I know. You’re thinking, “Do I really need to read about Dr. E’s colonic irrigation this morning, sitting here with my latte and bran muffin?”
Well, I haven’t written anything about colonics for quite awhile, but recently I learned the Illinois Division of Professional Regulation (DPR) wants to close the offices of the dozen or so colonic practitioners in our otherwise impeccable state. Since enemas, colon cleansing, and colon irrigation therapy (also called high colonics) have been on the alternative therapy menu for decades and the complications are virtually zero, one wonders about this burst of bureaucratic zeal.
The DPR, under the directive of the Illinois State Medical Society (ISMS), usually bangs the public safety drum when it wants to shut down a particular practice, as it did two decades ago when the ISMS and DPR tried to quash acupuncture in Illinois by threatening acupuncturists with felony arrests. Seventy years ago the target was chiropractors, 150 years ago homeopaths, and 300 years ago (in Salem, Massachusetts, not Illinois) witches. After years of expensive lobbying, Illinois now licenses acupuncturists instead of arresting them. However, it’s unlikely the handful of colon therapists practicing here have the political clout to endure this process.
So one morning I was chatting amiably with my colon therapist, trying to get my mind off whatever she was doing with her right hand. I was lying on my side, bare-bottomed but modest and warm beneath a bed sheet. A rubber hose snaked its way from an interesting piece of plumbing, traveling under the sheet and into me. I heard, rather than felt, water being gently pumped into my lower abdomen, then had my tummy rubbed a bit (Proustian flashback: me, age three, giggling wildly at this), and finally felt the water pressure reverse itself and get flushed into a separate unit that emptied into the city sewer system. One section of the exit hose was clear plastic so the therapist could examine my intestinal contents. She clucked her approval, “Good results here…very good.”
I wondered to myself, “Here’s a woman who enjoys her work, believes in what she’s doing, and likes helping people. From the look of her office, she has satisfied clientele. What’s the big deal from the DPR?”
History of colon irrigation
Although first recorded by the ancient Egyptians in 1500 BC, the practice of regular colon irrigation began just over 100 years ago and reached its peak in popularity during the 1920s, when colon irrigation devices in physician offices were as ubiquitous as EKG machines today. Yes, you folks at the DPR, colon hydrotherapy (as it was then called) was mainstream medicine, recommended for a variety of symptoms beyond the digestive tract, including fatigue, arthritis, and even schizophrenia.
The theory behind colon irrigation is what’s called autointoxication. Fecal material contains not only the final products of digestion and more than 100 trillion bacteria, it also holds a variety of chemicals created as the food you’ve eaten (sorry about this) rots inside you. Advocates of colon irrigation believe that unless regular and “easy” bowel moments keep these putrefactive (decaying) chemicals from entering your body, they can become toxic and cause all sorts of mischief. The real problem starts when a low-fiber, high-meat diet keeps stools glued to our intestinal walls for extended periods.
Conventional gastroenterologists dismiss all this as utter nonsense and say colon irrigation doesn’t even merit scientific discussion. The intestinal lining, they maintain, is an adequate barrier against the absorption of putrefactive toxins. I would counter this hubris by reminding them that the intestinal lining is an extension of our skin. Look right now at your lower lip—the place where external skin becomes internal skin (as it does at the other end of your digestive tract).
Gastroenterologists acknowledge that a variety of chemicals–some good, some bad–are absorbed through the skin. They also agree that the purpose of our small intestine is to absorb literally everything. There’s little reason to believe at the junction where the small intestine becomes the large–in this one section of internal skin–there’s a sign posted saying “nothing absorbed beyond this point.”
Any primary care doctor can tell you that chronically constipated people complain of headaches, sluggishness, low-grade nausea, bad breath, and fatigue (sounds toxic to me), and that they feel much better with regular bowel movements.
During the peak in colon therapy popularity, it was thought that virtually any chronic illness carried some component of this self-poisoning process, and that by detoxifying the colon (via irrigation, eating a high-fiber diet, or taking detoxifiers like bentonite clay) good health could be restored. One irrigation advocate from the 1920s was John H. Kellogg, MD, developer of the breakfast cereals. He had his own hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, and would even recommend removal of portions of the colon in “difficult cases.” I immediately regret using the phrase “would even” as if to shock you. I’ve had several patients suffering chronic constipation due to unusually long, tortuous large intestines enjoy complete cure after surgical shortening.
Plus, many patients report that they finally feel well after the ultimate colon cleanse—preparing for a colonoscopy.
A role for preventing colon cancer?
The autointoxication theory was “disproven” by conventional physicians during the 1940s and never looked at again. I deliberately place that word in quotation marks because the articles I’ve reviewed from nearly 70 years ago sound more like angry opinion than scientific studies.
Actually, some theories are never completely disproved, but rather temporarily abandoned for a few decades until someone comes up with evidence to the contrary.
One area in which colonic detoxification is intriguing involves colon cancer prevention. We know that this cancer is more prevalent among meat eaters, especially those whose diet contains lots of processed or charcoal-grilled meats. Conversely, colon cancer is very rare among vegetarians and vegans. Meat eaters are a constipated lot. Their small, compact stools can press against the intestinal lining for days before elimination. Perhaps the poisons of 19th century autointoxication are the colon carcinogens of the 21st century.
Briefly, back to history: With the end of autointoxication theory in the 1940s, colonic irrigation devices disappeared from MD offices and began appearing in those of chiropractors and naturopaths, and in the 1970s in free-standing colon irrigation centers.
Having a colonic by a trained therapist is quite safe, certainly a lot safer than the overdone colonoscopy (I do recommend them—I just believe they’re done a bit too frequently for safety).
How does it feel to have a colonic?
If you’re curious, I can report the whole procedure is quite benign and gentle. Certainly nothing like a ghastly hospital enema or a re-enactment of that childhood nightmare involving Mom approaching you, face in a frozen smile, in one hand a strange-looking hot water bottle and in the other a hose, pointed at your tush.
The entire colonic apparatus is self-contained. Filtered water is pumped gently into your intestine through one part of the tube and then the pump is reversed, the soiled water evacuating separately into a drainage tank. You remain comfortably on your side or back as the process is repeated several times to remove the accumulated, stagnated waste lining your colon and detoxify your intestines.
Minimal water is left behind—you’ll have no mad dash to the nearest toilet or leakage onto your DKNY beige suit.
After my own colonic, throughout the rest of the day I felt just generally healthier, that intuitive sense you have when you know you’ve done something right for your body. It’s similar to the feeling you get after a good workout, a massage, or a sauna, but internally.
So it’s time to rethink the whole concept of colon irrigation and autointoxication. What’s really unscientific? State “investigators” acting at the behest of the medical establishment to padlock the doors of the colon therapists of Illinois.
Okay, back to your muffin and latte.
David Edelberg, MD