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Ahmedabad-based Sunita Sharma, 32, visited Sushil Narang, a gastroenterologist at the Columbia Asia Hospital in Ahmedabad. She had been bleeding while passing stool. Her tests showed that her haemoglobin was low and a colonoscopy showed multiple ulcerations in the colon. Sharma was suffering from ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) which gets aggravated by an unhealthy diet and chronic stress.

“She was put on steroids and in about a week her symptoms subsided and the bleeding stopped," says Dr Narang. 

One organ of the body most of us don’t give much thought to is the colon. Yet many diseases can originate from an unclean colon. Roy Patankar, a gastrointestinal and laparoscopic surgeon at the Zen Multispecialty Hospital in Mumbai, says, “The colon maintains the water balance, controls the immune system and aids in digestion." An inefficient colon, he says, can lead to the piling up of dangerous waste (since it does not get expelled from the body), which, in turn, may lead to serious health issues. Rajnish Monga, consultant (gastroenterology and hepatology) at Paras Hospitals in Gurugram, adjacent to Delhi, points out that as the colon is responsible for absorbing water, vitamins and minerals into the blood, a clogged and toxic bowel hampers the absorption of essential nutrients and can lead to deficiencies.

The setbacks

A toxic  colon, which swells up and dilates with inflamed walls, can weaken and stress the heart, irritate the lungs, cause bad breath, affect the brain, lead to unexplained weight gain, sleep issues and even behavioural side effects like poor memory, mood swings, uneasiness, weariness and despondency. “The liver may get burdened with unprocessed intestinal toxins. All this can contribute to muscle weakness, fatigue pain, stiffness in the joints, and lead to arthritis," says Dr Patankar. 

It might also lead to dehydration. Usually, when we drink water the colon leads it to the bloodstream for proper distribution, maintaining hydration. A toxic colon could mean that water remains trapped in the colon, triggering symptoms of dehydration.

If these toxins are not removed, they can build up and leak into the surrounding tissues and blood, affecting other organs. This creates a serious health issue known as autointoxication or self-poisoning. This is a catch-22 situation—you cannot have a healthy body without clean blood, and you cannot have clean blood without a clean colon.


“Bowel problems like colitis, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux are clear signs of a toxic colon," says Dr Monga. Other symptoms to look out for are skin rashes, bladder or vaginal diseases like recurrent yeast vaginal infections. A toxic colon can be diagnosed by a physical examination to check if the abdomen is tender and by listening to bowel sounds through a stethoscope. An X-ray or CT scan of your abdomen, and blood tests, including CBC (complete blood count) and blood electrolytes, may be necessary. Treatment involves anti-inflammatory medicines to control inflammation, antibiotics to treat or prevent any infection, bowel rest (during which you are not given anything to eat, receiving fluids and nutrients through a tube connected to a vein) and decompression (which removes the contents of the intestinal tract by means of suction through a tube inserted into the upper gastrointestinal tract) to remove gas and substances that fill the colon.

Keep it clean

Ideally, the emphasis should be on prevention rather than cure. The foods we eat and the lifestyle we follow have a huge bearing on how our colon functions. “The healthy transit time of food through our body is less than 24 hours but today, with the overload of processed foods loaded with refined sugar, a serious deficit of enzymes and fibre in our diet, combined with sedentary lifestyles, the transit time is slowing down, leading to a lot of accumulated waste in our colon," says Sandhya Pandey, chief (clinical nutrition and dietetics) at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute in Gurugram.

“Colon cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer in the West and is catching up soon catching up in India. Vegetarian diet is a protective against colon cancer as it tends to be high in fibre ," says Dr Monga.

It’s time, then, to pay attention to the colon.


The wellness mantra

Eat fibre-rich food and avoid chemical laxatives

■Eat raw garlic. It is the most powerful antibiotic for the gut. Peel and mince two cloves of garlic, crush it and leave for 2 minutes to make the nutrients more available. Or mix it with honey and swallow like tincture.

■Increase water intake to ensure the proper functioning of the colon.

■Stay away from processed red meat as a high intake (four-five times a week) could enhance the risk of developing a common inflammatory bowel condition known as diverticulitis.

■Fibre plays a huge role. When microbes in the digestive system don’t get natural fibre from food, they begin to munch on the natural layer of mucus that lines the gut, eroding it to the point where dangerous invading bacteria can infect the colon wall. Include high-fibre foods like bananas, broccoli, and whole grains like quinoa, barley, brown rice and wholewheat flour, in your diet.

■Munch on walnuts—they act as a probiotic to keep the colon healthy.

■Begin colon cancer screening at age 50; repeat after 10 years.

■Avoid chemical laxatives and antacids—these drugs can often make the problem worse.

Experts: Sushil Narang, gastroenterologist, Columbia Asia Hospital, and Roy Patankar, gastrointestinal and laparoscopic surgeon, Zen Multispecialty Hospital, Mumbai

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