What Is It?
Colon therapy is the process of cleansing and flushing out the colon, or large intestine. Also called colonic irrigation or colonic hydrotherapy, the treatment is similar to an enema but more extensive. Whereas an enema (which you can do yourself) bathes only the lower portion of the colon, colonic irrigation (which must be done by a trained practitioner) attempts to clean the entire–roughly five-foot–length.
Those who espouse colon therapy say that the health of the colon can affect the health of the entire body. This theory holds little credence with the majority of conventional physicians, however. They believe there is no reason whatsoever to irrigate the colon, except in some cases of constipation and before certain surgical procedures, such as a colonoscopy. They also contend that the best way to care for the colon is to let its own natural physiological actions keep it in good working order.
Nevertheless, therapies to cleanse the colon have been around for thousands of years. The earliest recorded versions have been traced to physicians of ancient Egypt, who used devices similar to those employed for modern-day enemas. To improve one’s well-being in 17th-century France it was fashionable to “enjoy” as many as three or four enemas a day.
Irrigation of the entire colon only came into prominence during the late 19th century, when Russian microbiologist Ilya Ilich Mechnikov first described the concept of “autointoxication.” He argued that the body could actually poison itself as the toxins from fecal matter were absorbed through the lining of the large intestine and into the bloodstream.
In the United States, this theory was espoused by Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (founder of the breakfast cereal company), who frequently lectured about autointoxication at his huge natural medicine clinic in Battle Creek, Michigan. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands flocked to Kellogg’s “sanitarium” to enjoy the guru’s health and fitness regimes, which included not only colonic irrigation and dunks in electrified water pools, but also aerobic exercise and the adoption of a low-fat, vegetarian diet.
In an article enticingly entitled “Should the Colon Be Sacrificed or May It Be Reformed?” which appeared in the 1917 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, Kellogg reported his success in using colon therapy (along with diet and exercise) to prevent surgery in all but 20 of the 40,000 gastrointestinal patients he had treated at his “sanitarium.”
The article created a wave of enthusiasm among conventional physicians, and for the next three decades various devices for colon irrigation became a common sight in the offices of many M.D.s, as well as in hospitals and nursing homes. Among the ailments for which doctors typically recommended colon therapy were high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, and depression.
Colon therapy flourished until the 1940s, when scientific articles began to argue that there was little evidence to support the idea of autointoxication and to suggest laxatives as a far easier option. It didn’t take long for the irrigation devices to disappear from doctors’ offices, but the therapy was far from forgotten. It continued to be popular with chiropractors and naturopaths, who firmly believed in the benefits of what they now preferred to call “detoxification.”
Today some alternative practitioners continue to use colonic irrigation as part of a basic detoxification program, though many prefer to recommend herbal laxatives in supplement form. And there is still enough interest in colon therapy for several U.S. companies to manufacture irrigating devices, and for the number of colon therapists to increase annually.
In 1989, the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy was founded to provide training and certification for colon therapists worldwide. Today, thousands of people continue to seek out colon therapy for detoxification and health maintenance.
How Does It Work?
As part of the digestive tract, the colon aids in digestion and the elimination of waste products. When the colon is packed with accumulated, hardened feces due to a poor diet, constipation, or some other gastrointestinal problem, waste can build up. According to proponents of colon therapy, this buildup can result in stagnation and decay of the fecal material in the colon. This decay, in turn, produces a whole host of bacteria and other “toxins” that can be absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in myriad illnesses–from a simple cold to life-threatening coronary artery disease. Colon therapists suggest that the typical American diet, which is low in fiber and high in red meat and other fatty foods, is a major contributor to this problem.
Contemporary mainstream physicians typically take a different view, pointing out that food and waste products cannot “toxify” the body by remaining in the colon. In addition, they disapprove of colon therapy because they say it can interfere with the natural balance of helpful bacteria that keep the intestines functioning normally. Most conventional doctors do agree, however, that avoiding red meat and other fatty foods, and eating a healthy, high-fiber diet, is the best way to keep the colon healthy.
What You Can Expect
During colonic irrigation, you will lie on your side or back. The therapist will insert a soft, disposable plastic tube into your rectum, which will remain in place during the entire session. First, the therapist gently pumps a measured amount of body-temperature, filtered water into your colon; this may contain herbs, enzymes, or other “purifying” substances. Then, the therapist may gently massage your abdomen to help release the impacted fecal material from the intestinal walls. Finally, the pump is reversed, and the water is gently vacuumed back through the same tube and into a closed waste system. There is no mess or foul odor.
The process is repeated many times during the session, which lasts about an hour. Approximately 20 gallons of water will be used, but unlike an enema, the therapy does not require any “race to the toilet” afterward, since most of the water is removed by the end of the session.
Some people report feeling lighter and more energized after colonic irrigation. Others may experience nausea, headache, or flulike symptoms. These symptoms generally pass within a few hours. Many colon therapists recommend the oral intake of a restorative electrolyte solution following a colon therapy session.
The number of suggested treatments depends on your reason for seeking out colon therapy. For general health maintenance, once a year is usually enough. However, if you have a chronic condition (such as regular constipation, chronic fatigue, or persistent digestive complaints), you may need several treatments within a few weeks.
There are no scientific studies to support any therapeutic claims for colon therapy. On an individual basis, people do report that colon treatments relieve the distention and bloating associated with constipation and help restore regular bowel movements. Anecdotal evidence suggests that colon therapy may be useful for a number of ailments including indigestion, gas, headaches, joint problems, allergies, asthma, skin problems, and even toxicity from drugs, alcohol, and smoking.
As far as general colon health is concerned, some recent reports in the conventional medical literature seem to echo what John Harvey Kellogg preached a century ago–that a high-fat, meat-heavy diet isn’t good for the colon. These reports suggest that people who eat a lot of red meat have a higher incidence of colon cancer than the rest of the population. More research in this area still needs to be done, however.
How To Choose a Practitioner
Colon therapy should only be performed by a therapist certified by the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy (I-ACT) in San Antonio, Texas. You can consult this organization to find a certified therapist in your area. Only the state of Florida requires colon therapists to be registered.
Be sure to visit the facility in advance to make sure that it is clean and neat. All equipment should be registered with the FDA. Make sure disposable tubing is used, or reusable equipment is properly cleaned and sterilized.
If you have any questions about how colon therapy may affect your health, discuss them with your doctor first.
Colon therapy is not recommended if you have blood in your stool, severe hemorrhoids, Crohn’s disease, congestive heart failure, severe anemia, abdominal hernia, heart disease, high blood pressure, amoebic dysentery, gastrointestinal cancer, tumors of the large intestine or rectum, ulcerative colitis, diverticulitis, or recent colon surgery (less than three months).
If you are in the first or third trimester of pregnancy, colon therapy is not recommended because it may induce labor.
Make sure the clinic you choose is clean and that the therapist is reputable and well-trained. Infection can occur if equipment is not properly sterilized or disposable.
Colon therapy is not known to react with any drugs or medications.
Among the possible but remote complications of colon therapy are perforation of the intestinal wall, disturbance in the body’s fluid balance, and heart failure caused by excess water in the blood.