Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, is widely credited with saying “all disease begins in the gut.” Echoing this assertion nearly two centuries later, Nobel prize-winning biologist Elie Metchnikoff added his own twist to this wisdom when he wrote that "death begins in the colon" – arguing that disease and aging are largely due to the accumulation of toxic bacteria in the large intestine.
Increasingly, evidence indicates that the colon is one of the most overlooked organs in the body – and the root of much modern-day illness. Indeed, research indicates that as much as 80% of disease begins in the large bowel, including colon cancer, the second most deadly form of cancer (after lung cancer). It is safe to say that the condition of your colon – the last organ of the digestive system – mirrors the condition of your health.
As the quality of our food has drastically deteriorated over the last several decades, no part of our body has been harder hit than the colon. In fact, diet is the leading indicator determining whether or not a person will develop colon issues. Consumption of a diet that is high in bad fats and processed foods, as well as low in fiber and complex carbs, floods the digestive system with poor quality food that is difficult to digest and eliminate. This puts a massive strain on the colon, as well as the entire GI system.
In an effort to counteract the potential damage of a poor diet, the body acts to surround highly-processed, acid-forming food with mucus to absorb and neutralize the toxins and pesticides it contains. But as the occasional happy meal becomes a regular routine, the walls of the colon become caked with hardened mucus and partially digested food. Eventually, this build up of toxic fecal matter and mucoid plaque leaves the colon blocked and swollen – obstructing bowel movements and the elimination of waste.
Over time, as the colon becomes clogged with rotting, fermenting mucus and feces, the walls of the large intestine may weaken and develop slight tears. Toxic waste starts to leak back into the bloodstream where this undigested debris – now a foreign irritant – is carried back to every organ within the body. Eventually, the circulation of toxic debris results in self-poisoning (autointoxication) as intestinal stasis causes the body to poison itself with its own waste.
Remarkably, the large intestine can store a vast amount of partially digested, putrefying matter (as well as drugs and other toxic chemicals) – often for as long as decades. Some intestines, when autopsied, have weighed up to 40 pounds and been distended to a diameter of 12 inches with only a pencil-thin channel through which the feces could move. It is estimated that the average person, depending on their diet and weight, has between 5 and 25 pounds of undigested fecal matter inside their gut – stagnant, putrefying and decaying. It has been said that if you eat a traditional American diet, high in processed foods, that a small portion of the very first meal you ever ate is still in your intestines . . .somewhere.
All of this suggests a new twist on an old idea: You are not what you eat, but what you do not eliminate.
Think of the colon as your personal garbage disposal, in charge of eliminating bodily trash. The large intestine is meant to absorb water and minerals from the food we eat before pushing the remains out as waste in a bowel movement. A lot can go wrong in that seemingly simple process, however. If the garbage can is already full, yet continues to receive more trash several times each day, the incoming garbage will have nowhere to go but spill over into the tissues and pollute the eco-system that surrounds it.
Chronic inflammation eventually develops after such prolonged self-poisoning and the body is forced to re-focus its precious immune system resources in a (losing) battle to keep this growing toxicity at bay. As the body’s other elimination organs – the liver, lungs, kidneys and skin – are recruited to compensate for an inefficient colon, they too become over-burdened. Such a “dirty” body ultimately produces a host of cascading health issues that extend beyond the colon to include:
- Skin disruptions (acne, eczema, dermatitis, rosacea, rashes)
- Migraines or frequent headaches
- Brain fog
- Focus / attention issues
- Frequent colds, allergies and sinus problems
- Shortness of breath or chest pain
- Abdominal problems (bloating, constipation, hyperacidity, indigestion)
- Muscle and joint pain
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Stubborn weight gain
- Tumors and cysts
- Hormonal imbalance
- Mood swings, anxiety and depression
- Digestive issues (IBS, leaky gut syndrome)
- Intestinal disease (diverticulosis, diverticulitis, colon cancer)
- Autoimmune disease
- Cardio-vascular irregularities (arrhythmia, high blood pressure, etc.)
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
In addition to the above-mentioned consequences, the body’s lymphatic system will also be affected as it fails to properly drain into a backed-up colon. And unlike the body’s blood system (which relies on the heart to pump the body’s blood supply), the lymphatic system has no internal pump to move toxins and wastes that the body’s cells release. Instead, the lymphatic system relies on the expansion and contraction of the body’s muscles and tissues to move and pump the fluid throughout our body. When the colon is stagnant, excess toxic waste in the lymphatic system will start to build up in the body’s lymph nodes. Ultimately, cells within the lymph nodes may mutate into cancer as they try to stay alive in an increasingly acidic environment.
Traditional Chinese Medicine and the Large Intestine
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is concerned with the connection and interaction between the physical, mental and emotional aspects of our humanity. From this broader, holistic mind-body-spirit perspective, the large intestine is viewed as an energetic system – associated with the concepts of transformation and change – that helps us let go of those things that no longer serve us. A healthy large intestine allows us relinquish the past and confidently move forward into the future.
Physically, the work of the large intestine concerns removing substances the body no longer needs by separating the pure from the impure and extracting liquids from matter to be released as a solid waste. Emotionally, the large intestine also does a final sort of feelings, attitudes and behaviors that are better eliminated from our lives. Free-flowing large intestine energy helps us let go of negative patterns of thinking, destructive emotions and spiritual blockages that hold us back and prevent us from living our highest aspirations. In this sense, TCM would argue that a healthy, balanced large intestine helps to protect us from both the physical and emotional accumulation of toxic elements.
When large intestine energy is unbalanced, our ability to discern and discriminate can become confused. Mentally, our thinking may become clouded, making it difficult to move forward. Our ability to discern or make good judgments may become impaired. We may be unyielding or stubborn in our personal relationships, or find ourselves unable to "think straight" at work. We literally become constipated in our life and relationships, unable to change the situation.
When a person’s large intestine energy is compromised – because it is either deficient or blocked – they may also have a hard time moving away from difficult situations or letting go of harmful emotions. This “holding on” may also manifest as an unwillingness to share our emotions with others, an obsession over old regrets, or rigidity in the face of change. Over time, “bottled up” emotions (especially those related to feelings of grief or loss) can lead to chronic constipation and other digestive issues. To restore physical and emotional balance, action must be taken that unblocks stagnant energy, and increases flexibility, movement and change.
Our ability to digest life's information and release things that no longer serve us is dependent on having a healthy colon. When our large intestine energy is balanced, we are organized and free of pollutants, both physically and emotionally. If you are feeling stuck in negative emotional or relationship patterns, look to your large intestine for some wisdom about how to get life moving in a positive direction again. Blocked or diminished Qi circulation in in the large intestine can negatively affect our physical, emotional, spiritual and even social health.