What would you recommend for a colon cleansing and an overall system cleansing?
I know that it is not considered good form to answer a question with a question, but when I first looked at this letter, my immediate reaction was: “Why would you want to cleanse your colon?” Then I recalled having received other letters with similar questions, and thought that this might be a good time to look at the subject of colon cleansing, enema use, the practice of “high colonics” and so on. What all of these questions seem to assume is that there is something bad in the colon, or in the stool, that needs to be periodically cleaned out.
Is there something toxic, something unhealthy, in the contents of the intestines and the colon that requires cleaning, and will we feel better and be healthier if we get it out? There are, of course, many diseases that can affect the intestines and colon, including many infections, but you and most of those who have asked similar questions in the past do not mention any illness. They seem to be implying that in an otherwise healthy individual, cleansing the colon is beneficial.
Most of the metabolic work of the intestines takes place in the small intestine. All the nutrients that we obtain in our food are absorbed in the small intestine, and the pancreatic enzymes and bile salts that assist in this absorption are secreted into the upper small intestine. It is the bile acids that pass through the intestine that make our stools brown, and if they are obstructed, a pale clay-colored stool will be passed. Many drugs are metabolized in the liver and are secreted from the body with the bile acids, but for the most part, they are inactivated in the liver, and do not need to be “cleansed” from the colon. The colon itself performs few metabolic functions, the absorption of water from the liquid stool that passes from the small intestine into the colon being the major one. Without this function we would all have chronic diarrhea. There is no concentration of toxic substances or detoxification that takes place in the colon.
The colon does, of course, contain many bacteria and often fungi, usually candida. These organisms do not cause disease when in the colon, and there is no evidence that a syndrome of “chronic candidiasis” related to candida in the colon exists. Trying to eradicate these organisms would be useless, since a person would be immediately reinfected, and could well be harmful, since killing off the benign organisms living in the intestine can allow the growth of harmful bacteria which can make one quite sick. The diarrhea that is commonly seen following antibiotic use is thought to be caused by the killing of our usual bacteria, which allows the overgrowth of harmful ones.
Is this situation different if one is constipated? Constipation is usually defined as the passage of dry, hard stools with straining. Failing to pass a stool every day is not constipation, and indeed many healthy people only defecate every two to three days. This is normal for them and is not constipation if the stool has a normal, soft consistency. Taking a laxative or an enema if one fails to pass a stool every day is a bad habit.
So why am I opposed to occasional laxative use or enemas to cleanse the colon? Aside from the fact that I believe they are totally unnecessary, taking laxatives or enemas have the potential to do real harm. Chronic use of some laxatives, particularly those that stimulate the colon, can change the lining of the colon and the muscles in the wall of the colon so that normal defecation becomes harder and harder. Bulk laxatives such as psyllium, increased fiber in the diet, and simply drinking more water are all benign ways to reduce constipation.
Enemas can be harmful in a number of ways. There is always a danger of a perforation when anything is inserted into the rectum, a very serious complication. Enemas with regular tap water can allow enough absorption of water into the body so that normal water balance is upset, leading to potentially serious hyponatremia (hypo=low, natrium=sodium, emia=in the blood). Regular enemas can cause loss of the musculature in the colon, leading to a permanent difficulty in defecating. There have also been reports of serious infections resulting from enemas given in the offices of doctors and chiropractors who specialize in “high colonics.” I have seen reports of both amoebic infection and hepatitis B transmitted in this way. This would not be a problem with enemas taken at home using dedicated enema equipment which no one else used.
I think that the idea that there is something toxic in the stool that periodically needs to be cleansed stems from our distaste for all things having to do with stool and defecation. Healthy people do not have anything in their colons that needs to be cleansed, and since there is potential harm in both laxatives and enemas, I would simply advise against any such cleansing.