Troublesome bowels

There seems no doubt that the gastrointestinal tract has suffered at the hands of civilization. In the previous section I explained the part that stress and the emotions play in the whole process of digestion and peptic ulceration. But the stomach, its attached duodenum and the small intestine, which are all concerned with digestion and absorption of food, are not the only organs to suffer from our modern patterns of living. The rest of the bowel does so as well.

One of the most interesting changes that civilization has brought to mankind is to alter his food. Even at the turn of this century a large proportion of the food we ate was natural food. Then with the age of the machine it became possible to refine and process food. Flour was made whiter and people thought, therefore, it was purer and better. Sugar was extracted from cane and beet and farm animals started to be fed by man rather than to forage for themselves. During the course of the 20th century food preservatives, additives, flavour improvers and so on evolved, which have added up to a state of unhealthy eating that is still only half suspected.

Perhaps the simplest and most obvious alteration to our diet has been brought about by over-refinement of grains. This in turn has led to a subsequent lack of bulk and roughage in the diet, which has produced several of the major bowel diseases today – notably constipation, colitis, the irritable bowel syndrome, and diverticulitis. Some would argue that large bowel cancer is also associated with our 20th-century self-imposed dietary modifications, for it is very rare in societies that eat more natural foodstuffs. There is no doubt at all that the reintroduction of more fibre into our food – if not by a back-to-natural-food movement, which often seems to be almost impossible today, then by fibre supplementation – is vitally necessary. In other words, by re-adding the bran we first of all so expensively removed from the natural grains we eat our health will improve. But this is not the whole story of troublesome bowels. Psychological factors have a big part to play in all bowel ailments, although this is seldom stressed today.

The large bowel reacts to psychological upset in a similar way to the stomach and small intestine. The type of person who reacts to psychological upset and tension by feeling depressed and apathetic usually develops constipation and suffers from the side effects of that constipation – piles, and so on. Those people who react to stress by feelings of repressed anger, hostility and frustration, tend to develop an over-active large bowel in which the frequent passage of poorly formed motions, excessive intestinal gas production and bloating of the intestine are common symptoms. Some sufferers seem to self-damage their bowel even more, possibly because stress hormones reduce the healthy viability of the mucous membrane of the bowel to normal intestinal organisms. They subsequently develop ulcerations and colitis, diverticulitis and other worrying large bowel diseases.

No-one would argue that the ultimate cause of colitis in its various forms is fully understood. We do know, however, that a gradual return to more healthy eating patterns, including eating more vegetable bulk and bran, pays enormous dividends in cases of the extremely common irritable bowel syndrome.

It is possible today to carry out experiments that accurately monitor the function of the colon and see how it reacts to suppressed anger and conditions of conflict. We can monitor its increased degree of contractability, and even watch its angry redness. Learning the simple process of muscular relaxation and controlled breathing quietens the automatic (autonomic) impulses that originate in the brain, thus persuading the internal organs not to over-react to the tension of modern life to such a degree. The relaxation response can enormously help the irritable and over-active bowels to behave more normally and quietly.


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