What Are Colonics? Plus, Who Should Get One & Who Should Steer Clear

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Colon cleansing may have garnered its fame as the precursor to a medical procedure called a colonoscopy, but it's also gained popularity as a form of alternative medicine intended to help with detoxification. Called a colonic, colonic irrigation, or colon hydrotherapy, the procedure's purported health benefits include weight loss, improved digestion, and a reduction in allergies, headaches, and eczema symptoms.

Though research is sparse, plenty of people still swear by the colonic. Before determining if this is right for you, it's important to understand how it works and the potential risks and side effects.

What are colonics?

Let's start with the basics. "Colon" is another name for your large intestine. As part of the digestive system, it's key for the colon to function properly to ensure that you're getting as many nutrients out of your food as possible and so you don't feel any pain throughout the digestive process. Colon hydrotherapy is essentially a procedure that puts water into the colon and, in doing so, flushes out any stool or "toxins" that are in there.

When going in for a colonic irrigation procedure, you can expect to disrobe and don the ever-fashionable hospital gown. You'll lie on a treatment table, and the practitioner will begin the procedure by inserting a tube into your rectum. In many cases, up to 16 gallons of warm water is then flushed into the colon via the tube. Waste products are expelled from the colon through another tube.

After the procedure, you'll be given time to sit on the toilet and continue expelling any excess water and feces that remain in your colon.

Why do people get them?

Fans of the colonic say that it can resolve a wide array of issues from eczema to allergies to headache pain to an impaired ability to absorb vitamins and other nutrients, but these claims have not been proved by science.

There is a chance, however, that colonics may help improve regularity and digestion, which could, in turn, affect other areas of health. While research is limited, a 2016 study found that patients with IBS experienced an improvement in the severity of their abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea after a colon cleanse.

In people who are chronically constipated (like those with constipation-predominant IBS), stool that sits in the intestines for a prolonged period of time can actually cause waste toxins to be reabsorbed into the body. For these people, some doctors, including gut health expert Vincent Pedre, M.D., believe that colonics may be useful as part of an overall detox protocol that involves other lifestyle changes like adopting a low-sugar, gut-friendly diet.

But still, many experts are very cautious when it comes to colon hydrotherapy. "While there may be some supportive evidence in the setting of irritable bowel syndrome, these need to be confirmed in larger groups of people, and long-term impacts on symptoms and the gut microbiome need to be well assessed," says integrative gastroenterologist Marvin Singh, M.D.

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Potential side effects of colonics.

Unfortunately, the list of potential side effects is longer than the list of confirmed benefits when it comes to colonics. It's important to note that the complications listed below are much more likely if you don't do your research and seek out a reputable colon hydrotherapy practitioner.

"The public should be aware that the people who are administering colonics are typically not medical doctors, so their ability to make sure that something life-threatening (like colon cancer or Crohn's disease) isn't being missed, is limited," says Dr. Singh.

  • Bacterial imbalance. Because you're flushing out the colon, some good bacteria will also be lost in the process, which could further interfere with digestion. Some colon hydrotherapists, however, will give patients a probiotic enema after the colonic procedure, which can help recolonize the gut with good bacteria.
  • Nausea and vomiting. When a colonic is performed, it stirs up "toxins" in your large intestine. Stirring up these toxins means they can get into your system in ways that they shouldn't. It's not uncommon to experience nausea and vomiting in the days following a colon cleanse.
  • Dehydration. Paradoxically, some of the weight loss from colonics is due simply to the water weight lost in the process. Of course, this can lead to dehydration. And not to mention, if you're vomiting as a result of the toxins being stirred up, dehydration can become more severe.
  • Infection. Since colonics have become more popular outside of the traditional clinical setting, the risk of infection has increased. If instruments and tubes aren't completely sterilized, they can introduce unhealthy bacteria to your digestive system and result in infection. Same goes for the fluid used—if there are any bacteria in it, you're inviting infection. This is just one reason it's crucial to seek out a reputable colon hydrotherapist.
  • Rectal and bowel tearing. Rectal and bowel perforation is a risk with colonics. Rectal tearing, or anal fissures, is less serious and can cause discomfort and some bleeding. Bowel tearing, on the other hand, is when the colon wall is torn. It comes with severe symptoms and can even be fatal in certain cases. When inserting foreign objects into the rectum and intestine, this is always a risk.

Should you get a colonic?

If you were wondering "what are colonics?" out of pure curiosity, chances are you probably don't need one. While some functional medicine practitioners do swear by the health benefits, many health care providers agree that the risks outweigh the benefits for the average person.

"There isn't a whole lot of evidence to support colonics for people with certain conditions," says Dr. Singh. "Yes, it will help remove waste from the colon, but whether or not the suggested benefits truly exist or are attainable is a matter of debate. Therefore, it is hard to give much comment on how frequently people can or should undergo colonic hydrotherapy. Every time this is performed, there is risk involved, so people should be aware of this." 

In fact, a 2011 study by Georgetown University physician researchers determined that the potential side effects are dangerous enough that colonic cleansing should be avoided entirely unless medically necessary, especially for more susceptible groups like those with heart or kidney disease or compromised immune systems. The way in which colonics stir up toxins can be very harmful to those groups. Additionally, a 2010 article reviewing the claims of colon hydrotherapy from several organizations found them to be misleading and inaccurate.

Even experts who support the use of colonics say you never want to do them so often that you become reliant on the procedure to go to the bathroom (which would be totally counterproductive).

If you have a digestive condition like IBS and you're still wondering if a colonic is right for you, speak with your health care provider or seek out an integrative or functional medicine doctor who is very familiar with the procedure. Because of the risks associated with colonics, you'll want someone who can guide you toward a reputable colon hydrotherapy practitioner.

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