Colon Hydrotherapy: Health Miracle or Latest Health Scam?
Do centuries of colon hydrotherapy use translate into modern health legitimacy?
If you have issues with colonic cleansing, it can’t be because it’s a new fad.
Hippocrates did them. So did the ancient Egyptians – using reed-funnels faced upstream in the Nile. More recently, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, brother of the founder of the cereal company, was a huge advocate of routine colon cleansing. So why shouldn’t someone experiencing hair loss, perhaps while on a mission to clean up and get fit in other ways, consider the more modern methods of flushing the colon?
There is a range of opinion on the topic. Enemas and other variations of colon cleansing were very much in vogue in the earlier decades of the 20th century. But with the advent of modern medicine, accompanied by government approvals on pharmaceuticals and foods, they fell out of favor. An article criticizing the basis of the practice – that something called auto-intoxication was caused by feces and other matter never completed eliminated from the 5-6 feet of the human colon – was published in 1919 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which influenced mainstream medical professionals into discouraging colonic flushing. Alternative medical practitioners continued with it nonetheless, more so today than 50 years ago, because only the colon cleansing instruments must meet FDA scrutiny, not the practice or people performing them.
One could even argue that colonic therapy is intuitive, somewhat like cleaning out pipes in a house. What is wrong – or right – about it?
Believers in colon hydrotherapy are true believers
There is no shortage of modern day colonic enthusiasts. Multiple certification boards grant licenses to therapists, many of who are already doctors of chiropractic or licensed massage therapists. In a city-by-city yellow pages search for the term “colonics,” the west coast seems to be the most popular region: 391 businesses were listed for Los Angeles, 138 for San Francisco, but fewer per capita in New York (also 138), Chicago (85), Houston (74), Washington (54) and Miami (34).
A search of blogs containing the words “colon cleansing” turns up 132,129 entries. People clearly are talking about them.
Claims made for colon cleansing vary. These range from elimination or mitigation of constipation, diarrhea, gas, irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, colitis, parasites, skin conditions such as psoriasis, shingles, eczema, weight loss, headache, migraines, joint pain, gout, immunity suppression, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, chronic fatigue, Epstein-Barre syndrome, candida, infections, colds and influenza. Some practitioners insist a colon cleanse is necessary for preventing colon cancer.
Some colon cleansing involves herbs and other ingredients besides water; traditional drugstore enemas contained chemicals. There is concern from other sectors of the health community that colon cleansing destroys important natural bacteria in the colon. But there are thousands of strains of this natural fauna, only a few dozen of which are understood, so an argument for or against colon cleansing based on helpful or harmful bacteria cannot reach a definitive conclusion.
Some board certified physicians approve of and even engage in colonic cleansing therapy. Brian Kaplan, MD, who trained as a medical doctor (University of Witwatersrand, South Africa) and later at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, tells us that he believes strongly in a limited use of colonic cleansing in conjunction with juice fasting. His patients – and the doctor himself – will fast for up to ten days on a juice-only diet, which he says lacks the fiber necessary to pass waste adequately through to elimination.
His evidence for advocating colonics? “Seeing makes you believe,” he says, describing “colon walls with black striations” cleaned out in the process. There are no studies backing up the health benefits of this, but his website points out that 46 percent of commonly used medical treatments have unknown effectiveness. Only 13 percent of medical procedures have a documented health benefit, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.
Dr. Kaplan is quick to qualify that a colon cleanse should only be done approximately every two years, and only in combination with a juice fast. He strongly advocates physical activity and a proper, plant-based diet – and resolutely discourages colonics for weight loss or any purpose other than related to a juice fast.
Colonics: Not without consequences
The medical mainstream maintains the same stance it took against colonic cleansing therapies 90 years ago. Shari Portnoy, MPH RD, a licensed member of the American Dietetic Association, says, “The body is a made to cleanse itself. If that didn't occur daily, we would all be dead. Basic biology 101 tells you that.” The only acceptable use is in conjunction with a colonoscopy, she adds.
Portnoy also references the official position of the American Cancer Society: “Available scientific evidence does not support claims that colon therapy is effective in treating cancer or any other disease. Colon therapy can be dangerous and can cause infection or death.” Pornoy further points out a warning published in the FDA Consumer, which cites deaths due to dehydration incurred with colonic therapies. Eating disorders are also associated with the procedure, as are electrolyte depletion, bacterial infection and diarrhea.
Writing on the MayoClinic.com, gastroenterologist Michael Picco, MD echoes Portnoy’s complaints. He first encourages us to stay regular (avoid constipation) with a diet rich in fiber, consumption of plenty of water, and to exercise. If one insists on having a colon cleansing, he or she should follow these precautions:
- Beware of broad or inflated claims that colon cleansing will cure an illness or improve your health.
- Make sure your colon-cleansing practitioner uses disposable, sterile equipment that hasn't been previously used.
- Get a list of specific herbal ingredients and amounts in any colon-cleansing products you use — some herbal supplements can cause health problems.
- Stay well hydrated by drinking lots of fluids while undergoing colon cleansing to prevent dehydration.
- Check with your conventional medical providers first, especially if you take any medications or have any health problems.
Given these factors, it’s clear that the choice is yours to cleanse or not to cleanse. Certainly, it’s not a decision to be made casually.
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