Cleansing the Inner Self
Is colon hydrotherapy bounty or bunk?
By Leah Shafer
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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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