Copyright by the National Council Against Health Fraud, 1995.
Permission to reprint is granted with proper citation.
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, wheat grass 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 putrification 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. Herodotus 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 were worthless by modern standards, it did contain many items that could induce diarrhea (Majno, The Healing Hand, Harvard, 1975)
In the 19th Century, the intestinal toxicity theory became popular. The idea was that poisons from putrifying 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 reach very high even when fairly long tubes were employed (Snyder, Americal Journal Roentgenol & Radiation Therapy, 1927; 17:27-43). 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 that "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." (Kizer, 1985) Hazards include illness and death by contamination of colonics equipment (Istre, 1982); death by electrolyte depletion (Eisele, 1980), (Ballentine, 1981). In addition to the physiological upsets, the colonic apparatus can perforate the intestinal wall leading to septicemia (bacterial contamination of the blood), a very serious disorder.
Colonics is popular as a health fetish. The ideas of "cleansing" and "detoxification" have no physiological significance, but these 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 also has erotic appeal to some. A substantial amount of colonic product marketing is aimed at male homosexuals. Colonics is often done in massage parlors that serve erotic desires. Colonics can be a kind of "Dr. Feelgood quackery" (i.e., a procedure that elicits a feeling in a patient which is interpreted as beneficial).
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 be "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. The 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.
Please retain the following notice on any copies made of this position paper:
NCAHF is a private nonprofit, voluntary health agency that focuses upon health misinformation, fraud and quackery as public health problems. Its funding is derived primarily from membership dues, newsletter subscriptions, and consumer information services. NCAHF's officers and board members serve without compensation. NCAHF unites consumers with health professionals, educators, researchers, attorneys, and others who believe that everyone has a stake in the quality of the health marketplace. NCAHF's posi tions on consumer health issues are based upon principles of science that underlie consumer protection law. Required are: (1) adequate disclosure in labeling and other warranties to enable consumers to make proper choices; (2) premarketing proof of safety and efficacy for products and services that claim to prevent, alleviate, or cure any disease or disorder; and, (3) accountability for those who violate consumer laws.
For more information, write: NCAHF, P.O. Box 1276, Loma Linda, CA 92354-1276; Fax: 909-824-4838. Donations to NCAHF are tax deductible under IRS tax code 501 (c)(3).
Enhancing Freedom of Choice Through Reliable Information