What Is a Colon Cleanse?
A colon cleanse is the act of flushing out your large intestine (colon). It's a normal way to prepare for some medical procedures, such as a colonoscopy. Some people with fecal incontinence or chronic constipation may go to the doctor for a colon cleanse to help them have regular bowel movements.
Yet some complementary health practitioners recommend colon cleansing for general health. This practice of colon cleansing, also called colonic irrigation and colonic hydrotherapy, 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, however, colon cleansing -- using laxatives, teas, powders, capsules, or colon irrigation -- has become more popular.
Is colon cleansing good for you? Scientific research on colon cleansing is 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.
How Do You Cleanse Your Colon?
There are two main colon-cleansing methods. You can buy products to use at home, or you can see a colon hygienist or hydrotherapist to have a colon irrigation using a colon hydrotherapy machine.
Colon cleanse 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 expel its contents. You can find these products online or in health food stores, supermarkets, or pharmacies. They include:
Colon cleanse 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 involve much more water, sometimes up to 16 gallons. While you lie on a table, a low-pressure pump or a gravity-based reservoir flushes the 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 the 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.
How Does Colon Cleansing Work?
One of the main theories behind a colon cleanse for detoxification (detox) is an ancient belief called autointoxication. This is the belief that undigested foods make toxins that enter your blood circulation and cause chronic health problems.
Some people claim these toxins cause a wide range of symptoms and health problems, such as:
On the surface, the idea of toxins being reabsorbed by the body makes some sense. But the theory of autointoxication was disproved in the early 1900s.
Since then, researchers have only tested the detox effects of colon cleansing in a few trials. But other researchers have found problems with these researchers' methods. Their criticisms include that these studies:
Have only been done on a few people
Have not been reviewed by other experts
Have poor designs
So, doctors don't consider colon cleansing for detox to have good scientific support.
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 your colon walls. Doing so, they say, will help your body work better.
Practitioners of colon cleansing say the benefits include:
Removal of toxins
Boost in energy
Improvement of immune system function
Promotion of good health or overall well-being
Lower risk of colon cancer
However, there's not a lot of quality scientific research to back up these claims.
Is Colon Cleansing Necessary?
Your colon doesn't need help to keep you healthy because pooping regularly removes food waste and toxins from your body and helps keep your gut bacteria in a healthy balance.
Your gut bacteria (microbiome) is important for your immune system to work the way it should. Bacteria in your gut help protect your body from infections with harmful bacteria. Your microbiome may also help protect you from colon cancer. A colon cleanse changes your microbiome by getting rid of the bacteria that keep you healthy.
Is Colon Cleansing Safe?
There are some reasons to be wary of colon cleansing. The FDA considers colon cleanse products you buy at the store to be dietary supplements, so it doesn't regulate them or approve them. However, the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) took action against some companies selling detox and colon-cleansing products because they contained illegal and potentially harmful ingredients. The FDA also said that these products were marketed using false claims that they could treat serious diseases.
Moreover, the machines used for colon irrigation are not approved for colon cleansing by the FDA. The FDA issued warning letters to manufacturers of these machines in the early 2000s for nonmedical use during colon cleansing.
Colon cleanse practitioners aren't licensed by a scientific or medical authority. They usually go through a training program, but the certificate isn't from a medical board. So, there's no oversight by an independent group that makes sure the procedures are needed, safe, and the same across practitioners.
Doctors recommend you be wary of colon cleansing, especially if you have:
A history of gastrointestinal diseases, such as diverticulitis or inflammatory bowel conditions (Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis)
A history of colon surgery
These conditions make the risk of side effects more likely. It's always a good idea to talk with your doctor before starting a new practice such as colon cleansing.
Colon Cleanse Side Effects
Some potential risks and side effects include:
- Vomiting and nausea
- Irritation in the skin around the anus
- Dehydration or dizziness (which is a sign of dehydration)
- Electrolyte imbalance (especially dangerous for people with kidney or heart disease)
- Bacterial imbalance and infection
- Potential interference with medication absorption on the day of colon cleansing
- Bowel perforation
- Kidney failure
Be aware, if the therapist adds a substance to the water during colon irrigation, you also run the risk of an allergic reaction.
Some herbal colon-cleansing products have also been linked with aplastic anemia (when your bone marrow stops making blood cells) and liver toxicity. In a few cases after colon hydrotherapy, doctors have also reported:
Back and pelvic abscess (pockets of pus)
Gas accumulation in the veins
Gangrene in the perineum (patch of skin between your genitals and anus)
Swelling of the colon and blood poisoning from coffee enemas
Death from amebiasis (a disease caused by the parasite Entameoba histolytica)
How to Improve Colon Health
If you're having digestive issues, such as constipation, doctors recommend the following ways to improve your colon health:
Drink plenty of water. Among other benefits, adequate water intake is necessary to keep food moving through your digestive system. Depending on your weight and activity level, adequate water intake varies, but it's generally 12-16 cups per day. You know you're drinking the right amount if you rarely feel thirsty and your pee is colorless or light yellow.
Get enough exercise. Exercise helps speed things through your digestive system, which may reduce your exposure to any possible cancer-causing toxins in your food.According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service's Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, most adults should get about 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week. Or you can combine moderate and vigorous intensity exercises. Moderate-intensity exercise is anything that gets your heart rate up (such as walking or raking leaves) and vigorous-intensity exercises involve activities such as jogging, running, or shoveling snow.
Eat a plant-based diet with plenty of vegetables, whole grains, fruit, and beans. This should help make sure you get plenty of fiber. Up your intake of both soluble and insoluble fiber, which can help prevent a wide range of gastrointestinal problems, including constipation, diverticular disease, and colorectal cancer. The typical American consumes about 15 grams a day of fiber, but you need closer to 25-30 grams. If you aren't allergic to gluten, add sources of insoluble fiber, such as cereal and whole grains. You can get your soluble fiber from foods such as bran, some fruits and vegetables, and oatmeal.
Also, consider adding more resistant starches to your diet. Resistant starches are carbohydrates that aren't digested in your small intestine but ferment in your large intestine. This fermentation process feeds the good bacteria in your gut. Foods that feed your good gut bacteria are called prebiotics. Resistant starches may help prevent constipation and lower your risk of colon cancer. Food sources rich in resistant starches are generally high in carbohydrates and include:
Plantains and green bananas (the starch in a banana changes to regular starch as it ripens)
Beans, peas, and lentils (especially white beans and lentils)
Whole grains, including oats and barley
Rice that has been cooked and then cooled (heat increases the amount of resistant starches in some foods)
Eat more probiotic foods. Probiotics are foods that have helpful bacteria and yeasts in them. These foods can help keep your microbiome in a healthy balance. Foods with probiotics include:
Yogurt and kefir
Sauerkraut and kimchi
Pickles and pickle juice
If you don't like probiotic foods, there are supplements available, too. One common probiotic is acidophilus, which is a bacteria found in your mouth, gut, stomach, lungs, vagina, and urinary tract.
Avoid toxins. Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and processed meats, such as bacon, sausage, deli meats, and hot dogs. Also, limit the amount of beef, pork, and lamb you eat to no more than 18 oz per week 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.
Maintain a healthy weight. What matters most about your weight is the amount of body fat you have. A higher body fat percentage puts you at higher risk for colon cancer.
You may already be eating foods to help keep your colon healthy. One study from 2014 found that people who drink 1 or more cups of herbal tea a week have a lower risk of cancer in the distal colon (the last part of the colon before the rectum and anus). However, the researchers of this study did not report what kind of herbal tea the people in the study were drinking. Also, doctors don't know if the herbal tea itself reduces the risk of colon cancer or if people who drink herbal tea have healthier habits than people who don't.