Colonics are the new juicing. Well, not exactly. But the alternative medicine-inspired “flushing” of your colon is the latest detox trend that’s got everyone dishing out their precious dollars at spas and wellness centers.
As the name suggests, colonics (also called colon hydrotherapy) clean out your colon, the last part of the small intestine, using a hose-like device and water. Supporters claim some good ol’ irrigation can do everything from make your skin glow to shave off 5 pounds. But skeptics—many of whom are GI doctors—say there isn’t enough evidence that they do anything that our own bodies (and natural constipation remedies) can’t.
Considering a colonic? Here are some important things you need to know.
1. Your body has the tools to detox on its own.
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That’s what your liver is for, to remove toxins introduced into the body from the things we eat and drink. By the time digested food reaches the large intestine, the body has absorbed the nutrients it needs. Whatever isn’t used gets solidifies into stool in the colon to be disposed of, the natural way. “Our colon has mechanisms to help clean us out,” Linda A. Lee, M.D., clinical director of the division of gastroenterology and hepatology and director of the integrative medicine and digestive center at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells SELF. When the waste is bulky enough, our colon produces strong muscle contractions to push it out.
2. There’s no proof colonics do anything more than help “clean out the pipes.”
“Basically, you’re getting your colon rinsed out from the bottom end,” Lee says. From a scientific perspective, it’s really not clear that this offers a true health benefit—unless you are super constipated. Then it might feel great. But that elation you experience isn’t because you exorcised demonic toxins from your intestines—it’s because you’re finally not uncomfortably backed up anymore. “Being constipated can produce other symptoms of feeling unwell,” like gas, headaches, fatigue, and general malaise. It’s likely that’s what’s making you feel crummy, not toxins.
3. There are better (and cheaper) ways to fix constipation.
“If you’re constipated, it makes sense to try to think about measures that would facilitate that movement,” Lee says. But she recommends finding another solution that actually gets to the root cause. For some, it’s as easy as upping fiber intake, or eating other foods that help get things moving. Other women may have pelvic floor dysfunction that requires physical therapy to fix it. Simply flushing out your poop when it gets to the end isn’t going to stop it from happening again.
What about laxatives? “There’s this overriding belief that it’s bad to take laxatives,” Lee says. But it’s unfounded. “Laxatives on the market now probably don’t have the long-term side effects that we were always worrying about.” If you’re miserable and it’s the only thing that relieves your symptoms, you shouldn’t feel guilty taking them. If you feel the need to do it regularly, see a GI doctor to find out what’s causing your digestive roadblock.
4. There isn’t enough information to know if colonics are safe.
“It’s hard to know the physiological effect of what a colonic is doing,” Lee says. Colonics could potentially disrupt the natural bacteria in the gut. The colon is home to many bacteria that are really important for health and well-being, Lee says. With all the evidence that our bacteria flora are some of our biggest health assets, fostering a natural, healthy environment for them to thrive is one of the best things we can do for our bodies. In theory, a colonic could temporarily change the bacteria balance for better or worse. We just don’t know.
5. Bottom line: If you’re concerned about toxins, it’s better to avoid them on their way into your body.
It’s true that our intestines weren’t necessarily designed to handle all the artificial, lab-made food we expose them to, “like fake sugars that don’t exist in nature,” Lee says. “These can potentially foster growth of bacteria in our colons we had never anticipated before.” But the way to avoid potential health disruptions is to pay closer attention to what you eat. Eat more whole foods instead of processed ones. Drink enough water. Go easy on the red meat. A poor diet affects your body way before it gets to the end of your plumbing, so if you’re eating for your health anyway, there’s no reason to sit up at night worrying about your colon. It’s a lot more capable than you think.