Are Cleansings Safe and Effective?

Before undergoing colon cleansing (also called colonic hydrotherapy and colonics), you should take into account not only the benefits of the procedure but also its risks.

Colonics have made a comeback in popularity in recent years, despite lingering doubts about their overall safety. This overview will help you weigh the pros and cons of this common form of colon cleansing.

Verywell / Lisa Fasol


What Is Colon Cleansing Hydrotherapy?

Also known as a high colonic or colonic irrigation, colonic hydrotherapy cleans out the colon. This is claimed to have various health benefits.

During the procedure:

  • A tube is inserted into the rectum.
  • Water (sometimes mixed with additives such as vitamins, probiotics, enzymes, or herbs) is pumped into the colon.
  • The therapist may massage your abdomen during a waiting period to move the fluid around.

After the colonic, fecal matter (poop) and the liquid used during the procedure is flushed out of your body. You will be taken to a toilet to complete this process. Proponents say the procedure can help rid your intestines of parasites, microbes, and toxins, but there is no scientific evidence proving this.

The entire session generally takes around 45 minutes from start to finish.

Side Effects and Risks of Colon Hydrotherapy

There isn’t much scientific evidence to support colon cleansing. There may also be side effects, and some can be serious, including electrolyte imbalance, infection, and perforation of the colon. This is especially true if the procedure is done by someone who is not a licensed healthcare provider.

Discomfort

For some people, colonic irrigation may lead to:

  • Mild abdominal cramping
  • Bloating or feelings of fullness
  • Soreness in the anal area

Disruption in Proper Colon Function

Colon cleansing may disrupt the natural balance in your colon and cause harmful side effects, such as dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, infection, and gut dysbiosis (an imbalance of microbes in the intestines).

Electrolyte Imbalance

One of the functions of the colon is to transfer electrolytes—minerals that play a vital role in the body—into the body. Colon cleansing could potentially flush electrolytes out of the body, causing complications from an electrolyte imbalance in the blood.

Perforation of the Colon

When the colonic tube is inserted through the anus, it is possible that the tube could cause a tear or perforation (or rupture) in the wall of the colon.

Introduction of Foreign Material

Introducing substances not normally found in the colon also poses risks. This includes non-sterile instruments, water, or ingredients that may contain harmful organisms, such as bacteria or amoebas that cause infection. Because the tissues of the colon and rectum are so delicate, even low concentrations of these microorganisms can be harmful.

Another risk is that colonics are often performed by practitioners who are not licensed by a scientifically based organization. You can have more confidence that those certified and licensed by organizations such as the International Association of Colon Hydrotherapy will ensure sterile practices than those who are not.

Eliminates “Good” Bacteria

Cleansing the colon also removes “good” bacteria that live there. Stripping the colon of its natural flora might allow harmful bacteria to proliferate in the absence of good bacteria and establish infections.

People at High Risk for Complications

Harmful effects are more likely in people with a history of gastrointestinal disease (such as diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, or colitis), colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease.

The bigger question, of course, is whether the practice is beneficial. Most of the current body of evidence suggests that it is not worth the risks.

Claimed Benefits of Colon Hydrotherapy

Colon hydrotherapy is an internationally popular form of alternative healing. It should not be confused with enemas used to treat severe constipation or preparation for a colonoscopy.

One of the foundational beliefs driving the practice is “autointoxication,” the state by which prolonged exposure to the substances in fecal matter is believed to compromise your digestive and immune health. By clearing these substances from the body, colonics are purported to positively influence intestinal flora and your overall health.

Proponents of colonic hydrotherapy strongly believe that the procedure can maintain optimal colonic health and treat various physical ailments. This is partly due to the porosity of rectal and colon tissues, which can absorb therapeutic substances better than if they are taken by mouth.

Others claim washing fecal matter from the colon reduces toxic exposure to substances found in stool. Colonics are often promoted as an effective means of detoxification, normalizing bowel function, treating inflammatory bowel diseases, and promoting weight loss.

A 2010 review of studies in the International Journal of Clinical Practice concluded that none of the purported benefits of colonic hydrotherapy are supported by sound research and that therapeutic claims are largely misleading.

More recent studies evaluating the benefits of colonic hydrotherapy have not been conducted.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you decide to undergo colonic hydrotherapy and experience any of the following side effects.

Possible signs of serious health problems following colon hydrotherapy include:

  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal pain
  • Dizziness
  • Dehydration
  • Fever

If you are feeling severely ill and cannot contact your healthcare provider, it is recommended that you go to an emergency room.

Other Ways to Promote Colon Health

There are many natural ways to promote colon health. Your diet, for example, plays a big role in the health of your colon and your digestive health overall.

Eating a diet rich in fiber is an important way to prevent constipation and keep food and waste moving through your digestive system. Healthy fiber sources include:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Beans
  • Whole grains, such as oats, whole wheat, brown rice, and quinoa

Probiotics may also contribute to gut health. You can get probiotics by eating fermented foods (yogurt, kefir, kombucha, tempeh, and kimchi) or taking probiotic supplements.

Exercise is another good way to help maintain your digestive health. It helps prevent constipation, and studies have shown that it can help increase the diversity of gut microbes and reduce inflammation.

Make sure to stay hydrated, too. This is important for gut health and your health overall.

There are supplements and enemas on the market that are purported to promote colon health. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence to support the safety or effectiveness of these kinds of products. Always talk to your healthcare provider before taking supplements or trying natural healthcare remedies.

Summary

Colonic hydrotherapy is an alternative healing procedure that involves flushing the colon with water. Proponents believe it can help treat certain physical aliments like inflammatory bowel disease. 

Colonic hydrotherapy comes with risks, including possible perforation of the colon, electrolyte imbalance, and infection. Call a healthcare provider at once if you have symptoms like vomiting, abdominal pain, or fever after undergoing this procedure.

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