Everyone has one, but most people don't like to think about theirs. Or talk about theirs, for that matter. As with most parts of the body, we tend to give our colons very little of our attention until there is a problem. Our colons play such an important part in our daily functioning and yet are sorely neglected. This neglect comes through no fault of their own, except for the fact that the product they produce tends to have a very foul odor. The following facts will help you to become re-acquainted with your colon. Taking the mystery out of your colon will help you to better identify signs that something is wrong and to help you to feel more comfortable talking about this hard-working part of your body with your doctor.
1. The colon is approximately five feet long.
Your colon, otherwise referred to as your large intestine, stretches from your small intestine to your anus. In order, its parts are the cecum, the ascending colon, the transverse colon, the descending colon, the sigmoid colon, the rectum and the anal canal. Your colon is three inches wide at its widest point, the cecum, and just under an inch wide at its narrowest point, the sigmoid colon.
2. It can take anywhere from 12 to 48 hours for the food that you have eaten to make its way through your colon.
Many people believe that the food that they eat comes out in the next bowel movement. It actually can take quite some time for food to make its way through the entire length of your digestive system. This length of time is known as transit time and can be measured through the use of a colonic transit time test. Interestingly, average transit times can be very different depending on the population being studied. Factors that affect transit time include race, gender, typical diet, and amount of physical activity. Transit time longer than 72 hours is generally seen as indicative of a possible bowel disorder.
3. It is estimated that approximately 100 trillion microscopic organisms reside within our colons.
Our colons are host to countless numbers of micro-organisms known as microbiota or gut flora. The majority of these organisms are bacteria. The identification of the role of the microbiota has led to the popularity of the use of probiotics as supplements and food additives to enhance digestive health and immune functioning.
4. Your colon is never empty.
Many people believe that they have emptied out their colons after multiple bouts of diarrhea or that they can keep their colon empty by avoiding food. However, since stool is made up in large part of bacteria, fecal matter is continuously being formed. In addition to bacteria, stool is made up of liquid, undigested food, dietary fiber, fat, minerals, and protein.
5. Your colon absorbs about one quart of liquid each day.
It is the colon's job to complete the process of digestion. Its main job is to absorb water and electrolytes from the material passed from the small intestine. This material is then formed into a stool that can be passed during the process of a bowel movement. When a person experiences diarrhea, they are passing stool that has not been in the colon long enough to have had enough liquid absorbed so as to firm up the stool. The opposite state of affairs occurs when a person experiences constipation. In that case, the stool has been in the colon too long and thus becomes dried out, hard, and difficult to pass.
6. Your rectum is usually empty.
At periodic intervals, the muscles lining the descending and the sigmoid colons move fecal matter into the rectum. In response, the rectum expands and holds onto the stool. The stool is contained within the rectum by your internal and external sphincter muscles. Once you decide to have a bowel movement, voluntary and involuntary muscles work together to expel the stool.
7. There is no normal when it comes to frequency of bowel movements.
Although many people consider one bowel movement a day to be the norm, research does not support this. Frequency of bowel movements varies widely among individuals, as well as varying widely for any single individual. In studies on the subject, approximately 50 to 70 percent of people surveyed report having a single daily bowel movement. Outliers range from one movement every three days to three movements a day.
8. Eating a large or high-fat meal can trigger a bowel movement.
One of your body's reflexes is the gastrocolic reflex. When you eat something, this reflex kicks in and starts a process of movement throughout your entire digestive tract. Large meals and fatty meals appear to cause a greater gastrocolic response and thus may prompt the need for defecation. This information is useful for those who are prone to either constipation or diarrhea. For the person with constipation, a large, fatty meal in the morning may work with the body's natural biorhythms to encourage a bowel movement. The person prone to diarrhea should stick to small, low-fat meals.
9. Healthy stools are not always brown.
There is no need to panic if you see some variations in the color of your stools. There are a variety of factors that can affect stool color. Healthy stools typically fall into the brown range, but can be yellow or orange as well. You should notify your doctor is your stools are bright or dark red or black or tar-colored, as this may indicate the presence of bleeding. For more on stool color, see:
10. You can live without a colon.
The nutrients from food that we need to survive are predominantly absorbed by our small intestine. Therefore, a person can have their colon removed and continue to have a healthy life. There are several health conditions, such as colon cancer or inflammatory bowel disease, in which it may be deemed necessary to remove a person's colon. In these cases, a procedure called a colostomy is performed in which an opening is made in the abdomen, so that fecal material can be collected outside of the body in a colostomy bag.
Palsson, O. & Whitehead, W. "Hormones and IBS" The UNC Center for Functional GI & Motility Disorders. Accessed February 5, 2010
Thompson, W.G. Gut Reactions Plenum Press: New York 1989.
"Your Digestive System and How It Works" National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse Accessed December 26, 2010.