The Medicine Cabinet
By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Q: A friend is trying to convince me to get colonic irrigation. After two sessions, she claims to have more energy and believes the colon cleanse removed toxins from her body. Is this true? Is colonic irrigation safe?
A: Colonic irrigation, also called colonic hydrotherapy, is a variant of enema treatment. It involves flushing the bowel with water in different quantities, temperatures and pressures. Through a tube inserted via the rectum, water may be introduced alone or with added enzymes, coffee, probiotics or herbs. Treatment sessions usually last about one hour.
Colonic irrigation may have been used as early as ancient times in Egypt, China, India and Greece. This practice gained some popularity in 19th century European spas.
Without scientific evidence to support the claims, colonic irrigation has been promoted in modern times to improve general well-being and suggested as a treatment for cancer and other diseases unrelated to the lower intestine.
Proponents of colonic irrigation claim that it can improve mental outlook, eliminate toxic substances that cause chronic diseases, and boost immunity. One theory is that intestinal flora (bacteria that normally live in the intestine) and waste products in our lower intestine somehow impede the function of the body’s immune system. It is proposed but unproven that washing away these flora and waste products may have beneficial effects.
Colonic irrigation can potentially cause severe adverse effects and must be carefully administered. People receiving frequent treatments may absorb too much water, leading to electrolyte imbalances in the blood. If severe, this can lead to nausea, vomiting, abnormal heart rhythms and, very rarely, coma. There is a risk of bowel perforation (breakage of the bowel wall), which is a serious problem.
Colonic irrigation should not be used as the sole treatment (instead of more proven therapies) for severe conditions; and it should not delay consultation with a qualified health care provider for a potentially severe symptom or illness.
In my opinion, the evidence to date does not support the use of colonic irrigation as a way to promote better health and prevent disease. Although rare, serious complications can occur.
(Howard LeWine, M.D. is an internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.)