What You Should Know About Colon Cleanses If You Have IBS

Why Western medicine does not promote this technique

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There's no shortage of ads promoting colon cleansing, which may have you wondering if a colon cleanse is a safe thing to try for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The ads promise all sorts of wonderful results, but are they true? 

Unfortunately, scientific evidence does not support the effectiveness of the procedure, and risks have been reported. It's important to understand what colon cleanses are, and what types of colon cleanses exist, as well as their potential benefits and harms.  

Types of Colon Cleansers

There are basically two ways to "clean out" your colon:

1) Products that are consumed by mouth: These products include detoxifying teas or supplements in capsule form. Often these products come with a recommendation that you fast or follow a special, restricted diet. Be aware that changing your diet may affect your IBS. If you have constipation-dominant IBS, for example, fasting might make your constipation worse. Also, take note of the common ingredients found in colon cleansing teas and capsules. They may include:

2) Colon Hydrotherapy (High Colonics)This involves fluid being placed through the anus and rectum to clean the colon. Often, they are performed by colon hydrotherapists. Although many hydrotherapists have a degree from their professional society, only a few states have licensing for this profession, which generally does not require college-level education.  

During colon hydrotherapy, a tube is inserted into your rectum as you lie flat on a table. Water is then pumped into your colon, flushing out its contents. Additives such as vitamins, probiotics, enzymes, herbs, or coffee may be added to the water. The procedure typically lasts from 45 minutes to one hour. 

Purported Benefits of Colon Cleanses for IBS

Proponents tout several health benefits of cleansing and see it as a remedy for a wide variety of chronic health conditions. Some believe colon cleanses can ease the following symptoms, many of which people with IBS have: 

Risks and Criticisms of Colon Cleansing

Since people tend to think of their bowels as a mysterious, dark, and perhaps disgusting place, it is easy to buy into the theory that old or dried-up stool is building up in our intestines and wreaking havoc on our GI tract.

But gastroenterologists, who spend considerable time observing normal and diseased colons, do not routinely observe such aged fecal matter in the colons of patients who haven't had a cleanse. In addition, pathologists, who may perform autopsies and review bowel tissue under microscopes as part of their day-to-day activities, do not note the presence of such materials in patients who die. Radiologists do not see it on their scans.

There are three major concerns to consider when considering a colon cleanse: 

Lack of scientific evidence: There is no evidence that the lining of our intestines becomes caked with leftover fecal matter, nor are there any well-run studies that support the claims that colon cleansing enhances health or is effective as a treatment for ongoing health problems.

Cleaning out bacteria may be harmfulBacteria in our large intestines are essential for digestive and overall health. Removing this bacteria may upset the body's own finely tuned bacterial balance.

Safety issues: For most healthy people, hydrotherapy is tolerated—the risk of complications is probably low, although it is hard to measure. However, the procedure is not without risks, which include perforation of the bowel and potentially fatal electrolyte imbalances. These risks have been published in the medical literature.

The Bottom Line

Without solid evidence of benefits, it may not be wise to try colon cleanses, even if the proponents are a very vocal group. If you're determined to try a colon cleanse anyway, it is essential that you first get clearance from your doctor to make sure there's nothing in your health history that would put you at more risk during a cleanse.  

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  • Puetz T. Is There a Health Benefit from High Colonics? International Foundation for Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders Fact Sheet. 2008.
  • Mishori R, Otubu A, Jones AA. The Dangers of Colon Cleansing. Journal of Family Practice. 2011.