Your colon, also known as your large intestine, plays an essential role in your health. As part of your digestive system, your colon helps to remove water, salt and certain nutrients from indigestible food matter, and helps to form and eliminate solid waste from your body.
When your colon is healthy, you will have regular bowel movements that are well shaped (like a torpedo), soft and easy to pass; subsequently, this means toxins and waste are being effectively eliminated from your system. However, your digestive system, including your colon, is easily impacted by a number of factors, from your diet to environmental chemicals, and as a result can easily become imbalanced.
For instance, if the walls of your colon become damaged, toxins from your food can be absorbed into your bloodstream instead of eliminated. It’s also common for disease-causing bacteria and yeast to proliferate in an unhealthy colon, leading to an extensive array of mental and physical conditions. While constipation, diarrhea, gas, and bloating are the most common symptoms of trouble in your colon, small growths known as polyps can also develop.
Many colon polyps are benign and carry no symptoms, but some can slowly develop into colon cancer.
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to keep your colon healthy. Before we delve into those, let’s first set the record straight about some common colon cancer myths.
Colon Cancer is the Third Most Common Cancer in the United States
As a leading cause of cancer and cancer deaths, knowing what you can do to lower your risk of this disease is important. While it’s estimated that over 103,000 people will be diagnosed with colon cancer in 2012, and over 49,000 died from the disease in 2011, the majority of these diagnoses and deaths are preventable with lifestyle changes and proper screening.1
Because colon cancer almost always begins as a polyp, if the polyp is detected early enough it can be removed to prevent the cancer from spreading, or even before it turns into cancer at all. Regular screening is recommended starting at age 50, as more than 90 percent of colorectal cancer cases occur in those aged 50 and older.
This is important for both men and women, as although colon cancer is often labeled as a “man’s” disease, the risk of colon cancer for men is only slightly higher than in women.
5 Top Steps for a Healthy Colon
Together with regular screening, lifestyle changes that support colon health may also help lower your risk. Here’s a break-down of the lifestyle essentials you need to know:
Exercise is about so much more than weight loss or even a healthy heart. Research published last year found that exercise significantly reduces the risk of developing precancerous colon polyps, and therefore may have an important role in colon cancer prevention. Those who exercised regularly had a 16% decrease in the risk of developing colon polyps, and a 30% decrease in the risk of developing large or advanced polyps (which are more likely to turn into cancer).2
Research also shows that people who were consistently active for at least 10 years, engaging in activities such as running, cycling, walking, tennis or dancing, had a significantly lower risk of dying from colon cancer after a diagnosis than their sedentary peers.3
Physical activity likely influences colon health in a number of ways, including boosting your immune system, lowering inflammation and reducing insulin levels.
2. Eliminate Processed Meats, Cut Back on Red Meat and Meats Cooked at High Temperatures
Processed meat consumption has repeatedly been linked to colon cancer. As noted by the World Cancer Research Fund, it appears there is no safe level when it comes to processed meat, and you’re better off avoiding it entirely:
“There is strong evidence that red and processed meats are causes of bowel cancer, and that there is no amount of processed meat that can be confidently shown not to increase risk.”
Processed meats include any meat prepared by smoking, curing or salting, adding chemical preservatives such as nitrates. This includes bacon, ham, salami, corned beef and some sausages.
Red meats, such as beef, have also been linked to colon cancer, and it’s recommended to limit your intake to just over 1 pound a week. Further, no matter what type of meat you consume, pay attention to how it’s cooked. High-heat cooking methods such as frying, broiling or grilling contribute to the creation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chemicals that are linked to cancer, Healthier options for cooking meat include steaming and poaching.
3. Eat Veggies, Especially Cruciferous Veggies
Vegetables are superfoods when it comes to protecting against cancer. Not only are they a natural source of fiber (foods that contain dietary fiber are known to decrease colon cancer risk), but many also contain specific cancer-fighting phytonutrients.
Veggies in the cruciferous family of vegetables, such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, cauliflower and bok choy, appear to be particularly potent cancer fighters because of their sulfur-containing compounds known as glucosinolates. Consumption of cruciferous veggies is linked to a lower risk of many types of cancer, including colon cancer. Further, there’s also evidence that suggests consumption of cruciferous vegetables may help reduce DNA damage to your colorectal cells caused by eating meat cooked at high temperatures.4
4. Consume Friendly Bacteria (Probiotics)
Research shows that if your digestive system is overrun by bad bacteria, it may increase your risk of colon cancer by generating waste products that harm colon tissues and make them more vulnerable to malignancies.5 Researchers say it's possible that adenomas, benign tumors that may serve as a warning sign of colon cancer, could be triggering the production of bad bacteria too.
In addition to limiting your consumption of sugar, which feed bad bacteria, you can help optimize your gut bacteria by consuming probiotics. These are available naturally in fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, and traditionally made sauerkraut.
5. Make Sure You Have Healthy Vitamin D Levels
Many people in the United States are vitamin D deficient, particularly those who live in the colder northern states, where sun exposure is minimal all winter long.