It's an area of the body many people feel funny talking about, but it just might be the most important place to nurture.
Your colon — or large intestine — sits at the end of your digestive system, a tube in your abdomen that is about five feet long in the average adult. Diseases from asthma to eczema often have their origins in the colon, says Dr. Bonnie Nedrow, a naturopath at Hidden Springs Wellness Center in Ashland.
"With naturopathic medicine we're looking to remove the cause of dis-ease and get to the root of the problem. Often the digestive system is right there in the middle of everything and the place that we have to at least address, if not make it our main focus," Nedrow says.
Food allergies have their origins in the colon, and are often caused by a diet high in processed foods.
In the unhealthy colon, an abrasion or erosion can occur, allowing material from the colon to enter the bloodstream directly. The immune system tags that material as a foreign invader. The 'invader' could be bacteria, or it could be dairy or wheat protein.
"So whenever you eat that substance, the body attacks it, hence a food allergy," Nedrow explains.
The first step to regain health that Nedrow prescribes for her patients is metabolic cleansing.
The body eliminates toxins through the lungs, kidneys, skin and colon, so Nedrow starts her patients on a program to cleanse all four in a slow, gentle process: aerobic exercise for the lungs, herbal remedies for the kidneys, saunas and scrubs for the skin, and dietary change and hydrotherapy for the colon.
"I have found that people with multiple, chronic discomforts find that 70 percent of symptoms disappear after a month of cleansing. Then we can find out what is the real problem with the remaining 30 percent," says Nedrow.
During the cleansing period, Nedrow's patients eat only fruits and vegetables, and may embark on a multi-day water-and-juice fast.
Colon hydrotherapy is a procedure to flush the colon with 10 to 12 gallons of purified water over the course of an hour and a half. The process resembles an extended enema, and is overseen by a trained hydrotherapist.
The goal of hydrotherapy is to cleanse the colon, hydrate the body and "also stimulate the peristalsis, rid the body of toxins," says Tashina Wilkinson, a colon hyrdrotherapist who works with Nedrow at Hidden Springs.
Another feature of the colon-cleansing program that Wilkinson uses is the application of castor oil packs.
"You put the castor oil pack on your abdomen with a hot cloth, saturate the cloth with the oil, put it on your belly so you've got your large and small intestines and liver covered. Leave it on for an hour and a half. The castor oil is absorbed through the skin into the bowels and helps release toxins and lubricates the bowel," Wilkinson explains.
Yoga positions such as downward-facing dog and happy baby, as well as abdominal massage, can also be helpful in restoring and maintaining a healthy colon, Wilkinson adds.
Colon cancer is the most serious sign of an unhealthy colon.
Cancer of the colon and rectum is the third-most common cancer in the United States for both men and women, according to the American Cancer Society. It is the number two cause of cancer deaths after lung cancer. Colon cancer primarily affects people over 50.
Nearly 1 in 19 people are expected to contract this type of cancer in their lifetime. The good news is that deaths from colorectal cancer have dropped in the past 20 years, due in large part to early screening.
"The number one thing we can do not only for colon health but for the health of our whole body is to be checked appropriately for colon cancer "» and if we don't do anything to prevent it, colon cancer is usually fatal," says Dr. Paul Schleinitz, a physician with Gastroenterology Consultants in Medford.
For screening, the American Cancer Society recommends a colonoscopy every 10 years beginning at age 50, or at age 40 if there is a family history of colorectal cancer. The test should be repeated every 10 years, or every five if polyps are discovered during the test.
The best way to prevent colon cancer, says Schleinitz, is to eat a high-fiber diet. His recommendation for a balanced, high-fiber diet includes daily servings of fruit, vegetables and whole grains.
Fiber facilitates the movement of waste through the colon.
The important thing, says Schleinitz, "is to avoid constipation. You should have a soft stool once, twice or three times a day."
Laxatives are the solution for many people suffering from constipation. Schleinitz warns that stimulant laxatives may actually weaken and harm the colon. He recommends fiber supplements, instead, such as psyllium-seed husks or ground flax seeds.
Exercise is an indispensable ingredient for colon health.
Walking is very effective for colon health," Schleinitz adds. "Walking for half an hour a day — being on your feet exercising — is going to help stimulate the colon and do a whole lot of other good things, too, for your heart and muscles and bones."
For more information, visit www.mayoclinic.com/health/colon-cancer and www.cancer.org.