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February 2, 2001
Cleansing the Inner Self
Is colon hydrotherapy bounty or bunk?
By Leah Shafer

Skipper Chong Warson


erhaps you remember the 1991 movie L.A. Story, about the quintessential Los Angeles lifestyle of weatherman Harris Telemacher, who gives sun spot reports for cell phone users and wind reports for men wearing toupees. In between talking to a freeway signpost and roller skating through an art museum, Harris (Steve Martin) and his frisky young lover SanDeE (Sarah Jessica Parker) get colonics to start a date off right.

Colonics, as the movie demonstrates, have earned a reputation as a California fad or a hobby for aging hippies. But it's not just the tanned and famous or New Age and kooky who get their colon cleansed.

A colonic, also called colon hydrotherapy, is the flushing of the lower intestine with water. The equation is simple: water in, fecal matter out. It's different from an enema in that it flushes the entire lower intestine; an enema usually reaches only the lower third.

For the many Americans who are literally "full of it," a visit to a colon therapist will bring relief. But proponents of colon hydrotherapy claim that it is much more than a quick fix for constipation, that it can also "detoxify" your body and keep you well. The claim that colon hydrotherapy can cure bodily ailments is based on the belief that the colon is a veritable toxic waste dump, and that if fecal matter stays there for any length of time, "poisons" will accumulate and seep into the bloodstream.

One website claims that the average person carries seven to 25 pounds of dried fecal matter in the colon and that the toxins from this accumulated waste are responsible for many body imbalances and health problems. They claim that colon hydrotherapy is necessary to detoxify the body and flush the bad stuff out.


Science tells us that the cells in our colon are regenerated every three days and that the inside of the colon is nice and pink -- there's no gunk clinging to the walls; there's no waste hanging around.


Maybe it's human intuition that leads people to suspect that our bowels might be full of toxins that can leach into our system. Most people don't want to let a bowel movement remain in the toilet for any length of time, let alone fester in their colon. It's not a pleasant thought.

But after careful research, scientists have found that in this case, intuition is just plain wrong. Poop may be unpleasant to think about, but it's not toxic to our body. There is no scientific connection between constipation and disease. No one has proved that feces in the colon can leach toxins into the bloodstream. Most of the "evidence" that leads people to a colon hydrotherapist is anecdotal. Stories based on personal experiences do have value, but they don't yield the kind of factual data that the medical community relies on to decide the therapeutic value of a process or treatment.

In short, colon hydrotherapy may be a great way to alleviate uncomfortable constipation, but claims that it does more than that simply don't have scientific backing.

The scoop on poop

To those unfamiliar with the process, colon hydrotherapy may sound like an odd procedure. Filtered, temperature-controlled water is introduced into the colon by way of a sterile rectal tube or speculum. During the "filling up" period, the hydrotherapist may massage the belly to stimulate the colon. With some machines, there's even a lighted viewing tube that allows the patient and therapist to watch the matter as it vacates the body.

Many people are fascinated by the process, and F. Susan Almirol is one of them. She explains, "I came as a client and had such a positive experience that I thought, 'Hey, I could do this.' "

Almirol is now a colon hydrotherapist in Napa, California. Before her experience, she felt terrible. "I was tired; I couldn't get my energy," she says. "I kept thinking, 'I'm toxic, I'm toxic.' My energy was not there. I went on a juice fast and I tried colon hydrotherapy, three sessions in the first week. Within three months, I was feeling better."

Almirol believes in the notion of autointoxication -- the poisoning of the body from retained wastes. And that notion it is an old one, dating back to the late nineteenth century, when constipation was blamed for everything from headaches and impotence to nervousness and insomnia.

But science tells us that the cells in our colon are regenerated every three days and that the inside of the colon is nice and pink -- there's no gunk clinging to the walls, there's no waste hanging around. Everybody's got a different schedule for bowel movements, but the stuff in your colon will work its way out in its own time.

A tough theory to eliminate

This notion of retained waste and self-poisoning as the root of all health evils is an outdated one, says James Whorton, Ph.D., professor of the history of medicine at the University of Washington.

"Throughout the history of medicine, there has been a basic fear that waste, in its decomposition and putrefaction, can travel to other parts of the body," says Whorton.

In the mid-1880s, doctors found that the bacteria in the colon broke down the protein in feces into compounds that were toxic when injected into animals, Whorton says. It was from this basic observation that they came to believe that the colon, the last stop on the digestion express, might reabsorb these compounds and that the entire system could become corrupted.

"If you talk to gastroenterologists, they say there isn't any evidence [that toxic material from the colon is reabsorbed into the body]," Whorton says. "I'm not certain who's right, but the mainstream scientific community thinks that there's no evidence."

A popular pastime

Proof or not, sales of herbal laxatives are skyrocketing, as is the number of colon hydrotherapists.

"We believe that colon hydrotherapy is a modality that has value in helping people with their general health," says Dick Hoenninger, executive director for the International Association of Colon Hydrotherapists (IACT). "Around the world, colon hydrotherapy is picking up great interest."

The IACT certifies colon hydrotherapists and requires a minimum of 100 hours of class work and 25 supervised hydrotherapy sessions for basic certification.

"There's absolutely no proof that colon hydrotherapy does anything," Hoenninger says. "There's no proof, but it's possible that the toxins can go through the lymphatic system and cause problems and perhaps disease. We think there's a rationale, and common sense says [colon hydrotherapy] could have value -- but there's no way to make medical claims."

Dangers to consider

There might be health benefits to colon hydrotherapy, but there are also potential dangers. In a 1990 study reported in the Journal of Naturopathic Medicine, volunteers who had a series of three colon hydrotherapy sessions in a week had significant decreases in two serum electrolytes, sodium and chloride, both of which are essential for normal body functioning.

Colon hydrotherapy also disrupts the natural balance of bacteria in the colon, and if used excessively, it could make it difficult to have a normal (i.e., unassisted) bowel movement.

There are also reports in medical literature of amoebic infections from the use of unfiltered water and injury or perforation to the colon from too much water or water pressure. At least 36 people developed amoebic infections because of a poorly designed machine at a Colorado clinic between 1978 and 1980. When colon hydrotherapists use disposable tubing and equipment registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the risk of injury or harm is low. Experiencing discomfort during the procedure, however, is common.

Proceed with caution

Perhaps colon hydrotherapy does serve some greater purpose, but it is still unproven as anything more than a remedy for constipation. And there are much more comfortable ways to relieve constipation at that.

If you're worried about toxicity from feces' excessive transit time in the colon, Whorton offers another approach: switching to a high-fiber diet, getting plenty of water and exercise, and promptly answering the call of nature. But this involves more self-discipline than many people would care to exercise on a daily basis.

The bottom line is this: Hype and excitement can only go so far if they're not backed by some sort of proof, no matter how enthusiastically a believer may promote a treatment. For anyone interested in colon hydrotherapy, a healthy dose of skepticism is warranted.

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