Every major city has its well-advertised and well-anticipated spa week. This wonderful week of facials, massages, and rest and relaxation all at discounted prices is enough to get even the most cynical and uptight of my fellow New Yorkers giddy with excitement. With the advent of the juice cleanse craze on the scene, another cleanse that is again gaining attention is colon hydrotherapy, better known as the “colon cleanse, or “colonics,” that many of my patients, friends, and family members have either had done or are itching to try. The colon cleanse business is booming, with its advertised ability to “flush out” the system of toxins that are claimed to do mass destruction to your body. But what’s the benefit, if any, of these cleanses? And most importantly, are they harmful?
Beyoncé does colonics, and she’s bona fide fabulous. Leonardo DiCaprio has even been reported to have give colonics a go. The laundry list of “A-listers” who swear by colon hydrotherapy is no secret. But, as the Harvard School of Public Health professor Dr. Ashish Jha promotes, “An ounce of data is worth a thousand pounds of opinion.” These far from inexpensive cleanses have no clinical evidence to support the many claims they make about improving health. What is worse is that colon cleansing is wrought with potential harmful consequences.
Few will argue that the promoted benefits are attractive: from colon cancer prevention to maintaining bowel regularity, to helping regulate sleep and concentration, and even boost fertility! The list seems endless, and maybe even too good to be true. Sadly, it is. These proposed advantages are anecdotal at best. What is worse is that the dangerous consequences of colon cleanses are not so easy to find on the websites that fiercely promote them, if even mentioned at all. What those who undergo colon hydrotherapy, or are contemplating it as a holistic medicinal approach to wellness, need to be aware of are the very real risks to the procedure. Perforation (a tear in the colon), infection, bleeding, dehydration, colitis (inflammation of the colon wall), and electrolyte imbalances are just the beginning. The risks are real and known, yet the advantages are certainly not by way of clinical trials.
And despite informative articles like the one published in the Journal of Family Practice in 2011, people still look to colon cleanses as the quick fix to mind and body wellness. To accept such risks for procedures that have not shown to be of any health benefit is undoubtedly a dicey endeavor, to say the least. Importantly, those performing colonics are not licensed physicians, may miss important information about their patrons medical histories and medications that could put them at increased risk for complications, and work in institutions that are not uniformly held up to the same standards of sterilization of instruments required of those undergoing medical procedures.
And finally, what are we actually “detoxifying” anyway? Thankfully, our bodies are highly-equipped machines able to rid of our own waste, via the liver, colon, and kidneys; they don’t need the help of a cleanse. Stool itself even has its own advantages, as seen with its use in fecal transplant for C. difficile infection and with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). Bacteria in the stool are beneficial to us, and produce essential vitamins that our body needs. So why are we trying so hard to get rid of them?
To advertise colonics as a means of body detoxification is false advertising, and may leave you far from the attainment of the mind and body wellness that motivated you to start think about these cleanses in the first place. One guarantee is that it will leave you with less money in your pocket, and with little long-term benefit to show for it. Until the next cleanse du jour comes along, we should be highly skeptical about the trendy cleanses that are currently available, and the real risks that come along with them. As strongly as we wish to find that quick fix to making our bodies as healthy as can be, there’s just no magic bullet.
Sophie M. Balzora is a gastroenterologist and can be reached on Twitter @SophieBalzoraMD.