If digestive health problems like constipation, diarrhea, gas, or heartburn, put a damper on your day-to-day, you may have thought about a colon cleanse, but you don’t have to undergo the procedure to improve your health. Before you sign up, be sure to get the facts and decide whether the benefits really outweigh the risks.
Colon Cleansing: What’s Involved?
The theory behind colon cleansing goes something like this: Poisonous “toxins” get into the body from the foods that you eat, the water you drink, and the environment you live and work in. Some people believe that removing those toxins, as well as normal bacteria and stool via the colon, can help you feel better and improve your body function.
Colon cleansing is also called colonic irrigation or colonic hydrotherapy, and is sometimes referred to as a “high colonic.” As many as 20 gallons of fluids are pumped into the colon through a tube that’s inserted into the rectum. Probiotics, herbs, enzymes, and other additives can be used in the solution, and the whole procedure takes about an hour.
Colon cleansing is nothing new: The ancient civilizations are rumored to have used it, and 19th-century European spas made it a popular health remedy thousands of years later.
Colon Cleansing: A Question of Benefits
Many people may consider colon cleansing because they think that it reduces the risk of colon cancer. However, no studies have shown that colon cleansings have any benefit at all.
Francisco J. Marrero, MD, a gastroenterologist with the Digestive Disease Institute at the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, says there are no large, randomized trials that show any benefits of colon cleansing and few studies on the effects of colon cleansing overall.
Dr. Marrero notes that colon cleansing isn’t the true, complete cleansing that many people may think it is because the procedure only flushes out the colon, not the small bowel. “The only way to clean out the small bowel is eating a healthy diet of fruits and veggies,” says Marrero.
But while he’s never recommended it to any of his patients, Marrero says there has been success with some individual cases, and he doesn’t discourage the procedure if it makes a patient feel better.
Colon Cleansing: Factor the Risks
Marrero says there can be complications when instilling a large volume of water into the colon, including worsening any existing hemorrhoids or creating a puncture wound in the rectum.
This excessive amount of fluids could potentially lead to:
- Vomiting and nausea
- Electrolyte (salt) imbalances
- Fluid in the lungs
- Heart problems, including abnormal heart rhythms and death
Another big concern is that many colon cleansing practices aren’t regulated or monitored and not all practitioners are knowledgeable or well trained, which may increase risks. Unless all equipment is clean and sterile, colonic irrigation could bring infection into the body.
Unless your doctor tells you otherwise, do not undergo colon cleansing if you have:
- Crohn’s Disease
- Severe or internal hemorrhoids
- Ulcerative colitis
- Colon or rectal tumors
- Heart disease
- Kidney disease
Colon Cleansing: A Healthier Alternative
Eating the right foods and following a healthy lifestyle can probably accomplish the same goal as colon cleansing.
“I think the reason [people] get it is for more of a detoxification,” says Marrero. “But if you don’t ‘toxify,’ you don’t need to detoxify.”
If you want to rid your body of dietary toxins and get a clean start, it might be a better bet to just change your dietary habits. Your body will naturally work out the bad foods, especially with the help of fruits and vegetables to clean out your small bowel. Just be sure that these foods are well washed so that you don’t introduce other types of toxins — chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizer residues — into your body. Focusing on eating healthy foods poses no risks and is proven to aid digestive and overall health.