Lets Talk about Poo!
Ok, lets talk about poo! It might not be the most comfortable of topics, but it's actually a vital part of your own gut health and a window into your digestive system.
If you've been to see a Naturopath or Nutritionist, you will know that we like to ask about your bowel movements. We can go on and on, and ask about the colour, shape, size, smell and consistency. We ask how often you go to the toilet, if you see any blood or mucous, undigested food, if you've strained and feel completely evacuated. There's even a chart with images (called the Bristol Stool Chart) so you can identify which type of bowel movement you are having.
Too much information yet?
Although these questions seem personal, to a health care practitioner this level of detail is an important window into your digestive system.
What is the digestive system?
Also known as the Gastrointestinal Tract (GIT), it is not just in your belly - it starts at your mouth, and ends at your anus. This complex system (which can be about 9m long!) is responsible for turning all the food that you eat into nutrients, used for energy, biochemical processes, cell growth and repair. The digestive system also plays a big part in your immune and nervous systems, and is responsible for warding off pathogens. And finally, it turns whatever you don't need into waste, and eliminates it.Various different organs in the digestive system help to produce enzymes and hormones that aid in turning your food into energy. It starts with chewing and the production of saliva - full of enzymes to start the digestive process. We cannot stress enough the importance of eating without distraction and chewing your food properly - you don't have teeth anywhere else down the digestive tract!
It usually takes about 36 hours for the food to move all the way through the GIT. It is moved along via peristalsis (involuntary smooth muscle contractions), mixed with acids and enzymes for nutrient breakdown, is then stored in the sigmoid colon where water content is removed, until it is pushed through to the rectum to be evacuated.
These are the gut bacteria that form a complex ecosystem, crucial to the management of health. Research is still only touching on the various species and their roles in the human GIT, and it is a truely fascinating area of science. Some of the functions of the microbiome include digestion and conversion of nutrients, protection against pathogenic bacteria, production of neurotransmitters, management of inflammation and many more. Even subtle disruption of the balance of the microbiome can lead to significant long term health impacts and maladaptive functions, many of which are still poorly understood.
What is clear - gut health matters. We need to ensure our patients have a varied, rich and well functioning microbiome to optimise wellness.
Digestion and Cancer
Because cancer can directly affect the digestive organs, we are very interested in what we can do to prevent this. Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer in men and women, and that doesn't even include oesophageal, gastric or pancreatic presentations.
The gut is also very sensitive to cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. These treatments are designed to kill rapidly growing cancer cells, but in addition also damage healthy cells, such as those lining the intestinal tract. Mouth ulcers and mucositis can be a very painful and debilitating side effect of treatment, or you may experience digestive upset, lack of appetite, diarrhea, and/or weight loss.
Fecal Occult Blood Test (FOBT)
If you are over the age of 50 in Australia, you will receive a free 'Bowel Cancer Screening Kit' in the mail every two years. This is called the Fecal Occult Blood Test. By identifyling whether there is blood in your stool (which often you cannot see), this test is an easy way of detecting early signs of bowel cancer. Don't put it off - just do it. If you have a family history of bowel cancer, speak to your GP about a regular colonoscopy from a much younger age.
What is a normal poo?
The perfect poo requires minimal strain and no pain to pass and is usually one single piece (this is due to the shape of your intestines!) or a few smaller pieces. It is soft to firm in texture and a medium to dark brown. It should feel quite satisfying! Occasional variation is normal. However if you repeatedly have loose stools, notice undigested foods, have smeary or clay coloured poos, or are suffering from constipation: this is not normal.
What to look out for?
Clearly, not everyone's bowel movements are perfect. Here are some key things to look out for:
- Diarrhea - this could be due to a bacterial infection, medication, food intolerances, chemotherapy, or stress.
- Constipation - this could be due to dehydration, lack of fibre, excessive use of laxatives, many medications (eg steroids and pain killers), food intolerances, or stress.
- Undigested food in your stool - some foods (like corn or tough seeds) are not broken down in the digestive tract so it's normal for them to appear in your stool. But if you frequently see other undigested foods such as veggies or meat this could be a sign of poor absorption or digestion.
- Mucus in your stool - seeing mucus in your stool, or having stools that are particularly smeary, could be a sign of infection, inflammation, food intolerance or allergy. If this is a frequent occurrence, please talk to your health care professional.
- Blood in the stool - this can be a red flag. A couple of bright red spots on the paper could be a tear of a small vessel near your anus, and is probably nothing to be alarmed about. Nevertheless, if there is any blood in the stool, in the toilet bowl, or on the paper you should definitely get this checked out by a GP asap.
How can I improve my digestion?
- Hydrate! Drinking water is the easiest and most effective way to improve your bowel movements. 9 out of 10 people we speak to do not drink enough water. Avoid drinking excessively with meals, and space your drinks between meals. Herbal teas or putting some mint, cucumber, or squeeze of citrus can help make water more exciting.
- Eat fibre rich foods. Eating fibre rich foods can help to bulk your stool and make it easier to pass. Apples, berries, nuts and seeds, rolled oats, legumes as well as lots of veggies can help improve your stool quality. Avoid red meat, processed foods and refined grains. And no refined fibre additives please - sticking to wholefoods is always better.
- Exercise. Ever wondered why dogs always poo when on their walkies? Increasing movement can help engage your intestines into the natural movement that helps move stools forward. Exercise also has a beneficial impact on your microbiome. Even just 10-15 minutes of movement per day can help your digestive system.
- Eat mindfully. Set aside 15 minutes to eat a proper meal without distraction, so your body can calm down and go into the "rest and digest mode".
- Chew! There are no teeth in your gut, and chewing food properly not only breaks down large particles but also mixes it with valuable saliva, full of enzymes.
- Reduce or eliminate triggering foods. Get to know your body and what foods irritate your digestion. Some of these foods could be; coffee, sugar, dairy, alcohol or fatty foods. If these foods cause you to have diarrhea, constipation or any pain while trying to pass a bowel movement, then stop eating them.
Not sure how to resolve your digestive issues?
See a Nutritionist if digestive issues don't resolve. At Melbourne Integrative Oncology Group we offer Nutritionist Services as part of our integrative approach. Why not contact us or book an appointment with our friendly nutritionist, Viv Klaver on 03 9571 7498.