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Colonic Irrigation

William T. Jarvis, Ph.D.

Colonic irrigation (CI) is a procedure in which very large quantities of liquids are infused into the colon via the rectum through a tube, a few pints at a time., in an effort to wash away and remove its contents. CI differs from an ordinary enema which involves infusing a lesser amount of liquid into the rectum only. A "high colonic" may involve the use of twenty or more gallons pumped by a machine or transmitted with an apparatus that relies upon gravity to achieve its purpose. Liquids used in colonics may include coffee, herbs, enzymes, wheatgrass extract, or many other substances. Proponents of the procedure advertise that "all disease and death begin in the colon," that colonics "detoxifies" the body, and that regular "cleansing" is necessary to maintain one's health. None of these claims are true.

The idea that all disease and death begin in the colon is one of the oldest health misconceptions known to humankind. The ancient Egyptians associated feces with decay, and decay with death. This caused them to write in ancient papyri that decay began in the anus. The Egyptians were obsessed with preserving corpses. Embalmers observed the petrification by bacteria (a normal process within the intestines after death) and followed the practice of removing the stomach and intestines as part of the embalming process. One of seven medical papyri and 81 of 900 prescriptions referred only to the anus. The connection between food and fecal matter was easily made. Worry about decay governed daily life. Herodotos noted that "for 3 consecutive days in every month they purge themselves, pursuing after health by means of emetics and drenches; for they think that it is from the food they eat that all sicknesses come to men." Although the more than 700 items in the ancient Egyptian pharmacopoeia was worthless by modern standards, it did contain many items that could induce diarrhea [1].

In the 19th Century, the intestinal toxicity theory became popular. The idea was that poisons from petrifying intestinal bacteria entered the body through the gut wall. Constipation was to be avoided. Numerous remedies were advocated by the health gurus of the day. Yogurt was said to create a friendlier form of bacteria. Bran was advocated for "roughage" to speed up the elimination process. The folk saying "an apple a day keeps the doctor away" is rooted in the idea of increasing roughage. Hydropaths advocated drinking large amounts of water to wash out the alimentary canal from above. John Harvey Kellogg performed surgery to reshape the colon for more rapid elimination. The laxative industry grew prosperous on the idea of bowel "regularity."

Today we understand more clearly the importance of dietary fiber, hydration, and so forth. Medical scientists also know that these have nothing to do with intestinal toxicity. Early in this century a medical researcher produced all of the symptoms of constipation (dry mouth, lethargy, etc) by packing the rectum with sterile cotton. Studies done in the 1920s found that "high colonic irrigations" were useless and did not even reach very high even when fairly long tubes were employed [2]. Studies in the 1930s found that colonic irrigation was contraindicated for treating ulcerative colitis, an intestinal disorder which did permit bacterial contamination of body through the gut wall. In 1985, the Infectious Disease Branch of the California Department of Health Services stated:

Neither physicians nor chiropractors should be performing colonic irrigations. We are not aware of any scientifically proven health benefit of this procedure, yet we are well aware of its hazards." [3]

The hazards include illness and death by contamination of colonics equipment [4] and death by electrolyte depletion [5,6]. In addition to the physiological upsets, colonic apparatus can also perforate the intestinal wall leading to septicemia (bacterial contamination of the blood), a very serious disorder.

Colonic irrigation should be considered a health fetish. The ideas of "cleansing" and "detoxification" have no physiological significance, but they do have emotional meaning to people who believe themselves to be "unclean" or "impure" in some way. Just as the ancient Egyptians did, health neurotics may temporarily relieve their health anxieties by colonics, laxatives, and purges.

Colonics can be a kind of "Dr. Feelgood quackery" (ie, a procedure that elicits a feeling that the patient interprets as beneficial). Colonics also have erotic appeal to some people. Colonics are often done in massage parlors that serve erotic desires, and a substantial amount of colonic product marketing is aimed at male homosexuals.

A 1991 survey by the Wisconsin Board of Physician Quality Assurance found that colonic irrigation is poorly regulated. Thirty state boards of medical examiners and six boards of osteopathic medicine responded to a mail survey. Only 11 of the 36 considered colonic irrigation to the "the practice of medicine" meaning that they could regulate its practice as such. The others either had no position or made vague comments. Examining boards may discipline those they license for unprofessional conduct, and/or file charges against nonlicensed people who engage in the activities defined by law as within their governance. Some boards do not do the latter. They expect justice departments to prosecute imposture as fraud. This lack of attention often provides a gap within which practices such as colonic irrigation can flourish.

NCAHF agrees with the assessment of the California Department of Health Services. Colonics has no real health benefits, but does have a number of serious hazards. 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.


  1. Majno G. The Healing Hand. Harvard, 1975.
  2. Snyder. Am J Roentgenol & Radium Therapy. 1927;17:27-43.
  3. The case against colonic irrigation (Kizer) California Morbidity #38, September 27, 1985
  4. An outbreak of amebiasis spread by colonic irrig at a chiro clinic (Istre) New Engl J Med 1982;307:339-42
  5. Deaths related to coffee enemas (Eisele) JAMA 1980;244:1608-9
  6. The doctor is in--jail (Ballentine) FDA Consumer October, 1981, pp.30-1

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© 1995 National Council Against Health Fraud. With proper citation, this article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes

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This article was posted on December 17, 2000.