By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
According to a new study released in the Journal of Family Practice colon cleaning may be harmful. Researchers from Georgetown University Medical School looked at 20 studies published in the last decade and found little evidence of benefit to colon cleansing. But they did find dozens of cases of problems: cramping, bloating, vomiting, electrolyte imbalance, renal failure, and even death.
“This is not a manifesto against complementary and alternative medicine, since I’m a big proponent,” said Georgetown family medicine physician and lead author Dr. Ranit Mishori. “But there is absolutely no evidence that it [colon cleansing] helps. Instead, we found that it can be harmful.”
Detoxifying the colon came from people’s fears of the copious amounts chemicals and pesticides found in food and the environment. With claims that a cloggy, toxin-filled colon can lead to a litany of ills including skin problems, sexual dysfunction, asthma, obesity, memory loss and even cancer, detox followers cleanse their colons religiously.
Herbal concoctions, some of which are mixed with coffee or laxatives, can be taken orally or in the form of a suppository. Although they promise rejuvenation and well being, herbal preparations, none of which are FDA regulated, can cause serious side effects like dehydration and liver toxicity.
Dick Hoenninger, executive director of the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy, a professional organization that certifies technicians in the procedure, says the group is aware of well-being claims made for colon cleansing, but notes that there isn't much science behind them. “We suggest to our therapists and anybody doing colon hydrotherapy that it should be done for medically indicated purposes and at the indication of a physician,” he said. Indeed, the only reasons for which the FDA approves colon hydrotherapy devices that use fluids to cleanse the colon, are medical needs such as to clean out the colon before a radiological exam, or colonoscopy, or for constipation.
“I totally understand where people are coming from in wanting to detoxify,” said Mishori, “You want to get all the gunk out. But there is no evidence that [the cleanses] are doing anything, and physiologically it doesn't make sense. The body has a system for detoxifying itself—it's called pee and poop. And for healthy people, that's all it takes.” Until there’s more scientific evidence, Mishori is telling patients to steer clear of colon cleansing. “I never used to know what to say when patients would ask…Now I know the answer, and it’s NO!”