Colonics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

When asked to comment on the practice of colonics, most physicians say "bad idea.” On the other hand, many naturopathic doctors and alternative health practitioners recommend colonics and even offer them in their practice. There isn't a lot of science to support the use of colonics but there is certainly a lot of enthusiasm for them amongst certain people.

Colonic irrigation, hydrotherapy or colonics refer to the practice of placing a tube into the rectum that is attached to special equipment through which large amounts of water, sometimes mixed with herbs or other substances, are introduced into the colon (large intestine) for the purpose of removing waste matter.

The main argument in favor of colonics is the concept of "autointoxication," which has been around since the ancient Egyptians. The belief is that stagnation of feces in the colon causes toxins to be absorbed through the colon lining into the bloodstream, ultimately poisoning the body. Other pro-colonic theories include the idea that hardened feces that accumulates along the lining of the colon can lead to the overgrowth of harmful bacteria and interfere with the absorption of water and nutrients.

These days, many people use colon hydrotherapy for weight loss and for the feeling of lightness that comes from having an empty colon or as part of a detoxification regimen.

Anatomically, most nutrients and other important substances are absorbed upstream in the small intestine with the main function of the colon being to absorb water and transport stool out of the body, so there is little worry about malabsorption of nutrients in the colon. The downside of colonics includes the possibility of complications, such as infection from improperly cleaned equipment, dehydration, cramps and pain during the procedure, disruption of the colon's unique and delicate bacterial environment, electrolyte imbalances, rare cases of heart failure from over-absorption of water, and even fatal perforation of the colon.

So, if the colon really isn't dirty and is able to adequately clean itself on its own, and if colonics are associated with a low but real risk of complications, why are they so popular? At least part of the reason is that people feel really good when their colons are empty, and colonics are really good at emptying the colon. Regardless of whether you are for or against colonics, there is no question that the human body is incredibly well designed with little room for improvement.

Despite hopes for colonic weight loss, the colon doesn't actually need any help in eliminating waste matter when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing: eating a high-fiber diet rich in fruits and vegetables; avoiding too much processed food, animal protein and sugar; drinking lots of water; and getting lots of vigorous exercise. Things start to go awry when we deviate too much from the plan.

I personally believe in not interfering too much with Mother Nature and therefore recommend trying to make those crucial lifestyle adjustments rather than more invasive measures. For those who are wedded to the idea of a more drastic clean out, a seasonal one- or two-day juice fast coupled with a fiber supplement can give you pretty similar results.

Ultimately, a plant-based diet, lots of water, and regular exercise will mean less reliance on health-care professionals of any kind – conventional or alternative. The less toxic our lifestyle, the less need there is for detoxification or drugs.