Colon Cleansing Benefits and Risks

Colon cleansing involves flushing out waste from your colon (the large intestine) using fluids. Also called colonic hydrotherapy or colonic irrigation, colon cleansing is sometimes necessary for medical reasons such as preparing you for a diagnostic exam or other procedures. However, it’s also often touted as a way to gain certain health benefits, but these personal uses lack scientific backing.

This article explains the benefits and risks of medically necessary and personal colon cleansings. It also compares two common methods of colon cleansing: colonics and enemas.

Uses and Benefits

There are generally two reasons why people use colon cleanses:

  • Medical benefits that are backed by scientific research
  • Popular uses that are not necessarily supported by science

Medical Uses and Benefits

Medical uses of colon cleansing, and especially an enema, include:

  • Treating constipation or an impacted bowel: Colon cleansing is often an effective treatment for constipation/impacted bowel that hasn’t responded to other treatments.
  • Delivering certain medications to the lower intestine: Colon cleansing gets the drug right where it’s needed and is used for conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis, and proctitis.
  • Emptying the contents of your colon: Colon cleansing is useful before surgery or diagnostic and screening tests including X-ray, colonoscopy, or sigmoidoscopy.

When you use colon cleansing for these purposes, follow the instructions carefully. Overuse of enemas can interfere with the proper function of your colon and actually make constipation worse.

Popular Uses

In popular use, colon cleansing is purported to have all kinds of benefits, including some related to intestinal health and others having nothing to do with it. So far, none of these claims are backed by scientific evidence and they’re refuted by some research. Proponents of colon cleansing say it is beneficial for:

  • Clearing waste and “toxins” from the body
  • Improving digestion
  • Boosting your immune function
  • Aiding weight loss
  • Improving mood
  • Lowering colon cancer risk

Are Colon Cleanses Necessary?

Not only are claims regarding cleanses unproven, but healthcare providers say your body already does a good job of clearing out toxins and waste on its own. You also need to keep beneficial bacteria in your gastrointestinal system to aid in digestion.

After all, entire systems are dedicated to just that, and as long as they’re functioning properly, it’s best to leave the job to them.

Methods

Colonics and enemas are trusted ways for flushing the colon, but you may hear of other methods. Before trying any colon cleansing, discuss the treatment with your healthcare provider.

Colonics vs. Enemas

Enemas involve a one-time infusion of water into the colon. By contrast, colonics involve multiple infusions. What’s more, the main objective of an enema is to evacuate the lower colon, while colonics are meant to cleanse a larger portion of the bowel.

Perhaps the single most important distinction is that a colonic typically utilizes specialized equipment administered by a trained hydrotherapist, while an enema can be performed by medical personnel or at home with a do-it-yourself kit purchased over the counter.

Colonics

Colonic irrigation is intended for medically indicated colon cleansing (for example, before a radiological examination). It usually lasts 45 minutes to an hour. During the procedure, you lie face up and the hydrotherapist inserts a disposable speculum into your anus.

This speculum is connected to a long disposable plastic hose, which is in turn connected to the colon hydrotherapy unit. The unit sends warm water into your colon, and the pressure promotes a reflexive contraction of the colon muscles, called peristalsis. This forces waste out of the colon, back through the hose, and into a closed disposal system.

What comes out during a colon cleanse?

Water or fluid is used to flush the colon and stool (poop) will come out during a colon cleanse.

Verywell / Gary Ferster

Enema

Often performed in the bathroom, enemas typically involve lying on your back and inserting the enema kit’s nozzle several inches into the anus. This nozzle is connected to a tube that leads to a container holding the fluid for the infusion.

Releasing the tube’s clamp initiates the flow of fluid into the rectum and stimulates peristalsis. The next step in an enema is to retain the fluid for several minutes, then sit on the toilet to expel it.

Holding It In

Referred to as “retention enemas,” some treatments involve holding the liquid in the colon for extended periods of time. Several different types of retention enemas exist, including coffee enemas and those involving infusions of red raspberry leaf, probiotics, minerals, and other natural substances.

These methods are not recommended by health professionals. Always check with your healthcare provider before trying one.

Other Types of Cleanses

Colon cleanses come in many forms in addition to colonics and enemas, including:

  • Pills: Often containing fiber supplements and other natural laxatives, many pills on the market claim to help cleanse your colon.
  • Vitamin C flushes: This involves taking enough Vitamin C that your body can no longer absorb it and it causes severe diarrhea.
  • Salt water flushes: Sometimes referred to as the “Master Cleanse,” it involves drinking salt water, which has a laxative effect.

Keep in mind, however, that none of these colon cleansing methods are recommended by health authorities and you should always consult with your healthcare provider before doing them.

Risks

Colonics and enemas do carry some potential side effects, risks, and complications.

After a colonic session, you may experience:

  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • A feeling of fullness or bloating
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sores around the anus

Performing an enema at home can lead to:

  • Colon tissue damage or perforation (poking a whole in the intestine)
  • Bloating
  • Cramping
  • Irritation and inflammation of the anus
  • Worsened constipation

Risks of colon cleansing, using any method, include:

Contraindications

Colonics and enemas aren’t safe for everyone. You should avoid them if you have conditions including:

You should also avoid these procedures if you’re pregnant or have recently had colon surgery.

Summary

Despite the lack of medical evidence, you may hear the supposed benefits of a colon cleanse and think, “What can it hurt to try?” Remember that side effects, risks, and complications are all possibilities, and certain health conditions can make it especially dangerous for you.

Determining whether an enema or colonic is better depends on why you are considering either one. Enemas work on a smaller portion of the intestines (the lower colon) and are best for constipation. Colon cleanses are best for medical procedures that require the entire intestinal tract to be clean. Be sure to follow the directions carefully for an enema or medically approved cleanse.

If you have a health problem and have wondered if a colon cleanse could help, talk to your healthcare provider about treatment options that are proven safe and effective by medical science.

A Word From Verywell

There are a variety of methods and reasons to consider a colon cleanse. However, not all of these are medically indicated or appropriate. It’s important to discuss these reasons and options with your healthcare provider before taking any sort of colon-cleansing agent.

Jay N. Yepuri, MD, MS, FACG

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What does colon cleansing feel like?

    Most people report little or no discomfort with a colonic, but you may feel movement and fullness, your abdomen may become distended as the fluid is pumped in, and you might feel like you need to use the bathroom.

    During an enema, you may also feel fullness, but probably less than with a colonic because less liquid is used. You may feel a need to use the bathroom while you hold it in.

  • What do you eat while you are colon cleansing?

    If you’re cleansing your colon for a medical procedure, follow the directions given to you by the healthcare provider or medical facility. You may need to fast or eat a restricted diet, such as only clear liquids, before the procedure.

    If you’re trying to improve colon health by eating certain foods, you can do so by:

    • Increasing your fruits and vegetables
    • Eating whole grains rather than refined ones, and focusing on non-bread sources
    • Reducing protein
    • Adding flax
    • Drinking lots of water

  • Why does colon cleansing cause cramping?

    Cramping is a common side effect of colon cleansing because it can cause peristalsis, which is the involuntary constriction of the muscles in your intestine. The contractions cause a wave-like motion that pushes fecal matter through your digestive tract and out your anus.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Canadian Society of Intestinal Research: GI Society. Enemas.

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  5. American Cancer Society. Colorectal cancer screening tests.

  6. The Hospital for Sick Children. Enemas: How to give at home.

  7. Cedars Sinai. Ask a doc: Are colon cleanses healthy?

  8. Keck Medicine of USC. Is colon cleansing dangerous?

  9. Niv G, Grinberg T, Dickman R, Wasserberg N, Niv Y. Perforation and mortality after cleansing enema for acute constipation are not rare but are preventable. Int J Gen Med. 2013 Apr 26;6:323-8. doi: 10.2147/IJGM.S44417

  10. Lehigh Valley Health Network. 5 things to know about colonic cleanses.

  11. Association of Registered Colon Hydrotherapists. Colon hydrotherapy FAQ.

  12. National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Peristalsis.


By Cathy Wong

Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman’s World, and Natural Health.

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