Since this article was originally published on the “food page” of our local newspaper, a bit of editing was done, and a great picture of a sliced pear appeared next to it. However, I will publish it here on my website, as I wrote it, along with the picture that we took for it. Oh, it was picked up by the daily news for the Academy for Nutrition and Dietetics (publicized across the nation – yippee!) Enjoy!
While many shy away from the topic, as a dietitian and nutrition professor, I have no problem talking about poop, especially when it is a matter of life and death! Constipation, so common that many people mistakenly think it is “normal”, has a long shadow that extends far beyond inconvenience and physical pain/discomfort. While you may already be familiar with the a links between constipation and hemorrhoids, acid reflux, diverticulosis and diverticulitis, colon cancer, varicose veins, and hiatal hernias, the well established relationship between breast cancer and constipation might surprise you. More than 100 years ago, doctors and scientists documented an association between pre-cancerous changes in the breast and constipation, with subsequent disappearance of that pathology once the constipation was resolved. In later research, it was found that women with two or fewer bowel movements per week had four times the risk of pre-cancerous breast cell changes as compared to women eliminating waste more than once per day.
To understand this situation, you are going to need a bit of background. Every moment of our lives, our cells are exposed to myriad of carcinogenic, or cancer causing substances, and our liver is our primary detoxifier. Our liver makes bile acids to help us get rid of cholesterol, extra estrogen and other toxins. When our diet is full of fiber-rich plant foods, we are able to quickly and easily get rid of these bile acids in our waste. However, when we aren’t able to keep transit time down to a day or two, these harmful bile acids and other toxins are actually reabsorbed through the wall of the large intestine. Not only can this prolonged contact time initiate DNA mutations, which can lead to cancer in the colon itself, but these harmful bile acids can travel throughout the blood supply and end up getting concentrated in the breast tissue. In fact, research demonstrates the breast cells can have 100 times the concentration of carcinogenic bile acids compared to circulating blood and can not only promote growth of existing cancer, by exerting an estrogen-like cancer promoting effect on breast tumor cells, but also initiate new cancer development.
If you think that you are “in the clear” because you have a daily bowel movement, what you flush today, could actually be the result of what you ate nearly a week ago! While the mouth to toilet transit time for those of us who eat plant-strong are only a few days at most, the average omnivore can expect the trip to take up to five days! Remember, longer transit time means more exposure of these toxins to intestinal cells and a greater percentage of the bile acids and extra estrogen getting reabsorbed and traveling throughout the body.
In the early 1900s, resolving severe constipation for some patients meant removing the colon, a surgical procedure called a colectomy. However, I have some less invasive strategies for keeping those waste products moving through in a timely manner! In addition to increasing the amount of whole plant food that you are eating, here are two action items that you can implement today!
- Use my 1C-1R technique to increase your fiber and phytonutrient intake: whenever you eat something COOKED, like black bean soup or a veggie stir-fry, eat something RAW with it (carrot sticks, cucumber rounds, a fresh pear).
- Don’t get into your car without your water bottle! Even if you don’t have a long commute, you may spend more time than you realize zipping here and there in your car. I never leave home without filling up my stainless steel, insulated water bottle, a “luxury” that you owe yourself, even if I am traveling less than a mile to the grocery store. As soon as I get into the car, I start drinking and keep practicing that habit, as it provides the perfect opportunity for me to get the water my body needs to help the fiber in the plant foods that I eat move the waste out!
Final thought in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month: a tongue twister that that I wrote may end up being a life saver… “Pack your plate with plants for plentiful poops and protection for your precious parts!”
Timaree Hagenburger, is a registered dietitian and certified health fitness specialist with a master’s degree in public health. She is a nutrition professor at Cosumnes River College and conducts corporate wellness work throughout the area.