Are Colon Cleanses Safe? Ask a Gastroenterologist

Many patients come into the office asking about colon cleanses after hearing about them on social media or TV. A colon cleanse, which may involve anything from drinking specially made juices to receiving colonic irrigation, is often promoted as a way to rid the body of toxins, lose weight, or treat any number of illnesses.

But do these homeopathic colon cleanses actually work, and are they safe? Do doctors ever prescribe a colon cleanse? To answer these questions and more, board-certified gastroenterologist and Endoscopy Medical Director Dr. David R. Heiman dives deep into the science of colon cleanses.

What is a colon cleanse?

First, it’s important to know exactly what we’re talking about when referring to a colon cleanse. You may hear the term used in two different contexts:

  1. Prescription colon preparations are commonly given before procedures like colonoscopies or for treatment of constipation. These may involve ingesting a liquid laxative or receiving an enema that’s administered in a medical setting or under a doctor’s direction. They’re sometimes referred to as ‘colon cleanses.’
  2. Colon cleansing or colonics (also called colon hydrotherapy, colonic irrigation, etc.) refer to ingesting a homemade liquid solution or having a non-prescribed enema, which may be done at home or by a homeopathic practitioner. Colonics typically include homemade juices or liquid solutions that aren’t regulated by the FDA.

While they may sound similar on the surface, what’s the real difference between prescription colon prep and a colonic that’s done at home?

Put simply, pre-colonoscopy colon preps and constipation treatments are prescribed by a licensed physician and have lots of science and clinical studies to support their safety and effectiveness. On the other hand, homeopathic colonics, colon therapies, and irrigations aren’t supported by scientific evidence and can even lead to severe complications in some situations.

Are colon cleanses safe?

Colon cleanses and enemas are safe only when prescribed by a licensed physician before a colonoscopy or for treatment of constipation. They can come with their own set of side effects, including bloating, dehydration, and cramping, but these are temporary and last for just a day before a colonoscopy.

Non-prescription colon cleanses may make big promises, but the truth is that they’re more likely to cause harm than good. Some of the risks associated with colonics include:

  • Colon perforation. A perforation is a small tear or hole in the wall of the large intestine, which can lead to severe infection. A colonic device or enema can lead to perforation when done at home or by an unlicensed individual.
  • Pain and cramping. Laxatives and enema solutions can lead to severe abdominal pain, cramping, and bloating. These can last hours or even days afterward.
  • Electrolyte imbalances/dehydration. At-home cleansing can cause vomiting and diarrhea, which can lead to dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. In turn, these can cause headaches, dizziness, and fatigue.
  • Bacterial infections. It’s possible to introduce harmful bacteria into the body when using tools that aren’t sterile. This can disrupt healthy bacteria in the colon and potentially lead to infections that your body can’t fight off on its own.

When not prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, a colon cleanse can make you sicker or put you at risk for serious medical complications.

Do colon cleanses work?

When prescribed by a doctor, colon preps before a colonoscopy and enemas to help treat constipation are effective and safe.

But what about non-prescription colonics and cleanses? Colon cleanses have been promoted by celebrities and even some history books as ways to “cleanse” the body of toxins or even as a way to lose weight and treat chronic illness.

At-home colon cleanses or colonics do NOT work for weight loss or to clear the body of toxins. Colonics do NOT treat cancer, arthritis, high blood pressure, chronic fatigue, or diseases like Crohn’s or IBS. There is no scientific evidence to back up homeopathic colon cleanses.

Your kidneys and liver work naturally to detoxify your body—and they do a better job than any homemade solution could. Furthermore, while your gut health is important to your overall well-being, washing the inside of your colon is not a cure for any illness or disease.

If you’re concerned about managing a medical condition, please talk to a licensed physician about other treatment options.

Effective Ways to Promote Good Colon Health

Doctors agree: you don’t need a colon cleanse to have good colon health. Instead, there are easier ways to have a healthy digestive system, reduce your risk of colorectal cancer, and manage chronic illness.

  • Eat more fiber. Getting enough fiber in your diet can help regulate bowel movements, reduce constipation, and control your cholesterol and blood sugar. Good sources of fiber include whole-grain foods, fruits, vegetables, and legumes/beans.
  • Limit red meats and processed meats. Science has shown that eating red meats (beef, pork, lamb, etc.) and processed meats (bacon, sausages, ham, etc.) is associated with higher risks of colorectal cancer. You don’t have to cut out these foods entirely—but limit them to a few times a week instead of eating them every day.
  • Get cancer screenings on time. Colorectal cancer is the third leading cause of cancer-related deaths in the US. The CDC recommends that you get your first colonoscopy at age 45 and then again every 10 years. Colonoscopies can identify and remove cancerous polyps before they become a serious problem.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking is proven to increase the risk of colorectal cancer and can aggravate chronic illnesses like Crohn’s and IBS. Quitting smoking has whole-body benefits.
  • Talk to your doctor about chronic illness management. Sometimes, patients turn to colon cleanses when it feels like their chronic illness isn’t well-managed and they don’t have any other option. Tell this to your doctor—they’ll help you find better ways to manage symptoms in ways that don’t have the potential to cause harm.

Questions? Talk to a Colon Expert

There’s a lot of confusing information out there about colon cleanses. To get answers to your questions, schedule an appointment with Dr. Heiman at our location in North Tampa. Telemedicine appointments are available for existing patients.

It can seem difficult to talk to a doctor about your gastrointestinal health—but remember that Dr. Heiman and other gastroenterologists are here to listen to your concerns and help you find a solution. It’s never the wrong choice to talk to a doctor.

About David R. Heiman, MD

David R. Heiman, MD

 

Certified by the American Board of Gastroenterology, Dr. David R. Heiman is a physician, Endoscopy Medical Director at Florida Medical Clinic’s North Tampa campus, and an expert in all things related to the colon. He specializes in treating patients with all kinds of gastrointestinal conditions, as well as performing endoscopic screenings.

Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Always talk with your doctor before starting or stopping medications or treatments.

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Gastroenterology

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