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Know your bowel: How to improve bowel health


1st Jan 2015 Health Conditions

Know your bowel: How to improve bowel health
Cases of bowel cancer have been on the rise in recent years, yet with early detection and diagnosis, many lives could be saved. How much do you know about your bowel, symptoms to look out for and how to improve your bowel health?
Talking about bowel issues may seem like a taboo subject, but there are good reasons why it shouldn’t be. According to Beating Bowel Cancer, bowel cancer is now the second biggest cancer killer in the UK.
Over 41,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year. Early diagnosis is crucial and if it’s diagnosed early, over 90 per cent of cases can be successfully treated.
Advances in much-needed screening have helped diagnose cases in at-risk groups. The NHS screening programme offers everyone aged between 60 and 69 years old free screening every two years, and in England it’s being extended to include people aged 70 to 75 years old. And, over the next three years, a new screening test is being introduced for the 55 plus age group.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer is treated most successfully if it’s caught early, so it’s important that everyone is aware of the key signs and symptoms.
According to Cancer Research UK, the main symptoms of bowel cancer include:
  • Bleeding from your back passage or blood in your stools
  • A change in your usual bowel habits – experiencing looser stools, diarrhoea or constipation – which lasts longer than three weeks
  • Pain in your back passage or abdomen
  • Unexpected weight loss
  • Fatigue and breathlessness
If you experience any of these changes to your bowel habits, or have any concerns about bowel health see your GP.

Ruling out bowel cancer

Experiencing changes to your bowel habits can be a worry, and the thought of talking to your doctor about it can also be a concern, but in many cases it doesn’t turn out to be as serious as bowel cancer.
In fact, Beating Bowel Cancer explains that there are lots of other bowel-related conditions that cause similar symptoms, including piles, anal fissures, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticular disease, inflammatory bowel disease and cases of constipation or diarrhoea.
“To help your doctor in their diagnosis, it can be useful to keep a symptom diary, recording details about how often you go to the toilet and what the new pattern is like,” advises a spokesperson. It may also be helpful to note down what you eat and drink, and any stress you’re under.

How to improve your bowel health

If you want to improve your bowel health and reduce the risk of bowel cancer, then research suggests that making dietary changes could help.
“As with all cancers, the risk depends on a variety of factors and varies from person to person. However, it seems that taking care over the types of foods we regularly eat, and how active we are, can help to keep bowel cancer at bay,” explains registered dietitian and nutritionist, Lyndel Costain.
“Research has linked a number of dietary characteristics to a reduced risk of developing bowel cancer.” Lyndel’s top tips for taking care of your bowel include:
  • Eating plenty of fibre from wholegrain/high fibre bread and cereals, beans, lentils and nuts, plus at least five portions of fruit and vegetables daily
  • Limiting your intake of processed and cured meats, such as sausage, bacon, salami and ham
  • Eating less red meat and more fish
  • Keeping within recommended alcohol limits
  • Keeping to a healthy weight
  • Staying active – try to do at least 30 minutes of moderate activity, such as walking, dancing or cycling, at least five days a week.

Making positive health changes

“Are there any changes you might like to make? If so, a good starting point is to get a clearer picture of your current diet by writing down everything you eat and drink for a week or two,” suggests Lyndel. “It’s also useful to keep a record of the activity you do each day. Then plan, and make, step-by-step changes to improve your health.”