Until recently, I used to think of my colon as a disgusting waste disposal centre.
Similarly, when the Swiss anatomist, Johann Peyer (1653 – 1712), discovered and gave his name to nodules in the wall of the lower small intestine in 1677, little did he imagine how important they were for human immunity.
Let's cover the basics.
The Small Intestine is about 6 metres long and it can be divided into three regions:
the Duodenum, its length typically the breadth of twelve fingers (from duodeni, Latin = 'in twelve') - where stomach acids are neutralised by Brunner’s Glands;
the Jejunum, which often appears to be empty (from jējūnus, Latin = fasting);
the Ileum (from eilein, Greek = tightly rolled) which is characterised by having Peyer’s Patches.
You take in many millions of bacteria, fungal spores and viruses with your food every day.
Their first port of call is your stomach where strong acid (pH 2) kills most of them or breaks them into many small fragments.
These pass down your digestive tract until they get to the ileum where they encounter the ‘Bouncers’ of the gut, Peyer’s Patches.
1. The M cells are able to move antigens into their hollow interiors
2. There they encounter macrophages which are able to present them to immune cells.
3. Dendritic cells also take antigens and present them to the T and B cells for later recognition.
4. NOTE: T cells are associated with Cell Mediated Immunity. B cells are able to make antibodies against specific antigens.
So the ileum with its Peyer’s Patches really is like a bouncer at the door of the colon nightclub, checking IDs.
Well, for a start, there are more bacterial cells in your colon than your own cells in the rest of your body. It IS a veritable ecosystem and it runs on fibre and other resistant polysaccharides. In other words, whatever gets through the digestive and absorptive processes that have happened before, becomes fuel for the colonic ecosystem.
Is it just a garbage disposal unit then, turning waste into faeces for elimination?
Well, not quite. Until quite recently, the main functions of the colon were thought to be water recovery and the production of Vitamin K (the clotting vitamin). However as interest in colorectal cancer began to grow and a seemingly novel epidemic of Irritable Bowel Syndrome began to develop, much more attention has been given to the colon with its microbiome ecosystem.
It turns out that, having a healthy microbiome ecosystem in the colon may have far reaching health effects reducing autoimmune disease (in particular), cancer, nutritional imbalances and even some mental disorders. It seems that humans require a diverse microbial flora in the colon ecosystem to remain healthy and free from autoimmune disorders.
How do you improve the health of your colon’s ecosystem?
Reducing the amount of processed food in the diet and replacing it with fresh foods high in fibre is the way to go. That doesn’t mean ploughing your way through mountains of bran. Remember, all plants have cell walls which is the fibre you’re after. Think carrots, leaf vegetables, capsicums, cucumbers, beans, lentils, nuts, mushrooms (with their chitin), sugar- snap-peas, tomatoes, apples, cold potato and cold brown rice.
Why cold potato and rice? Because when they cool after cooking, the starch granules change shape and are not easily digested in the upper part of the digestive tract i.e. they become resistant starches. That means they can get to the colon and supply the microbes there.
Oh, and add lots of vinegar! It seems to be very beneficial for the colon’s ecosystem.
You’ll find me every day at lunch time eating a huge salad 'with the lot' and dressed with fresh herbs (basil, coriander, mint, sage), salt, black pepper, olive oil and lots of vinegar.
It’s wonderfully tasty and filling.
And, I no longer think of my colon as a disgusting waste disposal centre. Now I think of it as my very own precious ecosystem and I’m feeding it!