Meadville Tribune

Our Health

May 5, 2014

Researchers: colon cleansing health benefits a myth

Researchers have found that while colon cleansing has been around since ancient times, the health benefits are basically a myth.

An April 22 article on the Live Science website indicated that flushing the colon was one of the worst things a person could do for their health. Research from the past decade supports that very notion. In a published report in The Journal of Family Practice, doctors from Georgetown University School of Medicine urged people to stop cleansing their colon as a way to improve their health. It is actually causing far more harm than good and could result in serious internal injuries.

Colon cleaning was originally thought to eliminate waste that poisoned the body. Prior to the 1900s, it was routinely practiced as a way to allegedly remove these toxins and clean the body. It was a procedure — often repeated several times — where the patient’s colon is filled with water, which sometimes included a mix of herbs or other compounds. It is important to note that this is not like an enema, which uses a small amount of water to assist with acute bowel obstructions. Colon cleansing uses a significantly larger amount of water, sometimes up to 60 liters.

In 1919, the American Medical Association condemned the practice and eventually colon cleansing became a thing of the past. However, in recent years with the emergence of alternative medicines in the U.S., colon cleansing has made a comeback — accompanied by a flurry of doctor and emergency room visits by very sick people.

Currently marketed as supplements, some colon cleansing systems are endorsed by various celebrities and promise increased energy, weight loss and a plethora of other health benefits. Home kits are very common, as is the newest profession of hydrotherapist, who perform colon irrigation services today.

Although it has become popular once again, colon cleansing is not a supported practice by many physicians, and scientific studies have proven its benefits are faulty. Cleansing the colon certainly does remove the toxins from the body, but it also removes good bacteria that help the body function properly. By removing such bacteria, people have succumbed to severe illnesses, including renal failure. Reports in the scientific literature found that colon cleansing could result in these other severe health concerns: electrolyte imbalance, pelvic abscesses, rectal perforations and colitis. Of course, milder symptoms are also possible such as cramping, abdominal pain, vomiting and soreness and renal failure.

Even the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has opposed the practice, issuing several warming letters in regards to meeting certain requirements — especially labeling practices. Colon cleansing products are considered dietary supplements and do not need approval for sale by the FDA, but the labeling must be clear.

The Journal of Family Practices warns of this practice with four key notations:

1. Colon cleansing is not necessary. This is particularly true if the individual suffers from diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. Many other issues such as hemorrhoids, kidney disease or heart disease can also exacerbate the side effects of a colon cleanse.

2. Side effects can be deadly. As noted earlier, they include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, kidney insufficiency, pancreatitis, bowel perforation, heart failure and renal failure.

3. Devices for colon cleansing are not approved by the FDA. This means that they may be inadequately sterilized and contain harmful bacteria.

4. Colon cleansing practitioners do not need to be licensed to practice. They may have gone through training but not by a scientifically based organization.

If you’re considering a colon cleanse, do you your homework and talk with your doctor. It may not be all that it’s cracked up to be.

Nina Bell, Ph.D., MPH, is a public health professor with Ashford University and works in health promotions for the Meadville Family YMCA. She is a co-author of the book “Community and Public Health,” published by Bridgepoint Education Inc. You can email her at

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