What can you tell me about colon cleansing? Is this just a fad or does it really work? Should it be done by a doctor? I have heard it advertised by herbal remedy businesses. Is this safe, and is it uncomfortable? Would you recommend it?
I assume by “colon cleansing” that you are referring to the use of enemas to remove all feces from the colon, thereby making it “clean”. This supposedly healthy and rejuvenating process has been known by many names over the years; the other one, I recall, was “high colonic”. In any case, the process is the same: giving a large enema, or a series of enemas until the return is mostly clear water, meaning that all the stool has been washed out.
From a medical and scientific viewpoint, I know of no evidence that cleaning the colon brings any health benefit whatsoever. The reason given for such cleansing is that it removes “toxins” from the body, leaving the person somehow purified. In fact, in a healthy person, there are no toxins in the colon. The normal constituents of stool are not toxic; and, in fact, with one exception, no metabolic or toxic products are secreted into the stool of a healthy person.
Stool consists of undigestible fibrous material that we have eaten, bacteria which normally live in the intestines, and bile, which gives the stool its brown color. The brown color arises from the breakdown of hemoglobin, the pigment that makes our blood red, and this is the only metabolic product that is excreted through the stool in healthy people. Blocking the secretion of bile before it gets into the intestine will certainly produce illness, but once the bile has reached the colon, mixed in with the other stool elements I mentioned, it can no longer be absorbed, and will not contribute to any illness even if a person doesn’t have a bowel movement for a week or more. In fact, in a famous case described by the psychologist Eric Ericson, a young boy refused to move his bowels for about 28 days. Although he certainly became bloated, since he continued to eat, he did not become in any way sick, and when he finally did dispose of all that stool, he suffered no ill effects.
There is no correct frequency with which one should empty the large intestine. Many people will defecate three times a day, while others equally healthy may go only once every three days. The idea that one must move every day or face sickness is an old wives’ tale. It probably arose from the observation that people with intestinal obstruction, in which the intestine is blocked or not functioning because of some disease, will become rapidly ill and die if the obstruction is not relieved. However, death in someone with an intestinal obstruction follows infection or perforation of the intestine, and is not due to failure to clear out “toxins”.
Is there a down side to doing colonic cleansing? I have seen reports of the transmission of amebiasis, amebic infection, by the process. Ameba live in the colon, and could easily be transmitted from one person to another if unclean equipment were used. Other organisms, probably including the HIV and hepatitis B viruses, can also be transmitted in this way, via unclean equipment. The sigmoidoscopes and colonoscopes used by doctors to inspect the large intestine are meticulously cleaned in an antimicrobial solution to prevent this type of transmission.
Another complication of enemas done with large volumes of tap water is the dilution of the person’s blood through the absorption of a large volume of water. Known as water intoxication, this is mostly a danger for children, but can occur in adults. Water intoxication can lead to fatigue, headache, confusion, and rarely to convulsions and coma.
With colonoscopy and sigmoidoscopy now being commonly performed, many people undergo medically-supervised “colon cleansing” using a combination of laxatives and low-volume enemas. I have undergone this myself, and certainly did not feel any better as a result of such “cleansing”. If you were to inquire among your friends, you would probably find a couple of people who have undergone this procedure. You might ask them if they experienced the supposed benefits of “colon cleansing”.
So all in all, I believe that the benefits of colon cleansing are a myth, and the possibility of complications, though perhaps not great, are not zero, so who needs it? I would advise you not to do it, and to seek better health through healthy eating, moderation in drinking, quitting smoking if you do, and regular exercise.