By Gerald W. Deas, M.D.
The only time that we know we have a gut is when it either growls or cramps up, causing pain. Oh! There’s another time we know we have a gut. It’s when you look down and can’t see your knees. That’s really not an enlarged gut, but a collection of fat in the wall of the abdomen. The abdomen is filled with many organs such as the liver, spleen, pancreas and stomach. However, the gut occupies most of the space in the abdomen.
From the time, the partially digested food leaves the stomach, it begins its long journey through the gut until whatever is left is eliminated with a bowel movement. After leaving the 23 feet of small intestines, the mess enters the large gut. Speaking of mess, I remember in the ’hood, when someone called you a mess, it was not a compliment. Statements such as, “Child, you sure are a mess,” was a common greeting when you didn’t look or act right.
The mess that enters the large gut is a semi-liquid and the process of compacting it by the absorption of water begins. In other words, the large gut is known as the great compactor. The lining of the large gut is very sensitive to toxins as well as to certain food items such as lactose, which is the sugar found in milk. For example, if you are lactose sensitive, the large gut will begin to growl and cramp and all I can say is “don’t be in a place where there is no toilet or you will be embarrassed.” Another sugar found in beans can also insult the gut and make you run in different directions. In fact, we had an old saying in the ’hood, “Beans, beans, when you eat a lot, the more you eat, the more you fart.” My mom wasn’t particular about that expression. Another bean rhyme stated, “Beans, beans, the musical fruit, the more you eat, the more you toot.” Beans however, are full of rich fiber and are excellent for a healthy gut. Fiber, insoluble and soluble does magic in the gut in keeping the walls protected from toxic substances thus, preventing irritation and the beginning of cancer cells forming.
The large gut works 24/7. You may not even recognize that you have a working gut until you put your ear to the abdomen either physically or with a stethoscope and hear mild, gushing sounds. On the other hand, if you are experiencing abdominal pain and hear no sounds of gut function, medical attention is warranted due to the fact that the gut may be paralyzed resulting from exposure to a leak in the abdominal cavity from the gut itself.
Now, getting down to the nitty-gritty. If certain areas of the wall of the gut become weak, small sacs develop which are known as diverticulas. These sacs often become infected by bacteria resulting in the condition diverticulitis, which causes cramping of the gut resulting in loose stools and oftentimes bleeding. Blood in the stool resulting from bleeding in the large bowel is usually red. Blood found in the stool that originates from the stomach is usually black due to a reaction of the hydrochloric acid and the blood. Black stools in medical jargon are known as tarry stools. In other words, as black as tar. Whether the blood in the stool is grossly apparent or microscopic, it can be detected by a simple chemical test. The test should be negative if the bowel is healthy. Blood in the stool should always be evaluated with diagnostic tests to arrive at its origin.
The lining of the large gut can also be irritated by toxins resulting from the breakdown of food products. This irritation may lead to polyps which can form abnormal cancer cells. A diagnostic procedure known as colonoscopy can detect the early formation of polyps which can be removed. If the polyps are not removed , sizable, cancerous growths can occur leading to obstruction of the large bowel. The cancer cells may also shed into the bloodstream and deposit in distant organs such as the liver. Not all folks develop polyps in the large gut. The development of polyps may be due to the lack of fiber in the diet leading to poor bowel movements.
In Africa, it seems that conditions such as diverticulosis and cancer develop less frequently due to the large amount of fiber ingested resulting in frequent bowel movements eliminating toxic wastes.
Early detection of cancer in the large gut is life saving. Guidelines from the American Cancer Society suggests the following:
Men and women who are at risk and who are age 50 or older should follow one of the five examination schedules below:
• Yearly fecal occult blood tests (FOBT)
• Flexible sigmoidoscopy every five years
• Double contract barium enema every five years
• Colonoscopy every ten years
People with a personal history of polyps, colon cancer, or inflammatory bowel disease or a family history of colon cancer or polyps are at a high risk for colon cancer. They may need to start being tested before age 50 and have tests done more often.
For further information on colon cancer contact 1-800-ACS-2345 or the web site, cancer.org.