Colon cleansing, or colonic irrigation, is a practice that many swear by. Others attest that there is no evidence to its efficacy, and that it’s based on a Draconian understanding of the body and health.
Colon cleansing dates as far back as we have documented medical history – but does it work? Is it safe? Is it necessary?
Join me as we explore the research, the benefits, and potential risks involved in the practice of colonic irrigation.
What is Colon Hydrotherapy?
According to Dorothy Chandler, the president of the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy, “Colon hydrotherapy is a safe, effective method of removing waste from the large intestine, without the use of drugs. By introducing filtered and temperature-regulated water into the colon, the waste is softened and loosened, resulting in the evacuation through natural peristalsis. The process is repeated a few times during a session.”
Bastis, Enemas, and Colonics: What’s the Difference?
Both enemas and colonic irrigation introduce water into the colon for the purposes of cleansing the large intestine, or colon. However, while colonic irrigation must be administered by a professional and cleanses the entire length of the colon, enemas can be safely done at home with an enema kit and usually only cleanse the lower portion of the colon.
Basti, a traditional Ayurvedic therapy, may use warm herbalized oil instead of water, and its purposes, which I discuss in more detail below, are slightly different.
Are Colonics Safe?
When used properly for the purposes of health and prevention, colon hydrotherapy is largely a safe practice. However, some people with serious inflammatory bowel conditions have reported complications that should not be ignored, so that anyone with an inflammatory bowel condition should avoid colonics altogether. In rare instances there were cases of the colonic insert tube perforating the bowel and causing complications. Nausea and fatigue directly after the procedure have been reported, as well as complications related to electrolyte imbalance.
While colon hydrotherapists are not considered trained medical personnel, there are schools in just about every major city that certify therapists. They are trained in all aspects of the therapy, as well as who should and who should not receive it.
Enemas and bastis carry far less risk, though there are conflicting opinions about whether it is safe to conduct an enema in the presence of an inflammatory bowel condition.
Do Colonics Work?
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. There are thousands and thousands of anecdotal reports from folks with vast lists of health concerns who have experienced benefits.
Much of the benefits come from something called the “enema effect.” When the colon is flushed as a result of a steady stream of water triggering the natural contraction of the bowel it stimulates a systemic effect in the body. On the outside of the gut wall exists an immense concentration of circulatory vessels, including the majority of the body’s lymphatic system.
This relationship between the inside of the gut wall and the lymph lining is highlighted in an article I wrote called, “The Most Important Half Inch of the Body.” When the gut is cleansed by a colonic, it appears to stimulate a circulatory effect in the blood vessels and lymph that surrounds the gut. This boost in circulation and lymph drainage is called the “enema effect.”
With a colon free of fecal matter and the lymph and blood around the gut in a stimulated or heightened circulatory flow state, there is generally a perceivable sense of well-being, mental clarity and energy as a result. This increased circulation can have a whole body or systemic effect that can support the experience of health and well-being in many systems and organs systems of the body. Perhaps this may explain the wide array of benefits colonic users report.
Why You Might Want to Think Twice Before Running Out for a Colonic
1. Lack of research: Let me start this section by acknowledging all the benefits folks have received from colonic therapy. That said, I was hard pressed to find any studies, research articles or documentation supporting these benefits. This lack of research turns many folks away from what might be a viable alternative therapy.
2. Maintaining Microbiology: A big problem with our western approach is the obsession with sterility. We scrub everything we can with antibacterial soap, have years of antibiotic therapy in us, not to mention everything is cooked, packaged, pasteurized and sterilized to protect us from the “bad bugs.” The problem is that we have been killing the good bugs as well.
When you irrigate the large intestine with water, ideally you flush out all the toxins, stimulate lymph and blood flow, but you also flush out all the microbes – good and bad. The intestinal environment is extremely delicate, and very difficult to repopulate good bacteria once you have flushed it out.
It is for this reason that lots of folks get a colonic and feel great, but then in a couple of weeks they start feeling toxic again. Often at this point they feel that another colonic is needed to feel good again. This can be an addictive experience, and one that I have helped many addicted colonic users wean off of.
One of the reasons for the desire to receive regular colonics is the buildup of toxins and fecal matter in the bowel after a week or two. The reason for the buildup of toxins may be the loss of the needed microbes to maintain the healthy function of the gut – which without healthy daily detoxification is not possible. A diverse strain of microbes in the gut supports natural detoxification, absorption of nutrients, and is responsible for most functions in the body, including healthy lymph flow.
The Ayurvedic Perspective
In my opinion, I believe that colonics can be a useful tool to help the body cleanse the large intestines. The risk is the eradication of the good bacteria during the process and resultant dependency on colonic usage. Taking a colonic before a cleanse to preliminarily cleanse the gut may make sense as long as the cleanse is designed to reset digestive function, repopulate the good bacteria and cleanse the deep tissues, as we do with the Colorado Cleanse.
In Ayurveda, small oil-based herbal retention enemas are given during a detox program called Panchakarma. This style of enema lubricates, cleanses and supports the health of the existing microbiology. This is quite different from a colonic, which flushes and rinses the bowel with a continuous stream of water.
Years ago, I was fortunate to lecture beside the great Bernard Jensen, one of the leaders of natural health for much of the 20th century. He invented a home colonic device called a colema board, which irrigates the bowel much like today’s colonics.
He was the king of colon cleansing. He started the bentonite and herbal colon cleanses many years ago and was a big promoter of cleansing the gut. But when I met him, I was surprised to see that his belly was extremely bloated. Later, his assistant told me he was taking 17 digestive enzymes pills each day to be able to digest his food. This didn’t make any sense! How could the leading expert on colon health and colon cleansing be so bloated and have no digestive strength?
When I saw him it hit me that we cannot just flush, scrub, sterilize and irrigate the gut and expect it to rebound and regain normal function. Sure, we will feel great right afterwards, but soon we become addicted to the cleansing because we have lost our microbiology!
An Aha! Moment
All of a sudden it made perfect sense to me – why in Ayurveda we use oil enemas rather than water. The bowel is treated gently and carefully to boost its natural function rather than hose it down and expect it to just work better.
Please don’t get me wrong. There are therapeutic enemas that offer health benefits. Coffee enemas will stimulate liver and bile flow, warm water enemas and mineral oil enemas can lubricate the intestines and help bowel function.
The key is not to become dependent on anything, and for sure not dependent on regular colonics which may be stripping the gut of bacteria that are most critical to our health. I realize that many colonics attempt to repopulate the gut with microbial implants, but rarely, if ever, do they actually grow new and sustainable colonies of good bacteria.
Recovering What’s Lost
Re-growing new colonies of good bacteria is extremely hard to do. You have to reboot all aspects of digestion, having all the following in place:
- A strong upper digestion (can you digest wheat and dairy?)
- Good bile flow (do you have any trouble digesting fatty foods?)
- The “Perfect Poop” (find in newsletter archives), or regular bowel movements
Once these are in place, you can begin to repopulate the gut with colonizing strains of bacteria that adhere to the gut wall, and whose waste acts as food for more diverse strains of bacteria. Starting to eat very small amounts of naturally fermented or cultured foods daily can also help feed the good bugs and maintain a healthy microbiome.
Addendum: We recognize the importance of providing research to back up the benefits of oil enemas cited in this article. Not referencing this research originally was an editorial oversight on our part. Please see the following research to learn about how Butyric acid (a main constituent of ghee, a type of clarified butter that is widely used in Ayurveda and recently gaining in popularity as an enema solution) helps feed the bacteria in the large intestine:
This is the study that is referenced in the article linked: Gao Z, Yin J, Zhang J, Pope CR, Martin RJ, Cefalu WT, Ye J: Butyrate Improves Insulin Sensitivity and Increases Energy Expenditure in Mice. Diabetes 58:1509-1517 2009
doi: 10.1128/AEM.66.4.1654-1661.2000 Appl. Environ. Microbiol. April 2000 vol. 66 no. 4 1654-1661