Colonics: A Dangerous Trend

Medically reviewed by: Gary H. Hoffman, MD

Colonics may be hip, but they aren’t helpful. In fact, this spa treatment – also known as a colonic irrigation or colon hydrotherapy – can even lead to serious side effects.

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People who frequent colonic clinics and tout the benefits claim they remove the buildup of digested food and other waste inside your lower gastrointestinal tract. The idea that there is some type of dangerous sludge filling the colon dates to at least the Ancient Egyptians, who used the earliest enemas to flood their colons in an attempt to release these toxins.

Of course, today we have modern technology that allows us to use a scope and see exactly what is going on in your colon. Doctors perform more than 10 million colonoscopies nationwide each year, and none of them has ever reported finding a toxic build up that required irrigation. Young King Tutankhamun had no way of knowing what was going on inside his colon. Today, however, there is undeniable proof that a healthy digestive system does a great job of eliminating the waste from the body without any outside help.

What is a Colon Irrigation?

Colonics are also known as irrigations or hydrotherapy because they involve flushing your lower digestive tract with water or another liquid. A small tube is inserted into the rectum, and used to fill your colon with a combination of water and psyllium husks. You release it in the same way you have a bowel movement. This process continues over and over, and could last for 30-45 minutes or more.  What comes out looks horrible to the untrained eye.  However, it is nothing more than the water and the now congealed psyllium.  It borders on a magical slight-of-hand trick.

Colonic clinics generally have the atmosphere of either a doctor’s office or a spa. But it is important to remember that in the vast majority of cases the practitioners are not medical professionals. In fact, there is no set standard of training or oversight required to perform a colonic irrigation.

Are Colonics Actually Dangerous?

Thankfully, dangerous complications after a colonic are rare.Most people will not experience serious side effects. But they will not receive any health benefits, either. If you are still thinking it might be worth a try, there are some things you need to consider.

What Are the Risks?

Many report cramping and a bloated feeling during and after a colon irrigation, in addition to the general unpleasant experience. More serious complications and side effects have been reported, though. This includes:

  • Abdomen and pelvic abscesses
  • Fatal aeroportia with systemic air embolism
  • Rectal perforation
  • Water intoxication
  • Colitis
  • Septicemia
  • Fournier’s gangrene
  • Amebiasis

Am I At an Increased Risk?

People who have a history of diverticulitis, inflammatory bowel disease, hemorrhoids, or other gastrointestinal issues are at an increased risk of serious complications. Those who have a history of colon or rectal surgery are at a particularly high risk of complications and even death.

Is the Equipment Safe?

Because colonics are not a medical procedure performed by trained medical practitioners, there is no guarantee they adhere to the same high standards medical clinics do. Issues with sterilizing the equipment and disinfecting surfaces could spread bacteria, leading to illness and even death. In some cases, barbers are held to a much higher standard of equipment sterilization.

Are They Trained and Certified?

The International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy and the National Board for Colon HydroTherapy provide the only oversight for those who perform colon irrigations. These organizations provide the training and determine their own licensing requirements. To receive a certification and perform these hydrotherapy on their own, a practitioner must graduate high school, attend at least three semesters of college or other postsecondary education, complete their training program, and hold a current CPR certification.

What Can You Do to Keep Your Colon Clean?

There is no reason to spend a lot of money or time worrying about what does – or does not – come out when you have a bowel movement. The human body keeps everything moving along smoothly, as long as you eat a healthy diet. Eating plenty of fiber and drinking enough water helps your digestive system work properly, and may lower your risk of colon cancer.

Unless you have other health concerns, you can aim for 25 grams to 30 grams of fiber every day. Whole grains offer plenty of insoluble fiber while fruits and vegetables offer soluble fiber. Drink alcohol only in moderation, but drink other fluids to ensure you stay well-hydrated.

If you still worry about what is going on in your colon, bring your concerns up to your doctor during your next visit. If you have a family history of colon cancer or are over 50 years of age, your doctor may recommend a colonoscopy or other screening.

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