The Shambulance: 5 Reasons Not to “Cleanse” Your Colon

By Elizabeth Preston | July 4, 2014 9:22 am

Happy Independence Day! Here’s hoping all your fireworks are experienced externally. This post first appeared in October 2012.

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The Shambulance is an occasional series in which I try to find the truth about bogus or overhyped health products. Physiologist Steven Swoap is with me at the helm.

If you’ve been tempted by promotions for “colon hydrotherapy”—that is, sessions in which you would pay someone to put a tube up your rectum and wash out your large intestine with water, like a dirty garage being hosed down in summer—then you’ve already overcome some impressive mental hurdles. Maybe you’re almost ready to enjoy the relaxation, renewed energy, and improved health that the procedure promises. Before you take the plunge, as it were, here are a few points to consider.

It’s not the 19th century.
People who offer colon hydrotherapy (also called a colonic) tell you the large intestine is full of “toxic waste and toxins.” It does, of course, carry waste out of your body. But is it a two-way street?

“Intestinal autointoxication,” the idea that poisons from your feces can move backward from your colon into the rest of your body, is an old one. Old as in ancient Egyptian. The Greeks were into it too, including Hippocrates and Galen.

In the 19th century, doctors prescribed laxative pills and enemas to cure all manner of illnesses. One man created and promoted a popular device called the Cascade. As alternative medicine researcher Edzard Ernst describes it, this was a rubber bottle with a nozzle for a person to insert into his or her rectum. When the person then sat on the bottle, it squirted 5 liters of fluid into up into the colon.

By the 1920s, though, some actual scientific study had been done on the subject. Unlike the Cascade, the theory of intestinal autointoxication did not hold water.

A toilet is not a gym.
“Having colonics is like taking your colon to the gym,” declares the website for one colon hydrotherapy center. Filling the colon up with water and emptying it again, the theory goes, “exercises” the intestinal muscle so it can do its job better in the future.

“Injecting water into the colon will cause the colon to swell, and cause so-called ‘stretch-activated’ contractions of the smooth muscle surrounding the intestine,” says Williams College physiologist Steven Swoap. These contractions are called peristalsis. “But the colon does this naturally as food stuffs pass through,” he adds. “There is definitely no need to help this along for peristalsis to occur.”

Colorectal surgeon Francis Seow-Choen points out in a review paper that since the colon is lined with smooth muscle (a type we can’t voluntarily control), it cannot be toned like the muscles you work at the gym. Toned muscles are ones that we’ve consciously flexed so often, our brains learn to flex them automatically. Sit-ups work; water up the rectum doesn’t.

It’s rude to firehose your friends.
In addition to waste, your colon houses a large portion of your body’s friendly bacteria. These gut microbes manufacture several vitamins we need, and seem to be involved in defending us from dangerous microorganisms and generally keeping us healthy.

One study found that cleaning the colon to prepare patients for a colonoscopy—in this case with a straightforward laxative, not with large volumes of pumped-in fluid as in a colonic—immediately altered the types of bacteria in patients’ intestines. Another study found that cleaning out the colon both knocked down the bacterial population there and seemed to make it easier for new, potentially unfriendly bacterial strains to move in.

It might kill you.
“My biggest worry would be perforations caused by the water,” Swoap says. “If abrasions or tears in the colon occur, you have the possibility of a dangerous bacterial infection.” Ironically, one way to make the material in your colon as dangerous as colonic practitioners claim is to blast it with water. Breaking up the feces and creating tiny tears in the colon can turn a one-way street into a two-way hazard.

According to a paper in the Journal of Family Practicereported complications from colon cleansing include cramping, abdominal pain, vomiting, rectal perforation, blood poisoning, kidney failure, fatal amoebic infection, and fatal accumulation of gas in the veins. Even if such a consequence is rare, Swoap points out, “it is sure not to happen if I don’t let some technician put a hose in my rear.”

Everybody poops.
Colons have been doing their job without outside intervention for hundreds of millions of years. “Your colon does not need help in a non-disease state,” Swoap says. “Your colon is a pro!” If you want to thank it, step away from the hose and have some broccoli.


Image: Mykl Roventine

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    put a tube up your rectum and wash out your large intestine” That is one of the fundamental freedoms of America, spread wide by government.

    • Don’t Even Try It!

      We the People seem to be getting ‘hosed’ quite a lot lately!

      • Devon

        Exactly! I always wondered where the Tea Party came from, but now I know… Rush Limbaugh must be into colonics and the Tea Party is the result! I love how much I learn from these blog postings!

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        • RubenCLeon

          Big Government is better for all of us, just like Big Business.

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  • Chandrakant Kulkarni

    Perfectly right. You should go in for an enema only as an emergency measure : like a Procedure prior to a surgery, or when you are totally bedridden.
    The sphincter muscles around your anus are delicate ones, and not ‘tough’ like your lip muscles. Moreover, there is a vital energy point Guda Marma (गुदमर्म) located around anus.

    • Aftab Saeed

      Mahatama Gandhi was a gr8 one for enemas. Even administered it to his many young female followers on a regular basis himself.Lucky chap! The recently departed Khushwant Singh followed Gandhi and lived to b 99. However, I am against hosing your interior.

      • Chandrakant Kulkarni

        Naturalists are Enema-fanatics. You will always notice a peculiar ‘dull’ expression on their face, and recognize their ‘addiction’ for Enemas.

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      ‘not tough’! just ask any homosexual…they’ll laugh at you…

  • Stephen Hauer

    http://www.GOOyCHEWy.com Tummy for Humans

    http://www.GooGutRescue.com for your Canine Friend.

    Heal the GUT !

  • Apollo Grace

    I notice a lot of armchair theorizing in this article, as well as some non-quantified anecdotal reports of dangers. We’ve got ad hominem attacks on the practice by associating it with the ancients and the 19th century, so clearly it’s as useless as phrenology. There’s mention of studies in the 1920s, but no citations. Mishori’s “study” is again, simply anecdotes. This is not science. It’s similar to dozens of other orthodox medical rejections of traditional practices, such as traditional diets or herbal medicines.

    Chronic constipation is very unhealthy, and leaves one feeling, well, like crap. In the absence of any more compelling data, I’m left with my experience of the therapy in my own life, which has been very clearly beneficial. It provides immediate relief, without the unpleasant side effects of over the counter laxatives.

    Nobody’s selling me on this stuff. I use a home system, which means I’ve got to do all the cleanup myself; if I wasn’t getting something out of it, I’d have abandoned the practice long ago. :)

    • Michael Jang

      There’s not really any armchair theorizing in this article, nor are the dangers mentioned overstated, nor does the article imply that the practice is bad simply because it’s as old as civilisations long gone.

      The author doesn’t even suggest that there’s no place for the practice. With reasons 1,2 and 5, she’s simply saying that in the absence of a specific reason to do it, why bother? There isn’t a reason to think there are benefits to it if you don’t have some kind of colonic condition that would warrant it.

      With reasons 3 and 4, she’s presenting very real dangers, and does cite several medical studies. The chance of anything bad happening could very well we be small, but the fact of the matter (go ask any doctor about this) is that we all have beneficial bacteria in our gut that help us finish digesting food and produce vitamins and such, and we also have some very dangerous ones in there too, and if your bowel ever gets scraped or pierced, you could actually die from a bacterial infection (aka sepsis).

      If you have chronic constipation, that may be a very good reason to ignore this article, if you think the relief outweighs the risk of the dangers (as far as I know, if you’re careful about it this is probably the case); but then, that would be an exceptional case, and not one that the author was addressing. Keep hosing yourself if you think it’s doing you good, but (other than your point about lacking a citation for the studies by the 1920s) there’s nothing in this article worth simply dismissing as anecdotal.

      • Apollo Grace

        The impact on intestinal flora (#3) is generally understood to be significant, and also prominently discussed wherever I’ve seen colonic therapy. (Mineral loss is also addressed.) Probiotics and mineral supplements are generally recommended. And #4 certainly discusses real dangers. But the thrust of the article is to advance an assertion that colon cleansing is not beneficial in the general population. A claim like that requires statistical evidence. Of the two studies cited in #3, one only claimed that the bacteria “changed”, not that it was harmful or beneficial, and the other only examined 5 people. The first study in #4 concluded that cleansing “may” increase toxins in the blood. The second reference by Dr. Mishori et al isn’t a study, it’s a report a couple (admittedly disturbing) anecdotes about negative outcomes.

        Now if I were going to make the converse claim in an article for a scientific or medical magazine, that colonics are beneficial for most people, the burden of proof would certainly be on me – I’d need to get specific about health markers and outcomes it improves, what adverse consequences are observed, and _with what frequency_ they occur.

        But since the author is the one making the claim that they are _not_ beneficial, the same requirements fall on her. The fact that negative outcomes have been detected is not a basis for a wholesale rejection of any therapy; instead, we look for statistics on a sufficiently large scale to determine both efficacy and safety. Negative outcomes exist with almost any therapy; people die from aspirin and tylenol.

        So again, for an article claiming to ascertain “the truth about bogus or overhyped health products”, I’m very disappointed in the discrepancy between the strength of the claims made and the evidence presented.

        • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

          your article is better than the original..

        • Danny Wade

          “But the thrust of the article is to advance an assertion that colon cleansing is not beneficial in the general population. A claim like that requires statistical evidence.”

          For a medical procedure to be accepted as beneficial requires evidence. The burden of proof is with the person claiming it IS beneficial to any Jane Doe who walks in off the street.

          If a person claims that eating rattlesnake glands will cure epilepsy and regulate your blood sugar, it’s their job to prove it does, not the skeptic’s job to prove it’s untrue.

      • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

        the danger lies in the key element, ‘keep hosing yourself’…

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com Michael Keener

      LMAO… you have missed the whole point… continue your
      ‘getting something out of it’ and maybe you’ll kill yourself..
      I guess you just like the feeling..

    • me d

      Chronic constipation can be handled by many, safe means. It doesn’t need a firehose approach. Face it, you’re just a fruit who enjoys getting stuff squirted up your butt.

    • Glenshane Pass

      I think you’ve somewhat missed the point. The very last paragraph says “Your colon does not need help in a non-disease state”. It does not say that it is *never* appropriate, but it’s not appropriate as a regular part of body maintenance for a healthy person.

  • Don’t Even Try It!

    Try to stick that hose up my azz and i’ll break your arm! Twice!!

  • Lim Myka

    cleansing the colon.. a natural way is to drink water early morning… and slimming tea in evening or early morning…but be sure you are near restroom or else you end ….poooping on your panties or briefs… heheha.. it takes six hours after your drink tea so make sure you are counting ….

  • Jhon Murdock

    Wheat bran soaked in skim milk about one cup per meal. Start with a couple of tablespoons and gradually increase the quantity. Expect a little flatulence at first. Soon you will have 3 bowel movements a day. Smooth, rapid and effortlessly. The calcium in the milk is also a big friend of the colon. The wheat bran can hold up to 8 times its own weight of water so the extractive demands of the colon can be met and still leave water behind to lubricate the waste material and leave it moist and soft. And ready to be eliminated. Bon apetit!

    • Trillstar

      Lactose intolerance renders your option nonviable.

      • Jhon Murdock

        Only to the lactose intolerant. All they have to do is choose another beverage: fruit juice or pain water will do just fine as will soy milk.
        Where there’s a will, there’s a way, Trilly!

        • Trillstar

          Wheat Bran in Juice? No thanks. And animals make milk. I refuse to accept that soy “milk” is anything but refuse water for soaking soybeans. Blech.

  • DodgeMiniVan

    That’s why Italians and others from the Mediterranean countries don’t need the procedures mentioned. We eat a lot of Broccoli.

    To us Italians, eating Broccoli is like eating spaghetti.

  • Trillstar

    Death begins in the colon. Impacted feces and bloating are enough to warrant a colon cleanse. Supplement with probiotics afterward.

  • RJShank

    Thecandidayeastanswer.com.
    I used this treatment to cleanse my colon. No forceful entry, plus changing my health permanently, not temporarily.

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Inkfish

Like the wily and many-armed cephalopod, Inkfish reaches into the far corners of science news and brings you back surprises (and the occasional sea creature). The ink is virtual but the research is real.

About Elizabeth Preston

Elizabeth Preston is a science writer whose articles have appeared in publications including Slate, Nautilus, and National Geographic. She's also Editor of the children's science magazine Muse, where she frequently writes in the voice of a know-it-all bovine. She lives in Massachusetts. Read more and see her other writing here.

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