Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK, with over 40,000 people diagnosed each year. It can affect any age group, but the majority of people who develop bowel cancer are over 50.
Estimates suggest more than half of bowel cancer cases are connected to lifestyle factors and therefore preventable. Bowel Cancer Awareness Month aims to raise the profile of the early signs of this cancer.
Read on to discover how you can reduce your risk.
Bowel cancer, also known as colorectal cancer, affects the colon or rectum. Your colon, often called the large bowel is where water and electrolytes are absorbed from the food you eat. Its lining comes into direct contact with the outside world – in other words, your food and any toxins it contains.
Your body’s cells should grow, divide and eventually die in a regulated manner, but when cancer develops, they multiply in an uncontrolled way and refuse to die when they should.
Cancer particularly likes to grow where cells have been damaged due to chronic inflammation. Growths known as polyps can develop if damage occurs to the colon wall. Most bowel cancer starts with these polyps, although not all polyps develop into bowel cancer.
Bowel cancer responds well to treatment if detected early, so it’s important to be aware of the warning signs:
You’re more likely to develop bowel cancer as you age, if you have a family history of bowel cancer or polyps, or you suffer from Type 2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Bowel cancer is strongly connected with dietary and lifestyle habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol.
When scientists examined the bacteria resident in the colon of people with bowel cancer, certain species known to increase inflammation were found to be more numerous than usual. Studies suggest these types of bacteria can damage the cells lining the bowel and produce toxins capable of damaging DNA.
Studies have linked eating red meat with a higher risk of bowel cancer, particularly if it’s processed meat such as bacon, sausages or ham which contain substances able to damage colon cells. Even as little as 30g processed meat eaten more than a few times per week has been implicated, and this seems to be a particular risk factor if you’re also overweight and sedentary.
Studying this area can be complicated because people eating a lot of processed meat may tend to eat processed fats and carbohydrates too, such as burger buns and chips, as well as less fruit and vegetables, so it may be a combination of factors producing the results.
Colon cancer has also been linked to eating chargrilled or burnt meat. When meat protein is cooked at high temperatures, especially when it’s grilled or when meat fat drips onto the hot coals of a barbecue, substances are formed capable of damaging the DNA of the cells lining your colon.
If your microbiome contains undesirable species of bacteria, they can ferment any undigested meat protein making its way into your colon and this too can damage its lining.
Eating a wide variety of vegetables provides fibre to feed your microbiome, encouraging the health-promoting species of bacteria and discouraging those capable of damaging your colon.
Fibre decreases the time the cells lining your colon are in contact with its contents. This reduces the likelihood of toxins intended to be excreted from your body sparking off inflammation in your colon lining.
Fruit and vegetables are packed with antioxidants preventing DNA damage. Particularly useful are vegetables belonging to the cruciferous family. These contain an antioxidant called sulforaphane, found to increase the activity of a gene suppressing tumour development. This gene helps cells to develop normally and to die when they should.
Green tea contains antioxidants called catechins, found in test tube studies to reduce the speed cancer cells divide. Research has found people who drink green tea regularly have a lower risk of bowel cancer.
Physical activity, particularly high-intensity interval training, is linked to reduced bowel cancer risk and improves the prognosis for those already diagnosed. Not only does exercise support your immune system, but it also reduces bowel transit time.
Creating a healthy environment in your bowel is the first step to reducing the likelihood of cancer developing because you won’t be providing an environment for it to thrive.
Testing your stool can assess the health of your microbiome, and if it needs a helping hand, I’ll work with you every step of the way with practical dietary, supplement and lifestyle recommendations personalised to you. Contact me to make the first step to a healthier bowel.
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