What Is Your Colon and Why Should You Care?

You know how some kids are naturally “sciencey”? They usually have a poster of the Periodic Table on their bedroom wall and laugh at jokes that start out, “a neutron walks into a bar…”  Well, that wasn’t me. I was the kid begging the “science” kid to do my homework. I had no idea that a colon was anything other than a punctuation mark until I went to college and got sick 

Like most 19 year olds, I was not taking care of myself. I ate pizza or noodles for pretty much every meal. I don’t remember consuming a single piece of fruit or a veggie. Coupled with my poor diet were the stressful late nights and two rounds of antibiotics to get rid of a tenacious sinus infection. By the end of the first semester, I was miserable. I constantly alternated between constipation and diarrhea. I was bloated, gassy and I was getting depressed.

When I went home for the holidays, my mom made an appointment with a gastroenterologist. That is when I learned what my colon is and how my neglect of it was causing all of my problems.

The gastroenterologist explained that my digestive system, or gut, is made up of many different parts all beautifully designed to break down food, extract the nutrients that my body needs and get rid of leftover waste. The colon is the final phase of the digestive system. It is a 6-foot-long tube that is located around the small intestine. 

The job of the colon is to process the waste so that pooping is easy and convenient. Because the colon handles waste, it is also teeming with bacteria. The bacteria residing in the colon are referred to as gut microbiota. In a healthy colon, 85% of the microbiome is good bacteria compared to 15% bad bacteria. When the balance of good and bad bacteria gets out of whack, the problems begin. 

Physical symptoms of an imbalance of the gut microbiome may include constipation, diarrhea, bloating, food intolerance, skin rashes and an inability to lose weight. Worse than that, scientists now believe that an imbalance in the colon’s bacteria may be linked to a range of health problems including cancer, autoimmune diseases, Crohn’s disease and IBS.  

The combination of my poor food choices, stress and antibiotics had basically decimated the good bacteria in my colon. Bad bacteria had begun to flourish, making me constipated, gassy, bloated, sick and depressed. Thank goodness I had a three-week vacation from school. With my mom’s help, I immediately began eating more fruits, veggies and whole grains. She even bought me foods loaded with probiotics like Greek yogurt and kombucha. On my own, I cut down on sugar. I also quit the caffeine, started going to bed earlier and began taking a daily probiotic. 

After three weeks, I was feeling quite a bit better, but I knew that the real challenge would be keeping my colon healthy at college. I have been back at school for five weeks, and I’m still feeling good. I have compiled a short list of tips that have helped keep my gut healthy while away from home.

  1. I eat lots of salads in the dining hall. I load them up with veggies and just a little protein. I also use balsamic vinegar for my dressing.
  1. I have small bags of almonds and cashews that I always carry around in my backpack in case I get hungry.
  1. I keep Greek yogurt, bags of mini carrots and hummus in my little dorm room fridge.
  1. I take my water bottle everywhere with me and fill it up regularly.
  1. I only eat pizza occasionally, and when I do, I order it with lots of veggies on top.
  1. I continue to take a probiotic every morning.
  1. I also take IBS/W every day. It has really helped manage my abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea.

These really are not big changes, but they have made me feel a lot better.  A bonus is that I have more energy and my skin has cleared up. While I will never sign up for an anatomy and physiology class and refuse to ever set foot in the science lab, I can occasionally be heard talking to my friends about the importance of the colon and the microbiome. Maybe I am a bit of a science geek after all!