Are Colonics and Enemas Helpful or Harmful?

Thursday May 28 | BY |
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Just how often does your colon really need to be cleaned?

I haven’t reached the age where I need to think about colon cancer screening yet, but my mom has told me all about it, and it doesn’t sound fun.

Drink loads of fluids and spend the night in the bathroom is about what it amounts to.

This is colon cleansing, and it’s used for more than screening preparation. Many alternative medicine practitioners also recommend it as a way to ease digestion, remove toxins from the body, kick-start weight loss, boost energy, and improve overall wellbeing.

Not so fast, say traditional doctors. Colon cleansing—or “colonics,” as it’s often called—isn’t worth the money, at best, and can cause serious complications, at worst.

Who’s right?

The Difference Between a Colonic and an Enema

For those who are new to the practice, there is some confusion about colonics and enemas. What’s the difference?

Though both involve inserting water into the colon to cleanse it, each has a unique purpose.

  • Enemas: These are one-time treatments you can give yourself at home, or which may be used in medical centers to induce bowel movements. Some also use enemas to force the colon into expelling waste materials. Enough water is used to cleanse the lower part of the colon.
  • Colonics: These are treatments given by a trained professional. They involve multiple infusions of water into the colon to clean the entire length of it. Unlike an enema, in which the person sits on the toilet afterwards, colonics involve a tube that removes fecal matter during the session. They are said to be more comfortable than enemas.

In both treatments, other ingredients may be used in addition to water to encourage the detoxifying, antioxidant, and other health effects. Such ingredients may include coffee, apple cider vinegar, lemon juice, probiotics, and herbs.

Where Did Colon Cleansing Come From?

According to fans, colon cleansing is like an internal bath for your digestive system. Particularly for those experiencing systems of slowed digestion—like constipation, bloating, headaches, fatigue, and cramps—cleaning out the excess waste and toxins living in the colon may help quickly improve well being and energy.

Though colonics are a more recent invention, enemas have a long history. The Egyptians were said to have used them as far back as 1500 B.C., and Hippocrates to employ them for bringing down a fever in 400 B.C. Greek physicians commonly mentioned them in texts recorded between 100 and 500 A.D., with certain African tribes employing them throughout the early centuries. King Louis XI of France was a fan in the latter 1400s, and King Louis XIII was said to have hundreds every year in the 17th century.

Dr. Kellogg rejuvenated the practice in the U.S. in the 1800s, and in 1932, Dr. W. Kerr Russell wrote Colonic Irrigation, the first book to use the term (as opposed to “colonic lavage,” as it was called before). In the 1950s, colon hydrotherapy flourished in this country, though hospitals replaced most equipment in the 1970s in favor of colostomies, enemas and laxatives.

In 2000, Dr. James Whorton wrote Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society, in which he examines the “toxic effects of intestinal irregularity.” Indeed, the idea that waste trapped in the colon can lead to not only minor symptoms, like headache and bloating, but may also increase risk of more serious health issues like cancer, is behind many of today’s colon cleansing practices.

We’re exposed to a lot of unsavory things in our world today—things our bodies just aren’t equipped to get rid of easily. Chemicals in our foods and personal care products can build up in the digestive system, so the thinking goes, and if they aren’t excised, they most assuredly will cause trouble.

It seems to make sense, but look for scientific evidence of the benefits and it’s hard to find. Some say that the historic philosophy that the accumulation of waste in the colon could lead to imbalances detrimental to health has been discarded from science-based medicine, but still lives on in alternative practices based on historical findings.

Coffee enemas gained popularity in the 1940s because of their development by physician Max Gerson. The “Gerson Method” recommended detoxification with frequent coffee enemas and a low-sodium diet, among other steps, to cure cancer.

Gerson published a book entitled A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases and the Cure of Advanced Cancer by Diet Therapy, but a later analysis by the National Cancer Institute stated that most of the cases didn’t meet the criteria for proper evaluation of a cancer case, and that there was no legitimate evidence that the Gerson Method healed cancer.

Between 1980 and 1986, at least 13 patients treated with it ended up in the hospital with serious bacterial infections.

Frequent Colonics and Enemas May Cause Harm

According to a 2010 study in the journal American Family Physician, questions about colonic cleansing are among the most common inquiries to the American College of Gastroenterology. So researchers analyzed relevant studies between 1966 and 2008, but found none of them were “of good methodologic quality.” They concluded that there was a lack of good-quality published evidence “of any health benefit from colonic cleansing,” yet “many publications concerning adverse events, including death.”

Indeed, there have been some studies reporting the potential harms that colonics may do. Here’s a glimpse:

  • Danger in colon cleansing: In a 2011 study, researchers looked at 20 previous studies on colon irrigation and found little evidence of benefit, but an abundance of studies on potential dangers of the practice, included mild symptoms like vomiting and bloating, and more severe complications like electrolyte imbalances, infections, dehydration, renal failure, liver toxicity, pelvic abscesses, rectal perforations, and even death. Risks are increased in those with Crohn’s disease and colitis, kidney disease, and heart disease.
  • Outbreak of amebiasis: From 1978 to 1980, at least 38 cases of amebiasis (disease caused by bacteria) occurred in patients who had undergone colonic-irrigation therapy at a clinic in Western Colorado. Six of those people died. It was a case of contamination with an infected person and would not likely happen in a well-managed clinic, but it’s something to keep in mind if you do go for a colonic—be sure the clinic is top notch!
  • Destabilizing intestinal microflora: Colonics are supposed to clean out the colon, but in the process, they may destabilize the delicate balance of microflora there. Studies have suggested that colonic irrigation machines—particularly if they’re not properly disinfected—could be the source of intestinal infections.
  • Coffee enemas: A 2010 case study described a 60-year-old woman who had undergone a coffee enema to relieve chronic constipation. She later was admitted to the hospital because of inflammation in the colon, where she was treated with antibiotics. Nine days later, she could eat a regular meal again. Though rare, other studies have reported cases of septicemia (blood poisoning) and deaths associated with electrolyte imbalances following coffee enemas.

In addition, regular enemas are believed to be potentially harmful for colon health because the water stretches the walls of the colon more than usual, weakening them over time so that it’s difficult to have a bowel movement without an enema. Proponents of enemas say you can avoid this outcome by gradually introducing more water and giving the colon time to adjust and strengthen. We have no scientific evidence supporting this theory.

Colonics, on the other hand, use less water at a time, and are less likely to cause this stretching effect, but there are other risks associated with it, like those mentioned above.

What’s the Answer?

Is colonic irrigation all nonsense based on outdated science, or a beneficial therapy that doctors just don’t want to acknowledge?

For now, we simply don’t have any solid scientific evidence to end the debate. My main concern is that readers of Renegade Health be careful. Pay attention to how you feel, and if you’re experiencing digestive ailments, try lifestyle solutions first (things like more water, fiber, and exercise).

If you do decide to try colonics (or to continue with your normal practice), make sure you’re going to a licensed colon-cleansing therapist, and limit your treatments to avoid going overboard and risking complications. Those with inflammatory bowel diseases, heart disease, kidney disease, or who have undergone a recent bowel surgery, should avoid colon-cleansing treatments.

Have you experimented with colonics and enemas? Please share your experiences.

* * *

Stephen Barrett, M.D., “Questional Cancer Therapies,” QuackWatch, July 27, 2010,

Anne D. Walling, “Colon Cleansing and Body Detoxification: Any Evidence of Benefit or Harm?” Am Fam Physican., February 1, 2010; 81(3):337,

Bora Keum, et al., “Proctocolitis Caused by Coffee Enemas,” Am J Gastroenterol, 2010; 105:229-230,

Margolin KA, Green MR, “Polymicrobial enteric septicemia from coffee enemas,” West J Med., March 1984; 140(3):460,

Eisele JW, Reay DT, “Deaths related to coffee enemas,” JAMA, October 3, 1980; 244(14):1608-9,

Ranit Mishori, et al., “The dangers of colon cleansing,” J Fam Pract., August 2011; 60(8):454-457,[tt_news]=176194.

Alice Park, “Colon Cleansing: Not So Cleansing After All,” Time, August 1, 2011,

Ernst E., “Colonic irrigation and the theory of antointoxication: a trumph of ignorance over science,” J Clin Gastroenterol., June 1997; 24(4):196-8,

Gregory R. Istre, et al., “An Outbreak of Amebiasis Spread by Colonic Irrigation at a Chiropractic Clinic,” N Engl J Med., August 5, 1982; 307:339-342,

Sisco V, et al, “Potential impact of colonic irrigation on the indigenous intestinal microflora,” J Manipulative Physiol Ther., February 1988; 11(1):10-6,

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho.


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  1. June Hanson says:

    Had to live with colonics for years. That is until therapist, told me about Dr J.E. William . He ordered extensive stool & G.I. tests. His great work and therpies, change of lifestyle, diet, has made me a new woman. Never have needed another colonic.

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