I regularly have patients ask me if they should periodically be doing a colon cleanse to benefit their overall digestive health. Since various “cleanses” are getting more popular, I thought it would be helpful to share the opinion of a gastroenterologist on this topic. My hope with this article is to provide some useful information, so that those considering a colon cleanse can make a more educated decision as to whether this is an actual health benefit or more of a fad.
What is the Function of the Colon?
To maintain good digestive health, your body must effectively eliminate food and bodily waste! What we eat and drink travels from our stomach into our small intestine where nutrients are absorbed. The remaining amounts of food and liquid are then moved into the colon (large intestine) where liquid & minerals are absorbed, which creates a stool. The stools are then eliminated from the body as waste.
WebMD describes the colon as being approximately 5-6 feet long and is divided into four parts. The colon contains nearly 60 varieties of microflora or bacteria to aid digestion, promote vital nutrient production, to maintain pH (acid-base) balance and to prevent proliferation of harmful bacteria.
Colon Cleansing Options
There are different types of colon cleanses available to consumers, so I wanted to briefly describe the 5 most common cleanses.
- Colon Hydrotherapy (colonic irrigation) is a process that injects warm purified water into the colon to soften the waist and remove fecal matter.
- Herbal supplements are available in the form of pills or capsules, which are sometimes combined into colon cleansing kits.
- Oxygen-based Cleansers “melt” away the stool in the colon by an oxidation reduction reaction.
- Laxatives facilitate fecal evacuation from the colon and are generally taken to relieve constipation. There are 4 different types of laxatives and each works in different ways.
- Enemas are used to remove the waste material only from the lower part of the colon. Generally, enemas are used as a last resort for people with constipation and should be used with caution due to possible side effects.
Do We Need to Cleanse our Colon?
It is necessary to clean out your colon prior to some medical procedures like colonoscopy. However, some people want to cleanse their colon in the belief that it will improve their health by ridding their colon of excess toxins and waist. Some of the perceived benefits of cleansing your colon that are communicated to consumers are:
- Restores digestive health
- Flush harmful toxins from your body
- Helps to promote clearer skin
- Improvement in energy levels
- Weight loss
- Removal of build-up of old waste and stool
So do we need to periodically cleanse our colon? The answer is no. Our body does a good job of moving waste material out of our colon and rarely ever does it build up in our bodies. Over years of living and eating our colon builds up many types of beneficial microbes that we need to stay healthy and fight off other infections. A colon cleanse disrupts this normal flora. There are no toxins that build up during normal digestion and colon cleanse has never scientifically been linked to any significant weight loss. I generally do not recommend routine colon cleanse. However, if this is something you want to try please consult your physician to make sure it is safe for you.
Are Colon Cleanses Safe?
Generally, if taken as directed, they are safe. However, there are many risks you need to consider and very little benefits. One is the disruption of your normal healthy bacterial flora that can predispose you to all kinds of colon infections. I have had a patient develop Clostridium difficile infection after a bowel cleanse and required hospitalization. There is risk of electrolyte loss and dehydration most dangerous in the elderly or people with certain medical conditions and on certain medications. This can lead to liver toxicity and kidney failure. Then there is always the real possibility of colonic perforation during the cleanse. My feeling is your body is designed to regulate what moves out of the colon and what stays and generally it does a great job at this. If constipation or bloating are your main reasons for the cleanse let’s treat the constipation or bloating and leave the colon to do its job. I do not recommend colon cleanse therapy.