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Colon Cleansers: Are They Safe?

Experts discuss the safety and effectiveness of colon cleansers.
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WebMD Feature

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.

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"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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