Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
June 22, 2024

Colon cleansing, colonic irrigation, or colonic hydrotherapy all refer to the practice of flushing the large intestine with a combination of water and dietary fibers, laxatives, or herbs. The practice aims to remove toxins from the colon and essentially cleanse the end of the intestinal tract.

Thus far, doctors have regarded the practice as futile, but recent evidence shows the colon cleansing is actually quite harmful. In a study published in the Journal of Family Practice, a research team from Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. revealed that colon cleansing strips the colon of the ability to properly conduct bowel movements, often causes nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and pain, and more seriously a loss of electrolytes, kidney and liver failure, blood infections, and even death.

The researchers are now shunning the practice, which dates back to the medical practices of Ancient Egyptian and medieval European civilizations. Intestinal waste was then regarded as poison to the body and was linked to humorism, or the theory that the body is composed of four basic substances: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. When these four substances are out of balance, a person is subject physical and mental sickness.

Doctors have been advocating for autointoxication, or rinsing the bowls from on the inside, until as recently as the 19th century. This gave rise to a large industry of cleansing kits that were offered in spas and sold for home use.  By the 20th century, autointoxication was found to provide no medical benefits. However, it became popular again in the last decade when dubious medical websites and questionable products began circulating on the Internet.  

The products sold on these cleansing websites are recommended by so-called professionals who lack a medical degree of any sort and whose products are not approved by the FDA. Yet by using compelling advertisements and personal success stories, the websites are able to sway people into buying their products. Go ahead and Google "colon cleansing kit" and you will find an array of products and kits designed solely for this purpose.  

From a purely medical standpoint, the products lack scientific accuracy. For example, the websites claim that an average person has approximately 10 pounds of fecal matter trapped in their intestine, which can be successfully dislodged using the cleansing kits. If this were true, the preparation for a colonoscopy, which clears out the digestive system, would cause a person to drop 10 pounds (this has never happened, by the way).

Another claim is that the cleansing products will clear out old fecal matter and toxins. However, it is not possible to wash out the intestine without also eradicating useful bacteria that aid in digestion. In addition, the websites never define what a toxin actually is.

Finally, material from the colon is not reabsorbed into the blood, so even if there were built up fecal material, it would have no chance of affecting one's health. But alas, autopsies have shown that fecal material does not build up inside the colon, proving that these products are useless.

In addition to being useless, these products can harm one's health by removing useful bacteria and by altering bowel movements. The extent that these products have become popularized is concerning, given their medical danger exposed by the Georgetown research team. 

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