What Is a Colon Cleanse?
A colon cleanse is the act of flushing out your large intestine.
The practice of natural colon cleansing, or colonic irrigation, dates back to ancient Greece. It became popular in the U.S. in the early 1900s. But theories behind it lost support, and it fell out of favor. Recently, though, colon cleansing -- using teas, enzymes, or colon irrigation -- has become more popular.
Is colon cleansing good for you? Scientific research on colon cleansing is extremely limited. There’s no good evidence for most of the claims that its practitioners make. And the side effects can range from mild to serious.
Ways to Cleanse Your Colon
There are two main colon-cleansing methods. You can buy products or you can see a doctor to have a colon irrigation.
Colon cleansing with powdered or liquid supplements. You take some supplements used for colon cleansing by mouth. Others you take through the rectum. Either way, the idea is to help the colon to expel its contents. You can find these products on the internet or in health food stores, supermarkets, or pharmacies. They include:
Colon cleansing with colon irrigation (high colonics). The first modern colonic machine was invented about 100 years ago. Today, colonic hygienists or colon hydrotherapists perform colon irrigations. Colon irrigations work somewhat like an enema but they involve much more water. While you lie on a table, a low-pressure pump or a gravity-based reservoir flushes several gallons of water through a small tube inserted into your rectum.
After the water is in the colon, the therapist may massage your abdomen. Then you release the water like a regular bowel movement; the process flushes out the fluids and waste. The therapist may repeat the process, and a session may last up to an hour.
The practitioner may use a variety of water pressures and temperatures and may or may not combine water with enzymes, herbs, coffee, or probiotics. Probiotics are supplements containing beneficial bacteria.
What’s the Theory Behind Natural Colon Cleansing?
One of the main theories behind colon cleansing is an ancient belief called the theory of autointoxication. This is the belief that undigested meat and other foods cause mucus buildup in the colon. This buildup produces toxins, the theory goes, which enter the blood's circulation, poisoning the body.
Some people claim these toxins cause a wide range of symptoms, such as:
On the surface, the idea of toxins being reabsorbed by the body makes some sense. But the theory of autointoxication has been disproven.
Purported Benefits of Colon Cleansing
The health claims made by producers of colon cleansing products and colon irrigation practitioners are broad and wide-reaching. Their main goal is to clear the colon of large quantities of stagnant, supposedly toxic waste encrusted on colon walls. Doing so, they say, will help your body work better.
These supposed benefits include:
Quality scientific research is lacking when it comes to backing up these claims.
Is Natural Colon Cleansing Needed?
Are bowel movements enough to clear the colon? We do know that the body alone can do the following:
Natural bacteria in the colon can detoxify food waste.
The liver also neutralizes toxins.
Mucus membranes in the colon may keep unwanted substances from reentering the blood and tissues.
The lining of the intestines regenerates itself faster than any other tissue in the body, preventing a buildup of harmful material.
The normal number of bowel movements varies from person to person.
Increasing the number of bowel movements doesn't improve weight loss. That's because the body absorbs most calories before they reach the large intestine.
Risks of Colon Cleansing
“Natural" doesn't necessarily mean safe. The government doesn't regulate natural colon cleansing products, so their potency, safety, and purity can't be guaranteed. And, each state has its own rules about whether or not practitioners must be professionally licensed.
It's always a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a new practice such as colon cleansing.
There are some potential risks and side effects, including:
Bacterial imbalance and infection
Potential interference with medication absorption on day of procedure
Depletion of helpful normal bowel flora unless replaced (i.e. probiotics)
Be aware, if the therapist adds a substance to the water during colon irrigation, you run the risk of an allergic reaction.
Risks of side effects increases, if you have:
What Else Can You Do to Enhance Colon Health?
Watch what you eat: Your food choices -- not what you flush through your colon -- may have the greatest impact on colon health, lowering your risk of colon cancer and enhancing your overall health. Increasing both soluble and insoluble fiber can help with a wide range of gastrointestinal problems, including constipation, diverticular disease, and colorectal cancer. The typical American consumes about 15 grams a day, but you need closer to 25-30 grams. If there are no gluten issues, add sources of both insoluble fiber, such as cereal and whole grains, and soluble fiber, such as bran, some fruit, some vegetables, and oatmeal.
Avoid toxins. Stay away from tobacco and limit red meat to keep your chances of getting colon cancer low.
Get screened. Start testing for colon cancer beginning at age 45, or earlier if your doctor advises.