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Keeping Regular (by Martine Packer)

The British certainly appear to be obsessed with their bowels! Our older generation in particular put great store by “being regular”. However, up to 20% of the population suffer from constipation. This obsession has always been rather ridiculed. However, it now seems that actually ‘keeping regular’ may be a major factor in maintaining overall good […]

The British certainly appear to be obsessed with their bowels! Our older generation in particular put great store by “being regular”. However, up to 20% of the population suffer from constipation.

This obsession has always been rather ridiculed. However, it now seems that actually ‘keeping regular’ may be a major factor in maintaining overall good health and indeed important for warding off diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, piles, colon cancer and even varicose veins and acne.

It seems that the less time waste matter is allowed to sit in the bowel the better. Some nutritionists believe this so wholeheartedly that they think there could be a benefit from going to the loo twice a day. This would surprise many people, particularly those who believe that being ‘regular’ means going every other day. What on earth could be the point of increasing your frequency if you are not experiencing any discomfort from your existing routine?

The answer to this is that while the waste matter is in the bowel it is broken down or degraded by billions of bacteria (3-4lbs!) and as a by-product of this process, quite noxious, toxic chemicals are produced. Many of these are absorbed through the gut wall, enter the blood stream and travel to the liver to be ‘detoxified’. This puts stress on both the gut wall and the liver, neither of which would need to be involved to such an extent if the waste matter had been eliminated sooner. It is understood that these toxic chemicals may play a part in the progression of colon cancer and there is some evidence that the problem is more likely to arise in people who eat a low fibre, high red meat diet (ie. a low residue diet).

It is not surprising that people who have colonic washouts or who undertake colon cleansing programmes often benefit from improved health, stamina and mood that their new “cleaner” digestive system is giving them. Perhaps by emptying their system they have removed the burden from the liver of detoxifying the absorbed toxins.

For most of us it should be enough to achieve a regular pattern of elimination that take place once daily and can be achieved easily and without straining. Straining is known to contribute to piles and varicose veins but is also a signal that one’s diet or lifestyle is not quite right.

Everyone now knows that fibre is an essential part of our diet. Fibre is the part of our food that we cannot digest and consists almost entirely of plant material. Fibre passes through the system into the bowel where it has three main effects:

It holds and attracts water, making the stools soft and easy to pass.

It provides a “food-source” for beneficial bacteria that are able to produce short-chain fatty acids from fibrous plant material. These fatty acids make the bowel contents mildly acidic, which helps to suppress the growth of pathogenic (or harmful) bacteria and also stimulates the bowel wall movements (known as peristalsis). These short-chain fatty acids have also been shown to inhibit cholesterol synthesis.

It also provides “bulk” material which allows the walls of the bowel to have something to work against, thus, encouraging a faster “transit time” for material through the bowel (ie. speeds up the passage of waste matter through the large intestine).

We are recommended by NACNE to consume at least 30g of fibre per day, but many people achieve only half this. In fact when looking at more primitive diets containing up to 50g per day of fibre, it is not surprising that the incidence of colon cancer in these countries is much lower than in the UK and other Western communities.

Many people find it difficult to consume enough fibre, particularly the elderly where appetite is often the problem. It is this group that is also prone to drinking insufficient liquid during the day and low fluid intake is another primary cause of irregularity and constipation.

As an answer to constipation many people turn to laxatives. There is no doubt that laxatives are often of great use to sort out short-term problems. However, they should be used as a last resort and then only for a short period unless of course they are known to be safe for long-term.

COMMON CAUSES OF SLOW, IRREGULAR BOWEL MOVEMENTS

How to correct this

Poor fibre intake

Eat at least 4 portions of fruit or vegetables per day

Use wholemeal bread or flour

Eat a high fibre breakfast cereal

Take a fibre supplement in the form of tablets or, better still, a drink

CAUTION: If you increase your fibre intake you must drink plenty of fluid (see below)

Poor Fluid Intake

If you are not motivated by thirst then you must force yourself to drink at least 1½-2 litres per day. Find your favourite drink and make set times to drink it. Simply forgetting to drink will possibly damage your health.

Little Physical activity

The digestive system is ‘massaged’ by the body moving. Long periods of inactivity can cause the bowel to become sluggish. Take at least gentle exercise such as walking but better still, try a few floor exercises such as sit-ups.

Laxatives generally fit into the following main categories:

Stimulants such as senna that increase gut movements. Over-use of these products can lead to a reliance on them and a lazy bowel.

Bulk-forming laxatives such as fibre tablets, fibre drinks, breakfast cereals. These encourage regularity in a natural way and are safe for long-term use, although some people complain of wind and flatulence problems.

Osmotic laxatives such as magnesium salts retain or draw water into the bowel. One commonly used laxative, Lactulose, also works in this way. Lactulose is a synthetic sugar that both draws water into the bowel and acts as a food for bacteria. A natural alternative to Lactulose extracted from chicory is now available and can be added to the short list of laxatives suitable for long-term use.

If you are not going to the loo at least once a day it is important to review your diet and lifestyle and to perhaps make some changes if you can. The panel above may be of some help in suggesting ways of improving your lifestyle.

You may find that an increased frequency of elimination not only leads to better long-term health but may also give you an immediate boost of energy and vitality.

Other diseases related with low-fibre diets

Varicose veins, Haemorrhoids, Colon cancer, Diverticular disease, Atherosclerosis and CHD, Appendicitis, Peptic ulcers

DID YOU KNOW?

Almost as many people suffer from constipation on holiday as suffer diarrhoea. Be sure to pack a gentle laxative and if you are to travel somewhere hot then be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Drinking large amounts of tea can cause constipation, conversely, drinking coffee, particularly fresh coffee, in moderate to large amounts, can cause diarrhoea.

Dietary sources of Fibre (g/100g)

Wholemeal bread 8.5

Brown bread 5.1

White bread 2.7

Potatoes 2.5

Root vegetables 1-2.5

Leafy vegetables 2.3-3.5

Fruits 3

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