Colon Cleansers: Are They Safe?

Experts discuss the safety and effectiveness of colon cleansers.

From the WebMD Archives

You may have heard about colon cleansers, and even wondered whether you might need one yourself.

According to some alternative health advocates, just as you routinely shampoo your hair or scrub your floor, you should be regularly cleaning your colon as well. In fact, some people are making a lot of money persuading people that their colons are packed with several years' worth of decaying waste and that a colon cleanser will solve the problem. Colon cleansers come in a variety of forms, including capsules, laxatives, enemas, and "high colonics" which flush large amounts of water through the intestines.

"Artificial colon cleansers are big business," says Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, a registered dietitian based in Phoenix, Ariz., and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. How big a business? Just type "colon cleansers" into any search engine, and you"ll get an idea.

But it turns out that, when taken to extremes, an obsession with inner purification can be harmful.

WebMD consulted the experts to find out all about colon cleansers -- their safety and effectiveness, and whether or not colon cleansing is for you.

Colon Cleansers: Dirty Business

Colon cleansing is based on the theory that waste collects in the colon over time and stagnates there, causing toxins to form and spread throughout the body -- a phenomenon known as "autointoxication." Many 19th century doctors accepted autointoxication as fact. Although scientific research conducted as early as the 1920s failed to confirm it, the misconception persists. Other colon cleanser advocates insist that the accumulated stool blocks the colon, preventing the proper elimination of waste.

But experts say there is no such thing as autointoxication, and that the human body is actually very good at taking care of itself. Colon cleansing is really a strange fad, says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health in New York City. “The body can cleanse itself quite well. The kidneys and lungs remove toxins and by-products from the blood stream, and regular bowel movements remove any waste products from the gastrointestinal [GI] tract."

David L. Diehl, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at New York University, and chief of gastrointestinal endoscopy at Bellevue Hospital Center, agrees. "High colonics are often touted as a way to cleanse the colon of 'adherent stool' that has been there for years or even decades," he says. "The problem with this concept is that there is no such thing. The body does a good job of eliminating stool, and there are no 'pockets' in the colon that collect stool for years. I do a colonoscopy every day of the week, and a preprocedure purge is sufficient to clean out the stool and leave a pristine looking colon."

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Colon Cleanser Cautions

Colon cleansers aren't just unnecessary, according to experts, they may even cause harm. "Using coloncleansers on a repetitive basis is not a great idea," Kava says. Your intestines aren't just a waste disposal unit; they're also a place where nutrients from food are absorbed to the bloodstream, to be transported throughout your entire body. Washing out the intestinal tract could potentially interrupt this absorption, leaving you with a vitamin or mineral deficiency, Kava tells WebMD. Â In addition, frequent use of some types of laxatives can have a boomerang effect, so that cleaning your colon could leave it less able to do its job the way nature intended.

Another pitfall of colon cleansers is that they can lead to dehydration, Johnson says.

Moreover, high colonics can potentially harm the colon, causing small tears or internal damage.

Perhaps most alarming, colon cleansers have no proven safety record. "Colon cleansers are really not strictly regulated and tested," Johnson says. "If a product is shown to be harmful, the FDA will take action to have it removed from shelves, but it's not at all the same as taking a prescription drug that's been tested meticulously."

Healthy Colon Cleansers

"A healthy diet that includes enough fiber and water is nature's way of cleansing your colon," Johnson tells WebMD. A diet that is low in fiber and water, on the other hand, usually results in constipation. You can think of fiber as acting like a "toothbrush" passing through your colon, she says. So every day that you meet your recommended daily dose -- between 21 and 25 grams per day for adult women and 30 to 38 grams for adult men -- you're literally consuming a colon cleanser. Up your fiber intake slowly by making room in your diet for foods like fruit, vegetables, beans, and high-fiber cereals. Keeping your body moving as much as possible is important, too, Johnson says. Physical activity increases blood flow throughout the body, and the better your blood flow, the easier it is for your colon to work efficiently.

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The Truth About Colon Cleansers

"They may provide temporary relief if you're constipated," Johnson says, "And yes they will cleanse your colon of its contents, but they can also be dangerous, expensive and inconvenient." Bottom line? Your colon knows its job; leave it alone and it will take care of itself.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on February 08, 2007

Sources

SOURCES: Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, Phoenix, Ariz. Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition, American Council on Science and Health, New York City. David L. Diehl, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine, New York University; chief of gastrointestinal endoscopy, Bellevue Hospital Center. Ernst E. J Clin Gastroenterol, June 1997; vol 24: pp 196-198. Chen, T.S. J Clin Gastroenterol, August 1989; vol 11: pp 434-441. Muller-Lissner, S.A. Am J Gastroenterol, January 2005; vol 100: pp 232-242. WebMD Medical Reference provided in collaboration with The Cleveland Clinic: "Digestive Diseases: The Digestive System." Institute of Medicine web site: "Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs)."

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