How to keep your colon healthy

How to keep your colon healthy

Medically reviewed on February 22, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


The colon is one of those body parts you don’t give much thought to until something goes wrong. It’s a part of the digestive system. Spending a little time caring for the colon may help prevent colon cancer in the future.

The best way to keep the colon in tip-top shape is to eat the right foods while actively avoiding potentially harmful choices. Exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, abstaining from excessive alcohol, getting regular screenings, and taking a colon cancer screening test are all additional ways to keep the colon working properly.

As you make your way through this guide, you’ll learn more about how the large intestine works and how to keep the colon healthy as you age.

Let’s start by looking at its primary function.

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What does the colon do?

The colon is also known as the large intestine [1]. It has several important jobs in the digestive system, including:

  • Recovery of water and electrolytes
  • Formation and storage of feces
  • Maintaining healthy gut bacteria
  • Fermentation of indigestible materials

It’s important to note that the colon has six different parts that work together to complete the tasks. These parts include:

  • Cecum
  • Ascending colon
  • Transverse colon
  • Descending colon
  • Sigmoid colon
  • Rectum

If you can imagine drawing a question mark, the cecum is the point where you would begin. Then, the remaining parts of the large intestine follow in the order in which they’re listed above. On average, the total length is about six feet, although the twists and turns make it fit neatly into the abdominal cavity.

Having a healthy colon is important to prevent colon cancer.

How to eat for a healthy colon?

Now that you understand the function and structure of the colon, let’s talk about how to keep it healthy. There are two components to keeping the colon functioning at an optimal level:

  • Dietary choices
  • Lifestyle actions

First, we’ll take a deep dive into how having a balanced diet can impact the colon’s health. Follow these tips to ensure the diet is supporting this organ’s essential functions.

1. Eat plenty of fresh produce

We know you’ve probably heard this advice before. After all, eating plenty of fresh produce is a marker for good cardiovascular, neurological, and digestive health. The reason being? Fresh produce is jam-packed with:

  • Antioxidants
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Fiber

All these components are necessary for the body to function optimally. They may also be a critical defense tool against colon cancer [2]. Excellent, fresh choices include:

  • Broccoli
  • Carrots
  • Eggplant
  • Leafy greens
  • Berries
  • Melons
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Pears

The fiber in these vegetables and fruits helps move food through the digestive system. This may help prevent the development of colon polyps. Polyps are small clumps of cells that develop on the lining of the colon. On their own, they’re harmless. However, polyps can become cancerous. A diet rich in healthy, fresh produce helps prevent these colon polyps from forming.

2. Fill up on whole grains and legumes

Fiber is also the top star in whole grains and legumes. Fiber is a component of food that cannot be digested. Instead, its job is to help carry everything else through the digestive system. Some examples of whole grains and legumes that have a significant amount of fiber include:

  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Barley
  • Farro
  • Wild rice
  • Lentils
  • Beans
  • Peas

In addition to their high fiber content, beans, quinoa, and lentils are also good sources of protein. They can be alternatives to red and processed meats, both of which are linked to higher cancer risk.

3. Limit red and processed meats

Filling your plate with plant-based proteins instead of red meats and processed foods such as hot dogs, sausages, and deli meats is an important step to an improved diet. A large-scale study in the International Journal of Cancer showed that the regular consumption of red and processed meats was associated with increased overall cancer risk—not just colon cancer [3].

This means it may be advantageous to limit regular consumption of:

  • Beef
  • Veal
  • Pork
  • Lamb
  • Processed meats such as hot dogs, sausages, bacon, and deli meats

While it’s not entirely clear how much of this type of meat is safe to eat, a 2014 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that a vegetarian diet in which no red or processed meats were consumed was associated with a lower colon cancer risk [4]. A pesca-vegetarian diet (in which fish is consumed but no other meats) was also associated with low-risk colorectal cancer.

4. Get plenty of vitamins and minerals in the diet

When you eat less (or no) red and processed meats, there’s more room in the diet for foods that contain high levels of vitamins and minerals. Vitamin D is linked to a lower colon cancer risk [5]. You can find vitamin D in foods such as:

  • Fish (tuna, salmon, trout)
  • Eggs
  • Mushrooms
  • Fortified dairy products
  • Fortified orange juice

Along with vitamin D, a diet rich in other essential vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants is crucial for good health. Eating plenty of fresh produce and whole grains is helpful for getting everything the body needs from food. Some people also take a multivitamin to shore up their vitamin consumption. You should discuss your options with a healthcare professional to see if you need to add a multivitamin to your daily routine.

5. Avoid excessive alcohol

Diet isn’t only about what you eat. What you drink is also an important factor in health. Drinking alcohol is linked to many cancers, such as [6]:

  • Mouth, throat, and larynx
  • Breast
  • Esophagus
  • Liver
  • Colon and rectum

You may already know that alcohol can damage the liver but you might not know much about the link between alcohol consumption and cancer. Researchers believe there are several ways alcohol contributes to the development of cancers:

  • After consumption, alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde which damages cell DNA
  • Alcohol irritates the cells, causing them to try to repair themselves
  • Drinking alcohol also might cause undue oxidative stress in cells

These actions can all trigger the cell damage that leads to cancer.

In addition, consuming alcohol can interfere with the body’s absorption of the vitamins and minerals it needs to protect itself from cancer.

Other lifestyle choices for improved colon health

While diet plays an important role in overall wellness and risk for colorectal cancer, lifestyle choices are also critical. It is shown that the following help to lessen the risk of developing colon cancer [7]:

Don’t smoke – Many of the negative health impacts of smoking are well known. It’s horrible for the heart, lungs, and skin. You can add an increased risk of colorectal cancer to the list of the risks of smoking. The sooner you quit smoking, the better it is for overall health.

Stay active – Regular physical activity lowers the risk of many cancers, including colon cancer. Limiting the time spent sitting or lying down and adding an exercise habit to your daily routine can help to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

Maintain a healthy weight – Exercising can also help to maintain a healthy weight. Overweight and obese adults face an increased risk of developing colorectal cancer as they age.

How do health professionals screen for colon cancer?

The only way to ensure good habits are to keep the colon healthy is to get regular screening for colon cancer. The most well-known colon cancer screening tool is a colonoscopy [8]. However, this isn’t the only test your healthcare provider can run to screen for signs of disease. Others include:

  • Fecal occult blood tests search for blood in the stool
  • Sigmoidoscopies look in the rectum and lower colon
  • Virtual colonoscopies that use x-rays to take pictures of the colon
  • DNA stool tests check for genetic changes that may indicate the presence of cancer

Your healthcare professional will advise you of the right test for you depending on age, health, and risk factors.

If you are experiencing blood in the stool, it's possible that it's due to hemorrhoids. Learn more about the differences between hemorrhoids and colon cancer.

How often should you get screened?

The frequency of colon cancer screening depends on two main factors:

  • Overall health
  • Family history

If you have an increased risk for colon cancer, you should begin screening at the age of 45. Otherwise, screening should start at 50 years old [9]. The frequency depends on the type of screening, for example:

  • Fecal occult blood test – yearly
  • Colonoscopy – every 10 years
  • Sigmoidoscopy – every 5 years
  • Virtual colonoscopy – every 5 years

Keep in mind that your healthcare provider may recommend screening more often if you’re considered to be at high risk for developing colon cancer.

Get insight into your well-being with Everlywell

Colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer. It’s also cancer that leads to the third most deaths in the United States [10]. These numbers are alarming, however, the death rate for colorectal cancer has been dropping in recent years. This is likely due to a greater awareness of preventative measures and the ubiquity of screening.

There are many ways to get screened for colon cancers. One of the early signs of this disease is blood in the stool which can be detected with a noninvasive fecal test. At Everlywell, we offer access to laboratory testing for wellness monitoring. Our at-home Colon Cancer Test allows you to collect a stool sample at home and send it to a certified lab. You’ll receive results within days.

If caught early, colon cancer is highly treatable so don’t wait until it’s too late. Get your at-home test today.

What is colon cancer?

We asked a Registered Nurse what you should know about colon cancer screenings—here’s what she said

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References

1. Definition of colon. National Cancer Institute. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

2. Nutrition for Colorectal Cancer Prevention. Stanford Medicine. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

3. Diallo A, Deschasaux M, Latino-Martel P, et al. Red and processed meat intake and cancer risk: Results from the prospective NutriNet-Santé cohort study. International Journal of Cancer. 2017;142(2):230-237.

4. Orlich MJ, Singh PN, Sabaté J, et al. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Colorectal Cancers. JAMA Internal Medicine. 2015;175(5):767.

5. Klampfer L. Vitamin D and colon cancer. World Journal of Gastrointestinal Oncology. 2014;6(11):430.

6. Alcohol Use and Cancer. American Cancer Society. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

7. Preventing Cancer. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

8. Colorectal Cancer. Harvard Health. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

9. Colorectal Cancer. Harvard Health. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

10. Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer. American Cancer Society. URL. Accessed February 22, 2022.

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