bacteria that live and work throughout the digestive tract, mostly in the colon. These “healthy” bacteria help the body absorb food, assist in the production of the B-group vitamins (especially B12) and vitamin K, support the immune system and keep the digestive tract working properly and effectively. Research has repeatedly shown a direct link between the balance of “healthy” bacteria and “bad” bacteria in the gut and many diseases / conditions, such as diabetes, colon cancer, ulcerative colitis, inflammatory bowel disease, food allergies and intolerances, and obesity.

Good, “friendly” bacteria are necessary to fight off the “bad” bacteria in order to help prevent these illnesses.  While the exact balance of the various strains of good bacteria is unique to each person, by eating a healthy diet, the balance is generally good enough to exert positive effects. However, the consumption of an unhealthy diet combined with stress, and the unavoidable intake of pollutants from the environment, creates an impaired balance – with bad bacteria flourishing, potentially causing serious health issues.

The good news, though, is that by making good dietary changes, the balance of bacteria can be altered for the better.

PROBIOTICS

Probiotic bacteria are the good healthy bacteria that promote good health. Certain strains such as Bifidobacterium and lactobacillus, when consumed in large enough quantities, multiply in the large intestine, thus changing the acidity and assist in preventing the growth of harmful “bad” bacteria, as well as preventing or easing diarrhoea or chronic constipation, and reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (bloating, abdominal cramps, and irregular bowel motions). Evidence also supports the regular intake of probiotics in sufficient quantities to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure and reduce the symptoms of some allergies.

The best food sources of probiotics include (inter alia):

  • Cultured milks such as bio yoghurts, buttermilk, crème fraiche, sour cream, and kefir
  • Sourdough bread
  • Kimchi – made from fermented Chinese cabbage or other vegetables
  • Soy products such as soy flour, soya milk, and naturally fermented soy products such as miso, tofu and tempeh
  • Sprouted seeds and legumes
  • Vanilla pods
  • Naturally fermented pickles such as sauerkraut, cucumbers, gherkins, olives and preserved lemons

Probiotics are easy to add to any meal:

  • Choose soya milk (which has added cultures) for your breakfast, poured over a soy-based porridge such as Soya Life porridge
  • Serve pickles or sauerkraut as a side dish
  • Add a dollop of plain, live bio yoghurt or sour cream to garnish your soup or stew
  • Use tofu as a base for a creamy dip
  • Add soy sauce to your food prep
  • Make sourdough bread and use it instead of potatoes or rice, or use it for your lunch sandwiches

PREBIOTICS

Prebiotics are a form of soluble fibre that pass through the gut undigested, stimulating the growth of the good, friendly bacteria in the colon. They also inhibit the growth of bad bacteria that produce toxins, thus assisting in the prevention of serious colon disorders.

Certain foods containing soluble fibre have specific prebiotic substances called oligosaccharides, particularly inulin and Oligofructose, lacto-oligosaccharides.

Prebiotics have other health benefits, such as assisting the body in absorbing calcium, and boosting the immune system.

The best sources of prebiotics include (inter-alia):

  • Alums (leeks, garlic, spring onions and onions)
  • Asparagus
  • Bananas
  • Berries
  • Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Chicory
  • Jerusalem artichokes
  • Legumes (fresh and dried peas, beans including soya, and lentils) oats
  • Soya beans
  • Squashes
  • Tomatoes
  • Wheat

PLANT STANOLS AND STEROLS

Although these are not probiotics or prebiotics, they are plant-based substances present in small quantities in many of the same foods. They play an important role in digestion by reducing the absorption of cholesterol from our gut into the bloodstream, allowing more of it to be excreted. This results in LDL (the “bad”) cholesterol without it affecting the HDL (the “good”) cholesterol. Plant sterols also assist in reducing atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries) and arteriosclerosis (stiffening of the arteries), and as such reduce strokes and heart disease.

Soya beans are an excellent example of plant stanols and sterols.

FIBRE

There are two types of fibre in foods: SOLUBLE and INSOLUBLE FIBRE. Both play an important role in colon and heart health.

SOLUBLE FIBRE:

  • Dissolves to form a soft gel in the gut and moves easily through the colon, keeping stools soft so preventing constipation
  • Slows digestion of foods to glucose thus lowering glycaemic index of meals
  • Binds cholesterol to the faeces, preventing absorption into the bloodstream

Sources include:

  • Fruits, vegetables
  • Legumes, including all beans and lentils
  • Wholegrains
  • Nuts and seeds (especially sunflower, pumpkin and golden linseed)
  • Barley (note: unprocessed barley also has prebiotic properties)

INSOLUBLE FIBRE:

  • Is the roughage found in foods, which does not dissolve and is not broken down by digestion. Rather, it passes through the gut, stimulating gut function and as such preventing constipation and other colon-related problems.

Sources include:

  • The fibrous husks of grains, seeds and legumes
  • The skin and membranes of fruit and vegetables

Other key dietary elements for a good, healthy gut include:

  • WATER
  • Minimise FAT intake especially ANIMAL FATS as these cause excess acid in the colon. HEALTHY FATS in small quantities can be beneficial to gut health and include: olives, nuts, seeds (and their oils), avocado, soya and soya oil
  • Avoid / minimise refined carbohydrate foods (sugar, cakes, pastries, biscuits, white flour).

Look out for part 2 next month, which will include an eating plan and delicious new recipes.