What is the bowel?
The bowel plays a crucial role in our digestive system for our overall health and wellbeing. It forms the lower portion of our digestive system, composed of a small and large bowel. It is a long muscular tube running from the stomach through to the back passage (anus). The bowels’ main role is to break down and absorb the nutrients from the food we have eaten to be used to fuel our body. Alongside this, it produces solid waste to be excreted from our body known as stools/faeces.
How does the bowel work?
The bowel itself has two components: the small bowel known as the small intestine and the large bowel, known as the large intestine. Opposite to what their name suggests, the small bowel is longer than the large intestine. It is the width that is the diff erence with the large intestine presenting wider compared with the small intestine.
Digestion starts when we eat food, and the process starts in our mouth once the food has been chewed.
There are enzymes present in our saliva which start the chemical reaction for breakdown and then passes to the oesophagus (throat) through and into our small bowel/intestine. With the help of other organs such as liver, pancreas and gallbladder, the small intestine absorbs the nutrients from the broken down food and then passes through to the large bowel/intestine. It is mostly a liquid form that passes through the large bowel/intestine, and the main role here is to absorb water. Bacteria present in the colon further breaks down any food and is then moved on in a solid form to be excreted when we go to the toilet.
Bowel Cancer Awareness
Bowel cancer commonly affects the large colon and is referred to as colorectal cancer. The exact causes of bowel cancer are unknown, but cancer can develop in our cells when they change and divide in an uncontrolled manner. Cell division is a normal process; however, they divide quicker and abnormally when they are cancerous. This can create a lump of tissue, referred to as polyps which form on the inner lining of the bowel (nhs.uk/conditions/bowel-cancer/causes/) . It does not mean all polyps will be cancerous, as they can
form and disappear on their own.
According to Bowel Cancer UK the prevalence of bowel cancer affects:
- 43,000 people being diagnosed in the UK each year
- 9/10 cases are newly found in those over the age of 50, with 6/10 diagnosed over the age of 70
- There are approximately 268,000 people living with bowel cancer in the UK
- 90% of cases are successfully treated.
There are predisposing factors that can contribute to developing bowel cancer, however this does not mean that it will always occur. These factors include:
- Age 50 and over
- Family history
- Diets – Evidence suggests diets high in red meat increase the risk of developing colon cancer
- Alcohol intake
- Inactivate lifestyle
- Digestive disorder such as Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis
The symptoms for bowel cancer vary from person to person, and although there are various signs it does not mean that all will present at once. Some of these symptoms are subtle and may become more noticeable over time.
The following symptoms may present such as:
- Bleeding from your bottom or blood present in stools
- Bowel habit changes such as looser stools, runnier and going more often than you are used to
- Unexplained weight loss
- Sometimes abdominal pain may present
- Extreme tiredness for no reason
- A pain or lump in your tummy/ bloating after eating
If you experience any of the above symptoms, then a consultation with your GP should be carried out. During this time, they will ask you questions regarding the symptoms you present and the following examinations may take place for further investigation:
- Examine your tummy
- Examine your bottom with a process called digital rectal examination
- Blood tests
- CT scan
- Biopsies if required
Preventing Bowel Cancer
We can reduce the risks of developing bowel cancer by making small changes in our lifestyle and including healthier habits overall which will serve us well for the long term.
Our diet is one area where changes can have a big impact on preventing many serious health conditions including bowel cancer. Ensuring our diet is rich in fibre helps to keep our digestive system functioning effectively and staying healthy. It provides bulk from the food digested to ensure we can excrete the waste and help the bowel function as it should. There are two types of fibre to include called insoluble and soluble.
Insoluble fibre provides bulk in the digested food eaten to help move it through the colon and into the bowel and can prevent constipation. Soluble fibre food sources once digested absorb water and turn into a gel like substance which aids towards softening faeces to make it easier to be excreted by the bowel. Not only does this help with a healthy digestive system, but it also helps lower our
cholesterol and promotes healthy heart function.
Food sources from both, insoluble and soluble fibres are:
- Wholegrain foods such as brown rice, pasta, brown bread, grains, potatoes with skins on
- Root vegetables
- Fruits that are seeded, apples, blueberries
- Barley and spelt
Staying hydrated is an essential factor for a healthy and functioning body with a recommended 1.6-2 litres of fluids per day to help this. This can be dependent upon our activity levels and occupations with some being more active, and therefore may require more fluid intake to keep it balanced. Hydration helps to ensure the digestive system functions optimally as well as other important bodily processes such as cell development, blood pressure, lubrication of joints, regulation of body temperature and for vital organ functions.
Ensuring we have a balanced diet including a variety of different sources mentioned above, can help serve a healthy lifestyle to reduce the likelihood for developing bowel cancer. Alongside reducing this risk, it also helps manage blood sugar levels to reduce diabetes, improves heart health and lowers cholesterol and can aid in weight management. In conjunction with a healthy diet, exercise is a key component to ensure optimal health is achieved. Regular exercise helps with bowel health, digestion breakdown and improves muscular strength to carry out daily lifestyle tasks required from us. Trying to include at least 10 minutes of movement each day can help towards a healthier digestions system. For health benefits to be achieved, aiming for around 7,000 steps per day has shown to positively impact overall health and wellbeing.