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Colon cleansing: Neither effective nor safe, researchers say

The idea that intestinal waste somehow “putrefies” and poisons the body has been around for thousands of years.

No wonder, then, that people have been devising colon-cleansing therapies — both oral products (herbs, powders and other supplements) and “irrigation systems” — for an equal length of time. In the United States, such therapies reached a frenzy of popularity in the early 20th century, but eventually fell out of favor after scientists pointed out that the many medical claims for the procedures were bogus.

Subsequent science has even more thoroughly debunked the idea that putrefied food (a favorite image used by colon-cleansing advocates) causes health-harming impurities to collect in our intestines. It turns out that natural bacteria in the intestines are highly effective at detoxifying food waste.

Unfortunately, however, colon cleansing has been making a comeback in recent years, thanks to celebrity endorsements, TV infomercials and ubiquitous online ads.

And that has some doctors worried. For, as an article published in the August issue of the Journal of Family Practice notes, colon-cleansing therapies can send people to the emergency room.

The article, written by three Georgetown University doctors, opens with the case studies of two individuals (a 31-year-old woman and a 49-year-old man) who were admitted to Georgetown U’s hospital with medical complications from colon cleansings. One had gone to a “cleansing center” for an irrigation procedure; the other had used a colon cleanser at home.

The article then goes on to summarize what the past 10 years of medical literature says about the safety and effectiveness of colon cleansing.

First, say the three doctors, there are “no scientifically robust studies” that support the long, long list of health claims made for colon cleansing by its advocates. (Name almost any physical complaint or illness, such as fatigue, weight gain, headaches, arthritis, allergies or cancer, and colon-cleansing advocates will claim the procedure is either curative or preventive.)

“Despite colon cleansing’s long history and current popularity, the literature does not support its purported benefits,” the article concludes.

The doctors’ review of the medical literature did find, however, that colon cleansing is associated with adverse side effects. Some are mild (cramping, nausea, vomiting). Others (such as bowel perforation and an imbalance in electrolytes that can lead to kidney failure) are more serious, even life-threatening.

Here are four key facts that the three Georgetown University would like you to know about colon cleansing:

1. Colon irrigation is not wise — particularly if you have a history of gastrointestinal disease (including diverticulitis, Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis) or a history of colon surgery, severe hemorrhoids, kidney disease, or heart disease. These conditions increase the risk of adverse effects.

2. Side effects of colon cleansing include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities, acute kidney insufficiency, pancreatitis, bowel perforation, heart failure, and infection.

3. The devices that practitioners use for the procedure are not approved for colon cleansing by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Inadequately disinfected or sterilized irrigation machines have been linked to bacterial contamination.

4. Colon-cleansing practitioners are not licensed by a scientifically based organization. Rather, practitioners have undergone a training process structured by an organization that is attempting to institute its own certification and licensing requirements.

Not convinced that this is a bogus treatment? For another warning, see the American Cancer Society website.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Allison Sandve on 08/09/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    Thank you, MinnPost, for helping debunk one this inaccurate, but very persistent, myth. There are too many people out there who subscribe to the myths of “toxins in the intestinal tract” and the powers of quackery disguised as cures. (I know people who believe in this stuff.)

    The internet does a lot of great things. It also spreads and perpetuates junk science and phony cures. Consequently, a lot of people are convinced that they, thanks to the “knowledge” gleaned from net-based purveyors of quackery, know more than those who spent at least seven or eight years after college training to become a licensed physician.

    Please keep up the good work!

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