There’s a growing number of colonic irrigation clinics in London and worldwide, and the health claims are growing too. But the medical community warns against this procedure, and points out that the health benefits are unproven. As a personal trainer in London I’m sometimes asked by my clients if I would recommend they go for a colonic. My reply is ‘not unless your GP or medical specialist advises it’.
I first became interested in this procedure when I read an article back in 2002 in The Guardian (Saturday 9th March 2002) by Ian Belcher. He went on a fasting/colonic retreat called The Spa Resort in Koh Samui, Thailand. What stuck in my mind was his claim that his photographer Anthony Cullen, who also had a colonic, excreted a marble he had swallowed 22 years earlier at the age of 5. Ian Belcher himself claims that he excreted solid lumps and strips that he thought were meat gristle from a history of eating steaks.
This led me to think that the colon can become clogged up if you’ve eaten too much junk food and red meat over a number of years, and that a colonic is the best way to cleanse your colon of built-up waste products. But now, after further research, I’m not so sure.
What is the colon and what does it do?
The colon (also known as the bowels, or the large intestine) is the lowest part of the gastrointestinal tract. It connects at one end to the small intestine, and at the other end to the rectum where waste matter is expelled from the body in the form of faeces. The colon not only expels waste (by a muscular movement called peristalsis) it also absorbs water and some nutrients into the body.
Your colon is full of ‘friendly bacteria’, more in number than the total number of cells in your body. This ecosystem of flora (such as Acidophilus) is crucial for digestion and also for fighting toxic (pathogenic) bacteria, excess yeast, and parasites. There is around 4kg of good bacteria in the colon of the average adult.
The colon is shaped like three sides of a square, composed of the ascending, transverse, and descending sections.
What is colonic irrigation?
Also known as colonic hydrotherapy, or simply a ‘colonic’, this procedure is an alternative therapy designed to expel toxins and compacted waste matter from the colon.
There is usually a period of fasting before the procedure itself. Then a lubricated speculum is inserted into the rectum, attached to an inflow/outflow tube which is attached at the other end to a machine that pumps warm water into the colon, between 2 and 6 litres at a time.
Then the therapist massages the patient’s abdomen, to help dislodge built-up waste. The outflow tube is see-through to enable the patient to see for themselves what waste products are excreted. Often the therapist recommends several colonics to remove all compacted waste. Each procedure lasts around 45 minutes, and up to 100 litres of water is used each time.
What are the health claims for colonic irrigation?
Advocates of colonics claim that the body is unable to eliminate all the waste products that enter the colon, if someone has eaten an unhealthy diet over a number of years. The theory goes that layers of plaque build up over time, along the internal walls of the colon, and trap pieces of undigested food such as meat gristle, resulting in a build up of toxins that cause or contribute to a wide range of ailments and medical conditions.
Colonic irrigation has been claimed to cure or relieve IBS, constipation, chronic flatulence, depression, ulcers, and a range of other disorders. Advocates claim it can give you healthier skin, clear eyes, more energy, a stronger immune system. It is also claimed to rid you of parasites, and help with weight loss. Above all it is claimed to give you a fully functioning digestive system once all the compacted waste has been washed away.
Clinics which perform colonics point to its use in ancient Egypt in 1,500 BC, and ancient China. Chai Yu-Hua, a Chinese physician in 400 BC, talked of “purging the bowels to eliminate the source of poisons and repair the body.”
What does the medical community say about colonic irrigation?
There is no conclusive medical evidence that colonic irrigation works. The body detoxifies itself, through a combination of the liver, kidneys, friendly bacteria in the colon, and the physical muscular movement of peristalsis which pushes faeces out of the body.
A major scientific paper on colonic irrigation in The American Journal of Family Practice concluded that it has “no proven benefits and many adverse effects”. Its lead author, Dr Ranit Mishori of the Georgetown University School of Medicine, reviewed 20 studies on colonics.
He pointed to the many potential dangers: perforated bowel from insertion of tube or water pressure on the sensitive colon walls, acute water intoxication, bacterial infection from contaminated equipment, electrolyte imbalance, bloating, nausea, severe and painful cramps, subsequent bowel disorders, and at the most extreme end of the scale, the risk of kidney failure or heart failure.
Dr Mishori also warned against orally administered detox products (various pills, powders and herbs that are sold over the counter, or worse still on the internet), which “tout benefits that don’t exist”.
In researching this blog post, I came across an article in the Mail Online (11th August 2011), which interviewed a gastroenterologist, Dr David Forecast. He was adamant that colonic irrigation had no benefits:
“I’ve looked up approximately 20,000 bottoms and can promise that I’ve never seen waste older than a few hours. The idea that faecal matter sticks to the bowel walls and can sit there decaying for several months or even years is nonsense.”
He goes on to say “Likewise, the claim that faecal matter accumulates in crevices in the bowel doesn’t make sense. The bowel wall is smooth.”
My research also revealed a report that the Advertising Standards Authority banned a colonic irrigation advert by The Body Detox Clinic in Newcastle, which claimed that it could relieve symptoms of 19 conditions including colitis and bad breath. The ASA ruled that these claims were not medically proven. The clinic defended itself on the basis that they had many satisfied clients who could provide anecdotal evidence of health benefits.
What do I think about colonic irrigation?
Personally I would never risk colonic irrigation. The colon contains a delicately balanced ecosystem of friendly bacteria which would be flushed out by a colonic, and although friendly bacteria can be repopulated by probiotics, it seems to me that it’s best to leave those friendly bacteria where they are.
Advocates of colonics point to the large amount of waste that is eliminated. Could that possibly be the 4kg of friendly bacteria that lives in the average colon? The only thing that puzzles me are the claims that meat gristle, marbles etc have been discovered as a result of colonics (which supports the claim that faetal waste and plaque and toxins build up in the colon over years), but this is only anecdotal evidence, and has never been proven or reproduced in any scientific study of any colonic performed under controlled conditions.
Colonic irrigation seems like an unnecessarily radical and invasive procedure, and unless medical doctor strongly advises it for a medically proven benefit, I’d prefer to keep my colon healthy through good nutrition, regular exercise, sleep, and healthy lifestyle.
The fact that colonics have been discredited by the medical profession is a good enough reason for me to advise against it. I think the popularity of colonics is a symptom of our ‘quick fix’ culture combined with our ‘celebrity culture’ in which celebs like Madonna, Princess Diana, and Jennifer Aniston have at various times endorsed this procedure.
I think colonics fall into the same ‘quick fix’ category as celebrity diets, detox products, and other procedures that people use to avoid having to adopt a permanent lifestyle of healthy eating and regular exercise.
What do you think? Maybe you’ve been to a colonic irrigation or hydrotherapy clinic in London. Or maybe you know someone who has. I want to hear about your experience. Have your say in the comments section below.