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Colonic Irrigation for Detoxification and Weight Loss: Healthy Hydrotherapy or Hucksters' Hype?

Colonic Irrigation for Detoxification and Weight Loss: Healthy Hydrotherapy or Hucksters' Hype?


Enemas have been used as a medical treatment for thousands of years. References to enema treatments have been documented as far back as ancient Egyptian days, and from the 17th through 19 th centuries enemas enjoyed a period as a favorite elective treatment among the rich and powerful of the Western world. Though the practice has largely fallen out of favor during the last century, recently some practitioners of alternative medicine and celebrity figures such as Courtney Love, Damon Wayans, Britney Spears, and Howard Stern sidekick Robin Quivers have enthusiastically endorsed enemas as effective treatments for weight loss, detoxification, and other conditions. Is there any truth to these claims — or are they just so much impacted fecal matter?

When Blowing Smoke, Be Careful It Doesn't Hit the Fan

When used for alternative health purposes, enemas are usually promoted under the slightly more appealing names of "colon hydrotherapy,” "high colonics," or "colonic irrigation," though all three refer to precisely the same type of treatment: the introduction of liquid into the colon and rectum via the anus. Today, enemas are generally recommended by doctors only for a few specific purposes, usually to relieve constipation or fecal impaction. Conversely, while some enema enthusiasts freely proclaim that colonic irrigation can be used to alleviate a variety of conditions including asthma, arthritis, sinus problems, Epstein-Barr virus, and even cancer, the most frequent claims made on behalf of colonic hydrotherapy revolve around detoxification and weight loss.

Dubious Claims, Mistaken Facts, and Toxic BS

The recent surge in the popularity of enemas as an alternative heath treatment has coincided with the resurgence of once-popular 19 th century "autointoxication" theories. These theories suggest that undigested food particles can cause impacted fecal matter to build up on the intestinal walls over time and release toxins into the body. It's easy to see why these notions strike a chord of resonance with 21 st-century citizenry concerned about the prevalence of pollution, chemical additives, and toxins in our environment and our relative lack of ability to control these factors; however, these outdated theories have long been disproved by medical science. Direct observation during autopsies and surgeries has produced no evidence of impacted fecal material accumulating on colon walls, much less releasing any toxins.

Nevertheless, there is no shortage of people willing to promote these outdated theories, usually with the attached caveat that only enema treatment can dislodge this mythical toxic material and restore one's health. Many proponents of colonics make erroneous, misleading, or outright deceptive claims and pass off urban legends as facts, including the oft-repeated assertion that John Wayne had over 30 pounds of impacted fecal material in his colon at the time of his 1979 death as a result of his all-American meat-and-potatoes diet. The truth is that no autopsy was performed on Wayne, who was swiftly interred by his family in order to prevent a media circus at his funeral, and that meat is in fact more easily digested than vegetable matter when consumed as part of a mixed diet. Further, medical literature and research show that a person who has even a single pound of impacted fecal matter in his or her system will generally suffer from blinding pain, severe constipation, and rectal bleeding (caused by mechanical distension of the colon, rather than any mythical toxins). So the chances that some people are walking around with 20 pounds of impacted fecal material in their colons due to their failure to spend money on dubious "detoxification" treatments are slim to none.

Weight Loss Treatment or Wallet-Draining Waste?

Recently, colonic irrigation has also been included as a component of many dubious weight loss plans. Perhaps most notable was 2007's The Weight Loss Cure "They” Don't Want You to Know About , credited to self-proclaimed alternative-health advocate Kevin Trudeau , who recommended enema treatment every other day for a period of thirty days as one of the core tenets of his "cure." Unbeknownst to many casual perusers of his books, however, Trudeau has been subjected to a flurry of complaints from various parties, including many disgruntled consumers, online consumer watchdog group, the New York State Consumer Protection Board, and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

In actuality, Trudeau is a felon with no certified medical training who has been convicted of fraud and larceny and has been accused of making false, unsubstantiated, and misleading claims on multiple occasions — so many, in fact, that since 2004 he has been under a federal order restricting his ability to promote or sell any product or service (books are protected under First Amendment free speech provisions). Further, the diet plan outlined in Trudeau's book was directly drawn from a diet plan proposed by British endocrinologist A.T.W. Simeons fifty-years ago — and warned against as " potentially more hazardous to the patient's health than continued obesity " by the Journal of the American Medical Association forty-five years ago. Fortunately, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled in November 2007 that The Weight Loss Cure "They" Don't Want You to Know About contained "patently false" claims, finding Trudeau in contempt of the 2004 federal order, and hopefully saving many potential dieters from the discomfort of suffering 15 unnecessary enemas over a month’s time.

Supposedly Healthy Intestinal Tracts Can Retain Accidental Perforations

Unfortunately, colonic irrigation may be more than just a waste of your money, time, and patience. While the supposed benefits of elective colonic hydrotherapy are documented only by anecdotal evidence and unsupported, unscientific assertions, a few of the documented consequences of unnecessary colonic irrigations gone wrong include nausea, serious infections, bowel perforations, vomiting, electrolyte imbalances in the blood, heart arrhythmia or failure, and even death. Additionally, those who make frequent use of enemas may find themselves unable to cease the practice and resume natural digestion, in the same manner as overuse of laxatives can make the digestive system dependent upon them. Colonics may also remove nutrients such as potassium from the colon before they have been fully digested, leading to mineral deficiencies. Simultaneously, the various additives frequently mixed in with the liquid used in colonics may be absorbed through the colon in much more potent concentrations than they would be otherwise. In fact, coffee — one of the most popular colonic additives, thanks to the controversial Gerson therapy's popularization of coffee enemas — has been linked to at least three colonic hydrotherapy-related deaths.

Flush the Fad

At this point, it should hardly be surprising that a 1997 article in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology referred to colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication as "a triumph of ignorance over science." The California Health Department has flatly declared "the practice of colonic irrigation by chiropractors, physical therapists, or physicians should cease…colonic irrigation can do no good, only harm"; similarly, the National Council Against Health Fraud has recommended that "consumers should not use colonics, and should avoid patronizing practitioners who employ this procedure…practitioners who use colonics are either too ignorant or misguided to be entrusted with delivering health services." Sadly, despite these ringing denunciations, profiteers and benighted believers will likely continue to offer their dubious enema theories to desperate people grasping for any threads of hope they can find. Let the buyer beware.

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