Cleaning out the colon is sometimes necessary— for example, before a medical procedure, such as a colonoscopy. But some people do it in the belief that the process will rid their colons of excess toxins that have accumulated over time from the foods they eat, the air they breathe, the water they drink and the lifestyles they lead.
Colon-cleansing enthusiasts believe that periodically cleaning from the inside out removes waste stuck to the colon walls. This waste buildup also supposedly produces toxins that enter the blood and may be slowly poisoning people, contributing to a variety of symptoms — fatigue, bloating, irritated skin and weight gain — and health problems, from depression and allergies to arthritis and cancer.
Cleansing proponents promote two ways to clean the colon. One method involves taking bowel-clearing laxatives, powders or supplements; using enemas; or drinking herbal teas topurportedly release colon waste and discharge toxins. But using this method might feel more like frequently running to the bathroom with diarrhea.
A second method is called colonic irrigation or colon hydrotherapy, in which a practitioner flushes out the colon by sending gallons of water into the body through a tube inserted into a person's rectum. This procedure can cost about $80 to $100 per session.
But does colon cleansing flush out toxins, as its supporters suggest, or does it flush money down the drain?
Medical professionals say that the body comes well equipped with its own built-in mechanisms to eliminate harmful substances: the liver and kidneys. In fact, colon cleansing that is done to help remove toxins is an unnecessary and potentially dangerous practice, especially colon hydrotherapy.
"Every week, someone asks me whether colon cleansing is safe and whether a person should be doing it," said Dr. Jacqueline Wolf, a gastroenterologist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and the author of "A Woman's Guide to a Healthy Stomach" (Harlequin, 2011).
She typically tells her patients there is little research on colon cleansing methods, and that most physicians don't believe in these treatments or advise their use. [The Poop on Pooping: 5 Misconceptions Explained]
Wolf said people's curiosity about cleansing possibly stems from the idea that the bowel is a dirty place, and that getting rid of waste is a good idea. She said she usually doesn't recommend colon hydrotherapy, but has suggested it for a few people to use as colonoscopy preparation when traditional methods have failed. She's also recommended it for patients who had severe constipation, before there were strong drugs that could help remedy this problem.
"We don't know enough about colon cleansing to know the real truth," Wolf told Live Science. "It's an area we should learn more about."
Wolf outlined some of the potential side effects and dangers of colon cleansing methods.
1. Colon cleansing can cause side effects.
"We don't have real data on either the healthy or unhealthy side effects from cleansing methods," Wolf said. Most of the known side effects come from case reports described in the medical literature and not from research studies, of which there are few.
Colon cleansing with laxatives, herbal formulations or enemas might increase a person's risk of becoming dehydrated if the individual does not drink enough fluids, Wolf said.
Inducing diarrhea can also change people's electrolyte levels. Shifting levels of sodium might cause lightheadedness, and low potassium levels may cause leg cramps or abnormal heart rhythms, Wolf said.
Some herbal cleanses have also been linked with liver toxicity and aplastic anemia, a rare blood disorder.
Case reports suggest colon hydrotherapy may cause abdominal cramping, stomach pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. More-severe complications may include perforating the bowel, serious infections, electrolyte imbalances, kidney problems and heart failure.
2. There's little scientific evidence that colon cleansing actually removes toxins from the body or improves health.
A review study published in 2001 in the American Journal of Gastroenterology concluded that there were no rigorous studies to support the practice of colon cleansing as a way of improving or promoting general health.
And because cleansing products and methods rarely name the specific toxins they supposedly remove from the body, there's been no research measuring how effective cleansing practices may be at actually eliminating these substances, or demonstrating the health benefits of removing them, Wolf said.
3. Cleansing is not an effective strategy for weight loss.
A person who does a cleanse may initially lose a few pounds, but that is a temporary loss, resulting from the removal of water weight and stool, and not from a permanent loss of fat. Although it could be motivating to see results on the scale for a few days, cleansing is not a long-term solution to a weight problem, Wolf said. [5 Experts Answer: Is There Such Thing as a Healthy Juice Cleanse?]
4. Colon cleansing and colonic irrigation are not safe for everyone.
Wolf said she would worry about people with kidney disease or heart problems trying colon cleanses, because these individuals already have trouble maintaining fluid balance in their bodies, and the electrolyte shifts could be an issue. She said she would also tell people with gastrointestinal problems, such as Crohn's disease (a condition involving inflammation in the GI tract), ulcerative colitis (which involves inflammation in the large intestine), and recurrent diverticulitis (in which a person develops inflamed pouches in the wall of the colon) to avoid colonics.
Colon hydrotherapy is also risky for people with connective tissue disorders, such as Marfan syndrome or Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, because of the possible risk of a puncturing a hole in the bowel, as well as anyone who had prior colon surgery or severe hemorrhoids.
Pregnant and breast-feeding women should also steer clear of colon cleanses.
5. Cleansing's effect on gut bacteria is unknown.
Trillions of bacteria live in the colon, and eliminating them or changing the population of beneficial and harmful bacteria in that organ could be a problem.
"A colon cleanse would never get rid of all the bacteria, but research is increasingly finding that a lot of bacteria in the colon is very healthy," Wolf said. Some of the good colon bacteria play a role inkeeping bad bacteria at bay.
Scientists don't know if colon cleanses and colon hydrotherapy disrupt the bacteria in the colon or cause an imbalance in the microbiome, Wolf said. "It hasn't been studied," she said.