Colon polyps are growths that arise from the lining of the colon which are also known as the large intestine. There are different types of colon polyps, but the most common type, known as adenomas, are the ones that can grow into colon cancer. It takes about 10 to 15 years for an adenoma to develop and evolve into full blown colon cancer.
This allows ample time and opportunity to intervene in this process and prevent the development of colon cancer. Indeed, colon cancer is a preventable disease and certainly the most preventable of the major cancers (lung, breast, prostate, colon).
Our most effective preventive measure in preventing colon cancer is for one to undergo a screening colonoscopy. This test allows a physician to inspect the colon and remove polyps. This is a very important test that is currently recommended for everyone starting at age 50. If one has risk factors for colon cancer such as a positive family history of colon polyps or cancer then the starting age for undergoing a screening colonoscopy is younger (typically age 40 or 45).
A recent meta-analysis article published in the journal Gastroenterology (2014; 146: 689-699) concluded that high dietary fiber intake is associated with a decreased risk of developing colorectal cancer. There is still controversy surrounding this claim, but I believe that a diet high in fiber helps to prevent colon polyps and colon cancer. Additionally, a high fiber diet helps to prevent diverticulosis and is an effective treatment for most cases of constipation. For my dietary fiber guide, click here.
There are measures that one can employ to help prevent polyps from forming. To better understand how one can prevent the formation of colon polyps we must look at the risk factors for developing colon polyps and colon cancer. Genetics play a large role; however, there is really nothing we can do about our genetics, although this may change in the future once genetic therapy is realized. For now, we must look at modifiable risk factors such as our diet, obesity, lack of exercise, smoking, heavy alcohol intake, and Type-2 diabetes. I have addressed the issue of exercise and weight loss in a previous blog post. Additionally, I have addressed the issue of eating a high-fiber diet in a prior blog post. These are very important interventions that one can employ to help prevent colon polyps.
Smoking cessation and restricting alcohol intake to moderate levels is clearly something that will benefit the colon as well as the entire body.
For most cases of Type-2 diabetes, the disease is associated with obesity. By losing weight through dietary modification and exercise, a large percentage of patients with Type-2 diabetes are able to get off of medications. This will benefit not only the colon but the heart and entire cardiovascular system as well as the kidneys.
Lastly, there are micronutrients and antioxidants that have been shown in scientific studies to either help prevent the formation of colon polyps or are associated with a decreased incidence of colon cancer. These include beta-carotene, vitamin D, vitamin B-2, vitamin B-6, folate, calcium, selenium, and curcumin. A prior blog post listed 8 foods that contain these important ingredients.
With this comprehensive approach outlined above, you will be doing everything you can to help prevent colon polyps and colon cancer. Remember, colon cancer is preventable.
Here’s to your colon health!
Frank Farrell, MD, MPH, AGAF