Colon Cleansing: Don't Be Misled By the Claims
"Colon cleansers effectively eliminate large quantities of toxic waste, affecting the condition and vitality of the entire body."
"Colonics...increase the release of old, encrusted colon waste, encourage discharge of toxins and parasites, freshen the gastrointestinal tract and make the whole cleansing process easier and more thorough."
"Cleansing is the first step in a good weight control program."
So read ads and promotional materials for so-called internal cleansers—enemas, laxatives, strong herbal teas, powders, and pills meant to clean out the large intestine, also known as the colon or bowel. You can find these products online, at health food stores, and even in some supermarkets and pharmacies.
The Sales Pitch
The sellers of all these colon scrubbers say periodic cleansing is crucial for the body's well-being. The general pitch goes as follows. We live in an age in which toxins easily accumulate in the body—the air we breathe is polluted and the food we eat is laden with pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Our bodies, unequipped to deal with all these poisons, fall behind in eliminating them, and we end up sick.
Furthermore, as one company puts it, certain foods "tend to stick and putrefy in the folds and pockets of the intestines. When your colon is not eliminating wastes properly, toxins are reabsorbed into the blood, poisoning the entire system and weakening your other eliminative organs." More succinctly stated, "the colon walls are encrusted with stagnant waste."
Do not always believe what you read. Many of the claims are a mix of truths and half-truths. You do not need to spend lots of money to help nature do its job. The body is perfectly capable of eliminating toxins in a timely, efficient manner.
Consider that the cells of your gastrointestinal tract turn over every three days—fast enough so that there is no crust or putrefying food in your colon. Also, bacteria in the colon naturally metabolize and thereby detoxify food wastes. And mucous membranes lining the intestinal wall block unwanted substances from entering the body's other tissues. The liver works to neutralize toxins, as well.
Normal Bowel Movements Are Variable
Some sellers of intestinal cleansers turn you, the consumer, into a diagnostician, telling you signs to look for to determine that your body is not working properly. One of these signs is having fewer than 2-3 bowel movements a day. But that has nothing to do with whether you require a laxative or other medicine. The number of bowel movements considered healthy over a given period of time differs from person to person. It can be anywhere from a few times a day to a few times a week. Only when your typical pattern changes might something be wrong.
Not Useful for Weight Loss
Some companies imply that increasing the number of bowel movements will prevent absorption of enough calories to allow you to shed excess pounds. But that, too, is not true. Just about all calories are absorbed well before food makes its way to the colon, rendering any weight-loss claims for cleansers bogus.
Do Not be Tricked by Vague-Sounding Symptoms
Most symptoms of an inefficient colon listed by companies selling internal cleansers are vague enough and broad enough to cover virtually every single human being, at least at one time or another.
One company, for instance, says the signals that toxins are building up in your system are that "you may feel sluggish or bloated or you may experience brain fog. You may wake up feeling tired and blue." Another company lists these common symptoms: headaches, depression, poor memory, low energy, and weight gain.
The claims of a cleanser's effectiveness are also vague. "With your body free of harmful toxins, you will feel younger, better, healthier, and happier!" one company says. Another promises that "when the colon is kept clean, disease in the body is very rare." Still other companies make claims of improved mental alertness and increased energy.
Potentially Harmful Side Effects
These companies tell you not to worry if taking the cleanser makes you feel sick because that is a sign that the product is working. According to one pamphlet, gas and other gastrointestinal discomfort along with flu-like symptoms are "temporary, positive signs that you body is working to rid itself of the toxin build-up."
Literature for another product says, "Do not be alarmed if you pass strings of mucus for a couple of weeks as this is a good sign that you are detoxifying." Promotional material for yet another product tells patrons to "just relax and appreciate your body's cleansing process if you develop any of the following: headaches, bad breath or body odor, dizziness, irritability, skin eruptions, or low energy."
But do not relax. Dizziness could be a sign that you are becoming dehydrated. And strings of mucus—the intestine's response to stimulation—may mean that the body views the cleanser as a toxin and is trying to get rid of it.
The US Food and Drug Administration forbids any sellers or practicioners to make claims they cannot stand behind. The agency has issued warning letters to practitioners in many states to keep the public safe from colon cleansing side effects, which can be dangerous. At this time, the FDA has not approved any machine or system for routine use. In fact, the FDA only approves colon cleansing prior to some medical procedures.
Traditional Advice Is Still the Best
Keep in mind that there is no evidence to support that colon cleansing really works. Here is a better strategy than going through extraordinary means to flush your colon:
Ultimately, it pays to be an informed consumer. It is important to know the risks as well as the benefits.
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National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
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Last reviewed January 2013 by Brian Randall, MD