Colonic Uses, History, and Complications

Know the Risks Before Having a Colonic

A colonic is the infusion of water or other liquids into the rectum by a colon therapist to cleanse and flush out the colon. It is also called colonic hydrotherapy or colon irrigation, and proponents of the practice maintain that it leads to better digestive and overall health. 

Many experts, however, caution that claims of health benefits with colonic irrigation are unproven, and may increase the risk of dehydration and other complications.

This article is meant to help you learn about what colonic irrigation does, what to expect when you have a colonic, and how to manage potential complications.

complications from colonics
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

How a Colonic Cleanse Works

A colonic begins with a consultation with a colon hydrotherapist, who will ask about medical history and complete forms about the procedure.

The client is asked to change into a gown and lie face up on a treatment table, where the therapist inserts a disposable speculum into the anus. The speculum is connected to a long disposable plastic hose that reaches the colon hydrotherapy unit.

The client and the colon therapist do not smell the feces as it is filtered through the tube. But the therapist usually observes the feces through the clear hose and may comment on the color.

A colonic usually causes some abdominal discomfort. The colon therapist may apply light massage to the client's abdomen to facilitate the colonic process.

After the session, the therapist leaves the room and the client may sit on a toilet to pass any residual water and stool. A typical session lasts 45 minutes to one hour.

Colonics vs. Enemas

Colonics and enemas are similar, but there are some key differences between them. An enema relies on a single infusion of a solution meant to cleanse the lower colon, often ahead of a medical procedure. A colonic, for the purposes of detoxifying the body, reaches more of the colon with multiple infusions.

Why Do People Get Colonics?

People who get colonics typically say they do for the following reasons:

  • To remove accumulated waste from the colon
  • To help prevent constipation
  • To improve your overall health

History of Colonics

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, founder of the Kellogg cereal company, was an early advocate of colonics and promoted their use in medicine during the early decades of the 1900s. As laxatives grew in popularity, colonics became less popular. The lack of evidence-based science to support colonic therapy added to its decline, though some alternative practitioners recommend colonics.

Thus far, scientific support for the potential health benefits of colonics is lacking because there is no hard evidence to back up these claims. However, proponents of colon hydrotherapy claim that accumulated fecal matter in the colon may negatively affect health because it:

  • Prevents water and nutrient absorption
  • Leads to constipation
  • Allows harmful colon bacteria and yeast to grow
  • Causes stagnant toxins to be absorbed into the bloodstream through the colon wall (called autointoxication)

Lack of fiber, excess sugar, and a diet high in red meat are believed to contribute to the problem. However, many experts suggest that lifestyle changes are the most effective way to promote colon health, including exercise, limits on alcohol and red meat consumption, and avoiding tobacco.

Who Should Avoid a Colonic

Colonic hydrotherapy is discouraged in people with certain health conditions. They include:

People who are pregnant should not have a colonic as it may stimulate uterine contractions.

Colonic Side Effects

Side effects of colonics are not uncommon. They may include nausea and fatigue after the session, which can last for several hours. More serious complications may include:

  • Bowel perforation
  • Excessive fluid absorption
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Heart failure

There's also some evidence that harmful bacteria may grow in the digestive tract after a colonic, which may lead to infections.

After Colonic Therapy

Many practitioners caution there are a number of things you should not do after a colonic. For example, avoiding caffeine and alcohol for a few days will help your body return to its normal fluid balance. It's also best to avoid raw foods and choose easily digested ones instead.

A low-residue diet gives your digestive system a chance to rest. Applesauce, mashed potatoes, white rice, and chicken are better options than whole grains, nuts and berries, or chocolate.

A Word From Verywell

While a colonic may be generally safe for most people, its health benefits remain unproven and it may add to your risk of digestive symptoms. Changes in bowel habits can be the sign of a serious health condition, so contact your healthcare provider about the symptoms that concern you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Should an enema be used for constipation?

    An enema can be used for constipation, but it is considered a last-resort option if other treatments have not worked. Enemas have risks such as infection and even injuring the rectum. Frequent use can also make it harder to have a bowel movement naturally.

  • Do colonics wipe out good bacteria?

    Bowel cleansing appears to change the bacteria and other elements in your digestive tract. A study of 23 people who used bowel prep solutions found temporary changes returned to normal in two weeks. The authors note that more research is needed on gut microbe effects. Even less is known about the impacts of colonic therapy.

  • What is a colonic meant to do?

    A colonic is meant to remove waste that has accumulated in the colon and prevent or treat constipation. However, colon hydrotherapy might do more harm than good. Colon cleanses have been linked with parasitic infections, abscesses in the digestive tract, rectum and colon perforation, and heart failure.

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Cedars Sinai. Ask a Doc: Are Colon Cleanses Healthy?

  3. Journal of Lancaster General Hospital. Colon cleansing: Medical breakthrough or myth? Summer 2014.

  4. Stavrou G, Kotzampassi K. Gut microbiome, surgical complications and probioticsAnn Gastroenterol. 2017;30(1):45-53. doi:10.20524/aog.2016.0086

  5. Vanhauwaert E, Matthys C, Verdonck L, De Preter V. Low-residue and low-fiber diets in gastrointestinal disease managementAdvances in Nutrition. 2015;6(6):820-827. doi:10.3945/an.115.009688

  6. Jalanka J, Salonen A, Salojärvi J, Ritari J, Immonen O, Marciani L,et al. Effects of bowel cleansing on the intestinal microbiota. Gut. 2015 Oct;64(10):1562-8. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2014-307240. 

Additional Reading

By Cathy Wong
Cathy Wong is a nutritionist and wellness expert. Her work is regularly featured in media such as First For Women, Woman's World, and Natural Health.