Article by Margaret Booth, MS, RD, LD
Judging from all of the yogurt and laxative ads on TV, people are taking a greater interest in the health of their colon. These health concerns have definitely been an advantage for the alternative medicine industry. Herbalists, naturopaths, and other alternative practitioners claim that colon cleansing has the power to increase energy, reduce joint pain, improve skin condition and “best of all…lose weight”. ᶦ Companies that market colon cleansing products are pushing the concept of “autointoxication” to potential buyers. Autointoxication is the claim that the “stagnation of the large intestine causes toxins to form that are absorbed and poison the body.” Experts, however, say there is no such thing as autointoxication. Further marketing claims to zero in on constipation being caused by hardened feces which accumulates for months on the walls of the large intestine and block it from absorbing or eliminating properly.² As convincing as this may sound to many people, there is no scientific based evidence to prove that colon cleansing offers any health benefits.
Makers of colon-cleansing formulas proclaim that “most colons are clogged with 10, 20 or even 40 pounds of impacted fecal material and a strong laxative is needed for cleansing.”³ Dr. John Inadomi, chairman of gastrointestinal medicine at UC San Francisco, dismisses such claims by pointing out that when preparing for a colonoscopy , the patient is given a powerful laxative that thoroughly empties the colon. He explains, “even with a total scrubbing, only 2 to 5 pounds of fecal content is excreted.”3
Besides being deemed as unnecessary by experts, colon cleansers can also cause harm to your colon and body. The colon is where our vitamins and minerals are absorbed from our food and frequently using colon cleansers can interrupt this absorption, leaving you with a vitamin and mineral deficiency.4 Using colon cleansers, such as stimulant laxatives, can damage the nerves within the colon wall causing the body to increase the frequency of constipation. Regular users may find that their colons are so dependent upon the laxative that they are unable to have a bowel movement without them.2
Users can perform the procedures themselves, but many visit hydrotherapists or colon hygienists. These providers of colon cleansers are not licensed and their training is not scientifically regulated. Without the proper training and education, there are many things that can go awry. The process of inserting the tube can be uncomfortable and cause pain and cramping. Also, if the tubes and equipment are not properly sterilized between treatments, germs can be passed from one patient to another and serious infections can occur. Another dangerous occurrence is that the colon can get small tears or perforations if the tube is not inserted correctly.2
The healthiest way to “cleanse your colon” is through proper diet and exercise. Eating a balanced diet, which contains between 25 and 38 grams of fiber a day, plus adequate water intake, is the best way to naturally cleanse your colon. Melinda Johnson, MS, RD, says that you can “think of fiber as acting like a ‘toothbrush’ passing through your colon”.4 Making an effort to consume fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains is an easy way to get fiber in the diet, while also preventing vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Drinking water is extremely important with fiber consumption to avoid constipation, and to prevent dehydration. Finally, staying physically active increases blood flow throughout the body and the better your blood flow, the easier it is for your colon to work efficiently .4
Colon cleansers are big business, but they are also a business full of false claims and side effects that can cause nutrition deficiencies. Experts agree that cleansing the colon is “no way to slim down”.3 The colon was doing its job of ridding the body of waste long before colon cleansers were around, and it is best to allow the colon to continue doing its job instead of offering it unsolicited help from colon cleansing products.1
Four Things to Tell Patients About Colon Cleansing 6
1. Colon irrigation is not wise – particularly if you have a history of gastrointestinal disease (including diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis) or a history of colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease. These conditions increase the risk of adverse effects.
2. Possible side effects of colon cleansing include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities, acute kidney insufficiency, pancreatitis, bowel perforation, heart failure, and infection.
3. The devices that practitioners use for the procedure are not approved for colon cleansing by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Inadequately disinfected or sterilized irrigation machines have been linked to bacterial contamination.
4. Colon cleansing practitioners are not licensed by a scientifically based organization. Rather, practitioners have undergone a training process structured by an organization that is attempting to institute its own certification and licensing requirements.
1. Che, C. Myths and Realities: Colon Cleansing: Healthful or just a load of @$%!. Available at www.clinicalcorrelations.org/?p=1605. Accessed on January 30, 2012.
2. Barrett, S. Gastrointestinal Quackery: Colonics, Laxatives, and More. Available at www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/gastro.html. Accessed on January 30, 2012.
3. Woolston, C. Does do-it-yourself colon cleansing really improve health? Available at http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/24/health/la-he-skeptic-20100524. Accessed on January 26, 2012.
4. Kovacs, J. S. Colon Cleansers: Are they safe? Available at www.webmd.com/balance/features/colon-cleansers-are-they-safe. Accessed on January 26, 2012.
5. Walsh, N. Colon Detox Not Backed By Science. Available at http://www.medpagetoday.com/PrimaryCare/AlternativeMedicine/27820?utm_content=&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=DailyHeadlines&utm_source=WC&userid=1348. Accessed on January 26, 2012.
6. Mishori, R, Otubu, A, Alleyne Jones, A. The dangers of colon cleansing. J of Family Pract. 2011;60:454-457.