To stick a hose up your bottom or not to stick a hose up your bottom, that is the question. The debate over the virtues of colonic irrigation rages on, its enthusiasts claiming it eases cancer, colitis, parasites, asthma, arthritis and a host of other ills, it's detractors insisting it does nothing of the kind and warning of the dangers. Colonics specialists argue that there is really only one disease - toxemia. When rotting fecal matter sticks to the colon, the theory goes, it begins to poison the colon and the blood. The treatment, a cleansing flush, aims to rid the body of its ailments.
The rinse involves inserting a proctoscope into your anus, then flushing approximately 20 gallons of water into your colon; then it all comes gushing out. While this is going on, practitioners massage your abdomen. (This is not to be confused with an enema, which uses much less water.)
Advocates insist it's a comfortable procedure, quite in contrast to the experience of a friend of mine who says the massage "hurt like hell." The water can be laced with things like chlorophyll, wheat grass and acidophilus, and some advocate the use of coffee.
But despite the enthusiastic cheering section for this anal washout, there is almost no scientific evidence that colonics do what its boosters claim. That's the view of many medical orgs including Natural Standard, a research group that synthesizes data on complementary and alternative therapies. So if you are going to indulge in an unproven therapy, keep expectations very low and don't use it as the sole treatment for anything serious.
And be very careful who you allow to intrude on your backside. Be sure the equipment is sterile, and realize that if the practitioner is not very experienced, you are putting your digestive processes at risk.
What the experts say
"We have a remedy made by an Ayurvedic doctor that goes into the water, called a 'bustie.' Things are absorbed so much quicker through the colon. Of all the implants, coffee is the most popular request. It has to be organic. Right before the colonic is finished, you add the coffee to the tank and it forces the liver to flush all the toxins out. I've been a colon therapist for 15 years, and in my experience people who say negative things about colonics have never had one. You can't get mucoid plaque off the colon without a colonic or without fasting or taking special herbs."
DEBRA WAIN , Royal Flush, Toronto
"There are people who have had to have their entire colon removed due to severe infection [caused by colonics]. Or if someone has diverticulitis [an inflammation of the diverticulum, a pouch branching out from the intestine] and you pump them full of water, you can rupture the diverticulum, causing septicemia [blood poisoning], so you can actually kill someone. People can become dependent on colonics in order to have decent bowel movements. You can't tell me this is a natural treatment. If you really want to do a flush-out, use high doses of vitamin C, 12,000 mg or more. It's safer and much more effective."
ZOLTAN RONA , MD, expert in nutritional medicine
"The idea that colonics can cure everything including cancer is just too good to be true. Putting water into you rectum and filling up your colon is not a sound physiological thing to do. It can sap your electrolytes [body salts], and cases of septicemia and even death have been reported. I can recognize unhealthy bowel habits. I see them in my practice. What these people need isn't a colonic but more dietary fibre."
GIFFORD JONES , MD, gynecologist and health columnist
"The way to get toxicity out of your body is through your colon. It could be cancer cells, mucus, candida, viruses, bacteria. They all have to end up somewhere, and if you don't sweat it out then they have to come out through your colon. Colonics can help body odours, halitosis and diverticulitis, and relieve the symptoms of colitis and Crohn's disease. That stuff about electrolytes is nonsense. People lose electrolytes because they don't have a proper diet. If you don't go to a colon therapist who helps with diet and puts you on a parasite cleanse if necessary, then you're not going to recover [from whatever illness you have] quickly."
JANET BUDGELL , nutritionist, director of the Canadian Natural Health and Healing Centre, Toronto
"There are no studies that support the claim that colonics can help treat or prevent colon cancer. Cancer cells lie too deep within the tissue to be flushed out with water, and colon cancer is connected to the development of polyps, which cannot be washed off. As for diverticulosis, that is largely associated with a lack of fibre. You'll find that people who get colonics are highly motivated and already have a good diet. Colonics may be prescribed for someone with a serious motility problem [constipation] but they are not sanctioned by any organizations I'm involved with."
FRANK BURTON, MD, professor of gastroenterology, director of endoscopy, Saint Louis University School of Medicine, St. Louis, Missouri