Detoxes and the Body: Why Colonics Are Not the Answer to Gut Health
When you readily refer to anything that comes out of your body as ‘waste’, it’s not farfetched to associate it with something bad, dirty, or even harmful to your body. After all, why would your body excrete it if it was good for you?
And for many who struggle with regularity, digestive discomfort, and other intestinal health concerns, looking for ways to rid your body of toxic waste seems like a natural interest.
But it’s important to remember a few things when it comes to colonics - or more commonly known as ‘colon cleanses.’
Our body is powerful, and in most cases, the natural way for it to function is the best way.
What Are Colonics, and How Do They Work?
A colonic, also known as colonic irrigation or colon hydrotherapy, is typically a procedure done by a specialized health practitioner who facilitates the movement of water into your body through a tube inserted into your rectum. Although sometimes necessary in preparation for specific medical procedures, very little research has shown health benefits associated with this practice.
The general understanding and use of recreational colonics is often associated with the gut microbiome and digestive function. The colon is home to the gut microbiome, including a variety of microorganisms that can aid and support human health. Comprised of bacteria, fungi, viruses, archaea, and others, these microorganisms help facilitate the production of beneficial compounds and the digestion of various foods in our body.1
Research has shown that when balanced, the gut microbiome is a powerful aid in health, supporting the immune system, cognitive function, digestion, hormone production, and various other systems.2 However, when imbalanced, issues can arise.
This can also lead to a number of digestive interruptions, such as reduced motility of waste, occasional bloating and digestive upset, and occasional constipation. For many, the idea of a procedure to ‘remove’ harmful toxins and microbes, and extract waste that is backed up can be appealing. But there are natural mechanisms that help the body recuperate from irregularities in digestion.
And colonics can easily disrupt and sway these to do more harm than good.
What Science Says About Colonics
During the process, large amounts of water (sometimes upwards of 16 gallons) is slowly pumped into the colon through the rectum. Occasionally, additional substances are also integrated, said to tout healing characteristics. During the irrigation process, a number of physiological reactions can occur, posing harm to the patient. In some cases of self-induced colonics, the result was even life-threatening.3
The impact of colonics can affect various aspects of health and has been linked to:
Though it may seem counterintuitive, pumping liquid into the colon can remove excess waste but often includes the removal of water as well. This is one of the most concerning impacts on the body.
An additional risk of colonics can occur from damage to the intestinal lining or an internal tear. Known as bowel perforation, this can cause severe pain and inflammation, generating flu-like symptoms. In some cases, it has even proved fatal.4
Imbalance of the gut bacteria
We usually associate changes in diet and lifestyle as ways to positively impact the balance of the gut. However, directly flushing the colon can immediately remove and disrupt these bacterial populations. Although not as wide-sweeping as antibiotics, this disruption can be significant and even introduce harmful microorganisms to the gut, increasing the risk of an immune response.5
Disruption to electrolyte balance
Not just waste, water, and bacteria can be swept away. Many chemical signals that are traveling through the gut are also impacted, including various salts and electrolytes used to maintain proper fluid balance. The introduction of excess fluids can also interfere with normal electrolytes, causing damage to the kidneys and contributing to dehydration.6
These adverse effects can cause significant harm to an individual, but in some extreme cases, a colonic may be necessary. What are these cases, and can there be more natural alternatives?
How to Naturally Detox the Gut
Some clinical procedures do, in fact, require some level of ‘emptying’ of the colon. For example, those who may be scheduled for a colonoscopy are often required to go through a preparatory cleanse to clear out the colon. Though research has also shown that many of the same harmful effects of colonics may pose a risk during this process, there are ways to prepare your body ahead of time and even to bounce back after.
Ironically, many of these same ways can be used to also boost the body’s natural ‘detoxification’ of the gut. Individuals seek out detoxification of the gut for a variety of reasons, but identifying the issue a person is trying to resolve can help to identify a safer and often more effective option.
One of the most powerful ways we can increase digestion and help the body’s natural waste-removal process is simply by starting with water. Some studies have even suggested that 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated.7 Increasing your fluid intake can help mediate hunger, increase digestion and gastric motility, and even boost your metabolism. If you’re feeling backed up and looking for an easy way to clear out your colon, grabbing a glass of water (or more) might be the simple fix you need.
Prebiotics and Probiotics
Many of the issues people are attempting to resolve from a colon cleanse may actually be pointing to issues in the gut microbiome balance.8 The gut microbiome is a powerful system that helps moderate our immune system, our nervous system, and of course our digestive system. But when out of balance, it can be overrun by harmful microorganisms or even just harmful bacterial activities. Adding prebiotics to your routine can help feed and regulate beneficial microorganisms while a powerful probiotic can increase their numbers.* Though it may take some time for the ecosystem to get back to homeostasis, this journey can have lasting beneficial effects.
Addressing the Source
Colonics are usually associated with benefits like improved digestion, weight loss, removal of toxins, and boosting the immune system. Though there is little research to support these claims, there are in fact a number of ways we can empower our body’s natural detoxification systems to gain the same benefits. Moreover, these ways can often help to target the root cause of an issue rather than further disrupt the body’s natural balance.
Our body has several ‘detox’ organs whose responsibility is the removal of harmful toxins and chemicals from the body. Rather than introduce external procedures that force the removal, we can empower these organs to heal or even function better.
These organs include the liver and kidneys. Depending on the health of our body, these organs may be under significant stress to compensate. Fortunately, there are a number of ways we can enhance their detoxification pathways through our diet.
Certain liver-friendly foods can support the liver’s function:
Beets: naturally containing anti-inflammatory and antioxidant phytonutrients called betalains, beets can help boost the liver’s healing ability.9
Fermented foods: not just great for the gut, these prebiotic foods work with the gut to boost gut health, essentially keeping out more toxins from entering the bloodstream and making their way to the gut.
Lemons: this highly acidic food contains D-limonene that can help buffer a high-fat diet.10 Many of the benefits of ‘lemon water’ include this ability, as well as supporting water intake as you sip!
Green Tea: green tea is a potent antioxidant and helps with liver detoxification and neutralizes oxidative stress.11
Chlorophyll-containing greens: darker green vegetables are rich in chlorophyll which may have toxin-binding properties to lessen the load on the liver.12
These foods can work to promote balance in your gut and in your detox organs, working with your body’s natural system rather than against it.
We often overlook the natural power of our own bodies. Although inquiring about colonics can represent a positive perspective on our own health (such as looking for proactive ways to support it), the most effective way to build a resilient and healthy body can be found in making smarter decisions in how we treat it daily.
If you’re looking for a quick procedure to give you profound benefits, take a moment to step back and re-evaluate. Take a moment to breathe (also an effective detoxification protocol) and examine your habits, your diet, and your lifestyle. Where can you make small adjustments that can promote beneficial lasting changes? Though adjusting your diet and your health can take time - these are often the best ways we can empower our minds, body, and soul.
Detoxification starts in the mind. Perhaps the first thing you should do on your detox journey may be to rid yourself of toxic pressures to be perfect, toxic friends and acquaintances, toxic environments, and toxic thoughts. And from there, making smaller and healthier changes to your body may have an even more profound effect - from your mental and spiritual health down to your physical. Even the seemingly most minute changes can grow to have a profound impact on your body to keep it functioning exactly as it was intended to do.
1 Hills, R. D., Jr, Pontefract, B. A., Mishcon, H. R., Black, C. A., Sutton, S. C., & Theberge, C. R. (2019). [Diet and disease and the Gut Microbiome]. Nutrients, mdpi.com
2 Al Bander, Z., Nitert, M. D., Mousa, A., & Naderpoor, N. (2020). [Overview of Gut Microbiota and inflammatory substances]. International journal of environmental research and public health, mdpi.com
3 Restellini, S., Kherad, O., Bessissow, T., Ménard, C., Martel, M., Taheri Tanjani, M., Lakatos, P. L., & Barkun, A. N. (2017). [Review of colon cleansing in patients with IBD]. World journal of gastroenterology, https://www.wjgnet.com
4 Sethi, A., & Song, L. M. (2015). [Colonic endoscopic mucosal resection and polypectomy]. Gastrointestinal endoscopy clinics of North America, sciencedirect.com
5 Jalanka, J., Salonen, A., Salojärvi, J., Ritari, J., Immonen, O., Marciani, L., Gowland, P., Hoad, C., Garsed, K., Lam, C., Palva, A., Spiller, R. C., & de Vos, W. M. (2015). [Bowel cleansing and intestinal microbiota]. Gut, https://gut.bmj.com
6 Gutiérrez-Santiago, M., García-Unzueta, M., Amado, J. A., González-Macías, J., & Riancho, J. A. (2006). [Electrolyte disorders following colonic cleansing for imaging studies]. Medicina clinica, sciencedirect.com
7 Taylor K, Jones EB. (Updated 2022 Oct 3). [Adult dehydration]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
8 Markowiak, P., & Śliżewska, K. (2017). [Effects of biotics on health]. Nutrients, mdpi.com
9 Clifford, T., Howatson, G., West, D. J., & Stevenson, E. J. (2015). [Effects of red beetroot supplementation]. Nutrients, mdpi.com
10 Jing, L., Zhang, Y., Fan, S., Gu, M., Guan, Y., Lu, X., Huang, C., & Zhou, Z. (2013). [Effects of citrus D-limonene on dyslipidemia and hyperglycemia in mice]. European journal of pharmacology, sciencedirect.com
11 Pezeshki, A., Safi, S., Feizi, A., Askari, G., & Karami, F. (2016). [The Effect of Green Tea Extract Supplementation]. International journal of preventive medicine, https://www.ijpvmjournal.net/
12 Simonich, M. T., McQuistan, T., Jubert, C., Pereira, C., Hendricks, J. D., Schimerlik, M., Zhu, B., Dashwood, R. H., Williams, D. E., & Bailey, G. S. (2008). [Low-dose dietary chlorophyll effects in rainbow trout]. Food and chemical toxicology: an international journal published for the British Industrial Biological Research Association, sciencedirect.com