Drinking tea is a good way to increase your water intake. Photo: Stocksy
I grew up thinking that going to the toilet was shameful. When my 53-year-old sister Virginia told me that cancer had been discovered in her bowels and liver, I had flashbacks of my childhood shame. When she died, just five weeks later, I was sad, shocked and angry. Angry at my upbringing and angry at myself for being embarrassed about my bowels.
I know I'm not alone in this. Just mentioning this subject to friends causes visible unease in many of them.
"People accept abnormal bowel function as being normal," says Dr Kylie Dodsworth, who practises integrative medicine at Adelaide's Centre for Health and Wellbeing. "Normal bowel function would be to use your bowels in an easy manner, passing a well-formed stool at least once or twice a day."
Gastrointestinal and bowel disorders account for millions of visits to doctors each year. Irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn's disease and colitis), constipation, leaky gut syndrome and bowel cancer are rife.
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, is the second most deadly cancer in Australia. According to the Institute of Health and Welfare, one in 12 of us will be diagnosed with it during our lives.
Given my discomfort with the subject, I was thrilled to learn that Cameron Diaz has talked publicly about bowel health. In The Body Book, the actor writes about poop as an "indicator of overall health". While promoting the book, she also said that water helps "wake you up". Water - up to three litres a day - became a big part of my bowel health routine after I did a detox in 2014. But it's not just about water, it's also about what we're eating.
Scott W. Webb, US colon therapist and author of Inside Poop, says we need to ask more questions about what's going into our bodies. He says our food is so processed and full of chemicals that it's having an effect on our health, especially our digestive system. So much so that constipation has become the norm.
"Chemicals going to the liver cause it to be sluggish, impairing the metabolism of fats [and] the breakdown of nutrients in the digestive tract," Webb explains. "This creates excess waste going into the colon - that's constipation. We've created foods that are inhospitable to the human body's digestive system. Be curious and find out what's in the food you're eating."
Webb has been performing colonics since 2004. A colonic, also known as colon hydrotherapy, is the practice of cleansing the bowel with water, and is a widely practised way of flushing the bowel of excess faecal matter. "It's not the only way," says Webb. "You can do it with [the consumption of] herbs, but it's a lot slower. Water accelerates the cleansing process, that's all."
Webb may be an advocate for colonics but mainstream medical opinion is against him. "Colonic hydrotherapy is not recommended by Bowel Cancer Australia," says the organisation's director, Graham Newstead.The theory behind colonic hydrotherapy, says Newstead, is that it removes toxins from the bowel. But he adds that there is no proof of this. "There is no science to say there are toxins in the bowel and they are removed by colonic lavage, because no toxins get that far."
Removing toxins from the body is the liver's job, not the bowel's, so there is no need to cleanse the bowel, only to empty it. What Newstead does recommend for a healthy bowel is regular exercise and a good diet. "It's important that we have everything in moderation," he says. "Don't overeat because there is some relationship between obesity and diabetes and the possible origins of bowel cancer. There certainly are foods we are eating in modern society which might predispose us to a greater risk. We need to be sure that the foods we are eating are safe."
Newstead say that changes to diet and lifestyle may reduce the risk of bowel cancer by as much as 75 per cent.
Bowel health tips:
• Start the day with half a fresh lemon squeezed into 250ml of warm water. Add a slice of lemon for extra nutrients. This stimulates the release of bile, which triggers a co-ordinated "mass movement" in the bowels that fills the rectum.
• Drink 2-3 litres of water throughout the day.
• Make sure your food is free from harmful chemicals and additives.
• Eat pre- and pro-biotic foods. The former includes asparagus, tomatoes, onions, garlic, spinach, kale, lentils, leeks, chickpeas, berries and bananas. Probiotics are found in sourdough breads, yoghurt, kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha.
• Include fatty oils from deep sea fish, flaxseed and coconuts in your diet.
• Sit on the loo with your knees higher than your hips. This will help the bowel empty more easily.
• Exercise regularly - movement helps to stimulate the bowel.
• Develop a routine by making time to use your bowels every morning.
Source: Dr Kylie Dodsworth