Coffee Enemas: Detox, Cancer Cure, or Quackery?

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

Some tout coffee enemas as an alternative or complementary treatment for liver ailments, colon cancer, or detoxifying the body. However, modern medical knowledge tells us there is no reason to use teas, enemas, or anything else to “detox” the body, clear the colon, or otherwise help the body excrete waste. And medical research shows coffee enemas have no therapeutic effect on cancer.

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Alternative, unorthodox, and sometimes dangerous, filling your colon with a liquid usually served hot with cream and sugar seems a little strange to most people. Still, some undergo regular or occasional coffee enemas because of the purported benefits of these “treatments.” Those who believe it will help cure their cancer may take coffee enemas as frequently as every four hours, hoping it will relieve symptoms.

Coffee Enemas and Gerson Therapy

In the first half of the 1900s, some scientists theorized that caffeine might have a positive effect on gastrointestinal issues and liver problems. One physician, Max Gerson, believed using coffee enemas could be effective at flushing toxins out of the body. He told patients the caffeine could travel through the gastrointestinal tract and reach the liver. This, he said, could help to clean out more toxins than a saline enema.

When paired with a special diet of supplements and juicing, frequent coffee enemas became known as Gerson Therapy. Gerson recommended this as an alternative to medical tuberculosis and cancer treatments.

The National Cancer Institute reviewed Gerson’s therapies in 1947 and again in 1959, and found no evidence any patient benefited from this treatment regimen. In fact, it can be dangerous, give patients false hope, and keep people from getting the effective treatment they desperately need.

The Biology Behind Coffee Enemas

While the known benefits of coffee enemas are nil and the possible dangers are plenty, there is some sound science behind at least one part of supporters’ arguments. The liver is, in fact, linked to the gastrointestinal tract through the portal venous system.

The liver, unlike most organs, receives blood that has been oxygenated, as well as deoxygenated blood. The portal venous system links the small intestine to the liver, filtering the blood before it returns to the heart.

This means that theoretically the gastrointestinal tract and the liver are inherently linked, and substances could move “upstream” from the small intestines to the liver. It does not, however, mean that your body requires help detoxifying or that a coffee enema will treat any major health concern.

The Dangers of Coffee Enema Procedures

Not only are coffee enemas not effective at treating any gastrointestinal, liver, or systemic health issues, they can actually exacerbate existing medical conditions and cause other serious side effects. Even those who believe in the healing effects of this type of enema often warn others of a “healing crisis” that could make them feel terrible early on during their therapy.

Some of the more dangerous complications of a coffee enema can include:

  • Infections and sepsis, including salmonella and brain abscess
  • Inflammation of the rectum and anus
  • Colitis
  • Heart failure
  • Rectal perforation

While these are rare, other side effects are more common and can lead to serious problems and even death. They include:

  • Rectal burning
  • Internal burning
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Low sodium
  • Dehydration
  • Pleural effusion
  • Pericardial effusion

These effects may be treatable with prompt medical attention but since coffee enemas are usually not administered in a hospital or medical clinic setting, patients may not get the quick care they need. Those who opt to undergo coffee enemas despite the risks should have their sodium and other electrolyte levels monitored and be carefully observed for signs of dehydration.

Coffee Enemas: More Quackery Than Cure

Alternative colon therapies remain popular, despite little evidence to back them up. These therapies often center on detoxification and enemas. As these “treatments” go, coffee enemas are particularly hazardous.

Those who encourage this type of therapy believe the coffee flushes the colon while the caffeine stimulates the liver and aids detoxification. Of course, there is no scientific support for the body needing help eliminating toxins above and beyond the job the liver, kidneys, bowels, skin, and other organs do on their own. In addition to having zero benefits, coffee enemas come with the risk of major adverse reactions and complications.

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