Herbal medicalist columnist Nicola Parker breaks the taboo over toilet habits.
Toilet habits can be a bit of a taboo, something we don’t talk about for fear of upsetting polite company.
Not for me, though. As a herbalist, toilet habits are an everyday conversation and I often get some funny looks at some of the questions I ask in my clinic.
There’s no getting around it, though, knowing the health of your bowel can be key to providing the right treatment. It also helps to avoid common complications of the digestive system that can occur as we age.
Diverticular disease is a condition linked to long-term constipation. It’s something I screen for at every appointment because, although it can be preventable, as many as half of people over 60 have it.
So why is such a condition so common?
Is it because nobody is talking about it?
Diverticular disease occurs when hard stools or gas cause enough pressure in the bowel that pockets form. Pockets may be tiny or over 2cm in size, and they don’t
always cause symptoms.
Many diverticular pockets are discovered while undergoing tests for something completely unrelated and many people live with the condition while barely noticing it.
For others, diverticular disease can cause stomach pain, bloating, constipation and diarrhoea. Pockets may become inflamed or infected, causing blood and mucus in the stool. This is known as diverticulitis.
Diverticulitis causes much worse symptoms, including fever, feeling sick, severe pain and an altered heart rate.
It’s important to see your GP if you experience symptoms like these, but your local herbalist may be able to help in general to reduce the
frequency and severity of flare-ups.
When trying to manage or prevent diverticular flare ups, it’s very important to keep your stool soft and avoid constipation. To do this, it’s necessary to include lots of water and fibre in your diet.
Fibre absorbs water and carries it into the bowel, so it’s important that you have both of these elements.
When increasing your fluid intake, don’t just increase tea and coffee.
These are diuretic and will encourage your kidneys to flush the water out.
Furthermore, the tannins and oxalates in tea and coffee affect your absorption of magnesium, the mineral that keeps your bowel muscles strong.
If your magnesium levels are low, you might suffer from cramp, restless legs, twitchy muscles or sluggish bowel function. Taking a magnesium supplement can restrengthen bowel muscles rapidly.
I often quote the story of a lady who lost 8lbs of stool in a week after we concluded that her weakened bowel needed retoning.
After seven days on magnesium and improved fluid intake, her bowel began to evacuate everything it hadn’t been able to before. She felt lighter, more comfortable and more energetic very quickly.
To avoid constipation and maintain a healthy bowel, try taking a probiotic capsule on a regular basis. A probiotic does for the bowel what vitamin C does for the immune system. It looks after the area, giving your colon extra support against gas, hard stools and inflammation that could trigger flare-ups. By colonising the area with the friendly bacteria in probiotics, it makes it more difficult for problematic bacteria to survive and take up space.
I recently helped a lady after a diverticulitis flare-up had left her hospitalised.
After being discharged, her diarrhoea was so severe, she’d had to take time off work and the financial stress of this was making her fearful for her future. Since the initial flare-up and infection had been treated, I offered her some anti-inflammatory bowel herbs, including marigold and chamomile, two of my favourite wound healers. Bowel herbs like these work very quickly, so I requested a repeat visit within the week.
Not only had her diarrhoea settled, but she confided that this was the first time in 20 years that she’d been pain-free. Her diverticular disease had been causing problems for so long, she had just assumed that the pain and discomfort were lifelong symptoms that she needed to live with.
Diverticular disease and other bowel problems could be more manageable than you think. If you have explored what your GP can offer you and still feel unsatisfied with your options, try contacting your local herbalist and, above all, don’t be afraid to talk about it.