As a scientist and health expert, I’m often asked about the benefits of regular “colon cleansing” for detoxification and general health purposes. Colon cleansing is basically an umbrella term that encompasses a number of different procedures designed to clear the large intestine (bowel) of fecal matter.
Interestingly enough, colon cleansing is one of those old trends that tends to resurface whenever a celebrity endorses some new method. One method that’s become widely popular these days is “colonic hydrotherapy”.
Also known as colonic irrigation or simply a “colonic”, this form of colon cleansing essentially involves repeated infusions of warm pressurized water (as much as 8-16 gallons) through the rectum and into the colon by way of specialized equipment. In addition to water, herbs, probiotics, coffee or other supplements may also be infused.
Colonics are generally performed by a colonic hydrotherapist or “colonic hygienist”. The treatments themselves take about 30–45 minutes and are claimed to support weight loss, reduce inflammation, improve circulation, and boost immune function when undergone regularly.
Although there’s a lack of empirical evidence supporting the overall effectiveness of colonic hydrotherapy, many natural health enthusiasts swear by it and are more than willing to spend in excess of $300-400 bucks a month on weekly infusions.
If you’ve considered getting a colonic, you’re probably wondering if it’s actually worth your time, effort, and money. While I can’t determine that for you, let me tell you a story and offer up some nuggets of wisdom to help with your decision making.
Over a decade ago, I underwent colonic hydrotherapy at a local “wellness” center. In order to get the real-life consumer experience, I took off my professional hat and acted as a mystery shopper of sorts, pretending to know absolutely nothing about the human body or the procedure to come.
Now, before I continue, let me first clarify that I’m all for alternative healthcare solutions.
In addition to my professional background in health research, exercise science, nutrition, massage therapy and other integrative interventions, I’m also an avid athlete who eats well and regularly engages in juice fasting for optimal health.
Although I was somewhat skeptical about the unregulated practice of colonic hydrotherapy, I still kept an open mind.
Perhaps I could learn something new – At least from the colonic hygienist’s perspective.
To boost the overall effectiveness of the treatment, I was instructed to do the following for the three days leading up to my scheduled appointment:
- Drink a gallon of water a day;
- Consume fresh fruits and vegetables, either in whole or juiced form; and
- Don’t eat anything cooked.
At the time, I followed a vegan diet so none of the above instructions were farfetched. And so, I followed them to the letter. I also continued my normal exercise patterns which then consisted of daily 5-8-mile runs coupled with 3-4 days of weight training.
Needless to say, on the day of my appointment, the frequency of my bowel movements had already begun to increase from 4 to about 7 times a day.
At that point, I’d already concluded that a colonic was totally unnecessary – Even as a mystery shopping effort.
Nevertheless, I went ahead with my appointment. I saw it as an opportunity to engage the colonic hygienist in meaningful conversation in order to gain a better understanding of colonic hydrotherapy from her standpoint.
Proponents often tout unsubstantiated claims of colonic hydrotherapy removing intestinal parasites and other “toxins” from the colon and intestinal tract. Unfortunately, my colonic hygienist simply offered long-winded explanations that basically echoed these same claims, which are inherently flawed.
Let me break this down a bit further.
Intestinal parasites most commonly reside in the small intestine. The small intestine carries out most of the digestive process, absorbing almost all of the nutrients you get from foods into your bloodstream. The walls of the small intestine make digestive juices, or enzymes, that work together with enzymes from the liver and pancreas to do this.
Free radicals and other byproducts of liver metabolism (often referred to as ‘toxins’) can also be present in bile that flow from the pancreas to the small intestine.
All but a tiny fraction of the bile gets transported back to the liver after nutrients are sufficiently broken down. At the distal end of the small intestine there’s a one-way valve that connects to the large intestine. This valve inhibits back flow. The large intestine receives the leftovers from digestion along with residual water.
Since back flow isn’t possible during the normal flora of the intestinal tract, the gallons of water and other substances infused through the rectum and into the colon during hydrotherapy never truly reaches the real source of the so-called ‘toxins’.
So, what’s actually being ‘cleaned’ during a colonic?
Well, it’s really nothing more than an over the counter enema or a good dose of castor oil can’t clear.
Personally, my colonic produced absolutely nothing. Clearly, prior to treatment, my body was doing an excellent job of ‘cleaning’ itself. But, funny enough, my hygienist had an explanation for this – Simply suggesting I was backed up and probably needed more frequent treatments.
A false premise indeed!
Truth is, you can maintain a healthy colon by making simple dietary adjustments. This includes adding more high-quality fibers and “friendly” bacteria to your gastrointestinal tract.
Now, this isn’t to say that colon cleansing doesn’t have a place in healthcare.
But, in cases where some form of colon cleansing is indicated (colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, or infection), a colonic hygienist is definitely not the person you want to see and colonic hydrotherapy certainly isn’t the best route.
From a physiological standpoint, frequent colonics may actually increase the spreading and absorption of toxic wastes and bacteria posing a risk of blood poisoning (sepsis).
As well-described by colorectal surgeon Dr. Francis Seow in an interesting article published in the journal Colorectal Disease, the process of colon hydrotherapy causes solid fecal matter near the rectum to be broken apart into a suspension, which promotes adhesion of bacteria and other toxins, ultimately, facilitating their absorption into the circulation.
Frequent colonics have also been linked to electrolyte imbalances, colitis (colon inflammation), and rectal damage.
So, before you decide to invest in a colonic for detoxification, weight loss or general health purposes, consider cleaning your system from top to bottom through healthy eating and good nutrition. In spite of unsubstantiated claims and hearsay, at the end of the day colonic hydrotherapy could do you more harm than good.