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Are Colonics a Safe Way to Detox?

January 2, 2014

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At the beginning of every year, we all promise to make a healthy, fresh start. That usually entails stocking up on fruits and veggies and joining (or re-joining) a gym. 

But if you dare to take your “new year, new you” detox a step further, you might consider a colonic (also known as colon hydrotherapy and colonic irrigation) to literally clean out the old and make room for the new.

The history of colon cleansing

The practice of colon cleansing dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who used a hollow reed to induce the flow of river water into the rectum to remedy their stomach ailments, and continued with the Greeks and Romans.

These water treatments were at the height of popularity in 17th century France, known as “the age of the enema.”  Then in the early 20th century, colon cleansing was re-popularized by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg – the founder of the Kellogg’s cereal brand – who used enemas to treat his patients. He reported that in over 40,000 cases of gastrointestinal diseases, he had used surgery in only 20 cases.

Colonics are distinguished from enemas in two ways: they are not self-administered, but instead are administered by a trained professional, and they are administered using a device to control water flow. Whereas enemas tend to only stimulate the first part of the colon (the sigmoid colon), colonic irrigation is meant to cleanse the entire colon.

The benefits of colonics

Today, advocates still believe that all chronic illness begins in the colon (large intestine) and that bacteria from impacted fecal matter can poison the body. This is called autointoxication and symptoms include headaches, nausea, fatigue and depression.

They say removing this intestinal waste is the fastest way to detoxify, and colon cleansing is believed to reduce the risk of colon cancer, increase fertility, jumpstart weight loss, improve concentration and promote overall good health.

Gail Naas, President of the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy (I-ACT), explains, “Colon hydrotherapy is a safe, effective method of removing waste from the large intestine, without the use of drugs.”

The risks of colon cleansing

Yet a study published in The Journal of Family Practice warns that colonics have no proven benefits and many adverse affects.  In one case study, a woman sought emergency room treatment two days after going to a “cleansing center” for a colonic. During the colonic she developed cramps and was unable to continue the process, and less than an hour later, she developed nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

Scary examples like that one are exactly why most medical doctors think colon cleansing is unnecessary and potentially dangerous, since research supports the colon’s ability to detoxify itself.

“The colon is designed to do just what it does—remove solid waste from the body,” says Oprah’s go-to medical expert, Dr. David L. Katz.

Instead of investing in costly colonics and colon cleansing supplements, Dr. Katz suggests the best way to keep your colon healthy is to eat a wholesome diet full of insoluble fiber—found abundantly in whole grains, vegetables, beans and lentils. Also drink plenty of water to aid your colon with digestion.

What to expect when you get a colonic

But colonic enthusiasts including Hollywood A-list-ers like Jennifer Aniston and Madonna don’t pay much attention to the evidence mounted against their beloved detox ritual.   

During a colonic – which is like an extreme enema – you lie on a table while gallons of filtered and temperature-regulated water flow into the colon (with or without additional herbs or compounds) via a tube inserted in the rectum.  

While the water is in the colon, the colon therapist will massage your abdomen or ask you to do self-massage. This results in evacuation of fecal matter through natural peristalsis.  The process is repeated several times during a session, which usually lasts about an hour.

I’ve had several colonics, and the process actually sounds a lot worse than it feels. For me, the most uncomfortable part was abdominal cramping during the session and the extra time I spent in the bathroom after the session to make sure all of the excess water and waste…um…flushed before I headed home on the subway.

Although it’s not something I do regularly anymore—mainly because of the cost (sessions run about $100)—I felt lighter and more alert after getting a colonic and I would recommend trying it at least once.

How to do it safely

If you’re still game to get a colonic, find a practitioner certified by a recognized national organization like I-ACT, which requires that facilities use onetime sterile rectal modules for each client and FDA-regulated equipment that has been disinfected to protect clients from HIV and hepatitis A, B and C.

Although he or she will probably advise against it, you might also want to consult your doctor beforehand. Dr. Katz warns, “colon cleansing can deplete you of vital nutrients, and doing it regularly can lead to malnutrition, anemia, or heart failure.”

Will you get a colonic to jumpstart your New Year detox?