Colon Cleansing: Don't Be Misled By the Claims
"Colon cleansers effectively eliminate large quantities of toxic waste, affecting the condition and vitality of the entire body."
"Colonics...increase the release of old, encrusted colon waste, encourage discharge of toxins and parasites, freshen the gastrointestinal tract and make the whole cleansing process easier and more thorough."
"Cleansing is the first step in a good weight control program."
So read ads and promotional materials for so-called internal cleansers—enemas, laxatives, strong herbal teas, powders, and pills meant to clean out the large intestine, also known as the colon or bowel. You can find these products all over the Internet, at health food stores, and even in some supermarkets and pharmacies.
And their popularity is only expanding. "Digestive aids," which include internal cleansers, saw almost 13% sales growth between 1999 and 2000, amounting to almost $83 million in mainstream market and health food store sales, according to SPINS, a San Francisco-based research firm for the natural products industry. Elimination, in other words, is a growth industry.
The Sales Pitch
The sellers of all these colon scrubbers say periodic cleansing is crucial for the body's well-being. The general pitch goes as follows. We live in an age in which toxins easily accumulate in the body—the air we breathe is polluted and the food we eat is laden with pesticides and other harmful chemicals. Our bodies, unequipped to deal with all these poisons, fall behind in eliminating them, and we end up sick.
Furthermore, as one company puts it, certain foods "tend to stick and putrefy in the folds and pockets of the intestines. When your colon isn't eliminating wastes properly, toxins are reabsorbed into the blood, poisoning the entire system and weakening your other eliminative organs." More succinctly stated, "the colon walls are encrusted with stagnant waste."
Don't believe it, say the experts.
"Things don't crust over" in your colon, says Robert Russell, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. "The business about putrefaction is all baloney. There are not pieces of food hanging around in there getting old."
In other words, you don't need a $20-to-$30 product to help nature do its job. The body is perfectly capable of eliminating toxins in a timely, efficient manner. Consider that the cells of your gastrointestinal tract turn over every three days—fast enough so that there's no "crust," or "putrefying" food in your colon. Also, bacteria in the colon naturally metabolize and thereby detoxify food wastes. And mucous membranes lining the intestinal wall block unwanted substances from entering the body's other tissues. The liver works to neutralize toxins as well.
Granted, Dr. Russell says, people do get constipated. "And that makes you uncomfortable," he points out. "But there has never been any indication that there's a higher incidence of colon cancer or any other dreaded disease in constipated people."
"Normal" Bowel Movements are Variable
No matter. In typical quack-like fashion, sellers of intestinal cleansers make consumers their own diagnosticians and tell them signs to look for to determine that their bodies are not up to snuff and need outside agents to, er, get things going. One of these signs is having fewer than two to three bowel movements a day. But that has nothing to do with whether you require a laxative or other cathartic agent. The number of bowel movements considered healthy over a given period of time differs from person to person. It can be anywhere from a few times a day to a few times a week, Dr. Russell notes. Only when your typical pattern changes might something be wrong, and even then it's often just a passing virus or other bug.
Not Useful for Weight Loss
Some companies imply that increasing the number of bowel movements will prevent absorption of enough calories to allow you to shed excess pounds, but that, too, is not true. Just about all calories are absorbed well before food makes its way to the colon, rendering any weight-loss claims for cleansers bogus.
Don't be Tricked by Vague-Sounding Symptoms
Most symptoms of an "inefficient" colon listed by purveyors of internal cleansers are actually much more vague than the one that requires bowel movement counts. In fact, they're vague enough and broad enough to cover virtually every single human being, at least at one time or another.
One company, for instance, says the signals that toxins are building up in your system are that "you may feel sluggish or bloated or you may experience 'brain fog.' You may wake up feeling tired and 'blue.' You may have a case of the 'blahs' that's hard to shake." Among the "13 common symptoms of toxicity" listed by another company: headaches, depression, poor memory, low energy, weight gain, and—I kid you not—"illnesses."
Just as the symptoms of a supposedly poisoned digestive system are, on the whole, vague, so, too are the signs of renewed well-being once a cleanser is taken. "With your body free of harmful toxins, you will feel younger, better, healthier, and happier!" one company says. Another promises that "when the colon is kept clean, disease in the body is very rare." Still other companies make claims of improved mental alertness and increased energy.
Potentially Harmful Side Effects
And they tell you not to worry if taking the cleanser makes you feel sick because that's a sign that the product is working. According to one pamphlet, gas and other gastrointestinal discomfort along with flu-like symptoms such as sneezing and a runny nose are "temporary, positive signs that you body is working to rid itself of the toxin build-up." Literature for another product says, "Do not be alarmed if you pass strings of mucus...for a couple of weeks as this is a good sign that you are detoxifying." Promotional material for yet another tells patrons to "just relax and appreciate your body's cleansing process if you develop any of the following; headaches, bad breath or body odor, dizziness, irritability, skin eruptions...or low energy."
But do not relax. Dizziness could be a sign that you're becoming dehydrated. And strings of mucus—the intestine's response to stimulation—mean the body views the cleanser as a toxin and is trying to get rid of it.
The idea of having to feel worse before you feel better is particularly dangerous in light of the fact that feeling bad is very possibly a sign that a cleanser is disagreeing with you in a serious way. Consider a U.S. Food and Drug Administration report that linked kidney problems and progressive muscle weakness to a cleansing formula that contained herbs and fiber. In another FDA report, a body cleanser that contained clay, cascara, and comfrey was associated with diarrhea, abdominal pain, and vomiting up blood. A woman even ended up in the emergency room with life-threatening heart problems after ingesting an herbal cleansing regimen with tainted ingredients. (Unlike drugs, cleansers do not have to meet standards for quality and purity.)
Traditional Advice Still the Best
Here's a better bet than going through extraordinary means to "flush" your colon:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat plenty of high-fiber fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains.
- Get plenty of exercise.
- Let nature take its course. Your colon knows how to do its business.
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse
Canadian Digestive Health Foundation
The Canadian Association of Gastroenterology (CAG)
Last reviewed January 2008 by Rosalyn Carson-DeWitt, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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