What Is a Colon Cleanse—And Do You Need to Do One?

Medically reviewed by Isabel Casimiro, MD

A colon cleanse is a process in which a person’s colon is flushed out and cleared of its contents. However, research suggests the process might not actually be as beneficial—or necessary—as it's marketed to be.

The colon is the first part of your large intestine and is where waste is turned into stool. You might need to clean your colon ahead of a medical procedure, such as a colonoscopy, to give the healthcare provider a clearer view of your insides. This process is medically necessary and referred to as bowel preparation.

But you might have also heard some people clear out their colons for wellness purposes. This process is known as a colon cleanse. In these cases, a colon cleanse may be advertised as being able to improve general digestive and intestinal health because it can supposedly clean out toxins.

Colon cleanses have other purported benefits, including improving irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), alleviating fatigue, improving immune health, providing mental clarity, and helping reduce weight.

While companies and clinics sell products and procedures claiming the many benefits of colon cleansing, there is no scientific evidence that supports the health benefits of colon cleansing.

Some studies have shown positive results for people who do cleanses, but these studies have had small study populations or did not undergo proper peer review.

Types of Colon Cleanses

A colon cleanse can be done either at home by yourself or in an office by someone trained in the process. A colonic hygienist or colon therapist may be the title of the person who would do the procedure in an office.

Colon cleanses can be done with enemas, laxatives, or colon hydrotherapy.

An enema is the injection of liquid into your colon, through your rectum. The liquid will cleanse your bowel by making you feel the need to make a bowel movement and flushing your intestines. The enema can contain hot or cold water or other fluid like room temperature coffee or herbal solutions.

Oral laxatives are medicines you consume to produce bowel movements.

Colon hydrotherapy can involve a device that is inserted in the rectum and that then puts water into the colon. This may also be referred to as colonic irrigation or colonics.

Cleaning Your Colon for Medical Purposes

Emptying your colon for a medical procedure is necessary so that a healthcare provider has a clear view of your colon and its lining when diagnosing, managing, or screening for certain conditions. It is done under the supervision and clear instructions of a healthcare provider.

Bowel preparations generally involve following a liquid diet and taking a liquid laxative. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved several tablets and powder that can be used, as well. Enemas might also be used.

How It Works

If using an enema or colonic irrigation, you will first have to get in the correct position. For instance, if administering an enema to yourself, the instructions may tell you to lie down on your left side with your right knee bent to your chest.

Once in the correct position, you or the person administering the cleanse will need to insert the device into your rectum and release the liquid. For an enema, this will be a bottle that you can squeeze. For a colonic irrigation system, this will be a nozzle that is attached to a tube. The tube is attached to a machine that can control the water's pressure, temperature, and flow.

The difference between an enema and colonic irrigation is the amount of water used and the length of time they take. Once the liquid from an enema is inside you, it can take about one to five minutes for you to have the urge to make a bowel movement. Colonic irrigation uses more water (up to 60 liters) and can last anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes.

Some colon cleanses can involve taking laxatives, teas, powder, or capsules by mouth. These products can contain probiotics, enzymes, and herbs like:

  • Psyllium

  • Flaxseed

  • Cascara

  • Magnesium oxide

  • Artichoke leaves

  • Burdock root

  • Licorice

  • Milk thistle

However, none of these products has been approved by the FDA for colon cleansing.

Benefits of a Colon Cleanse

There are many purported potential benefits of colon cleansing. Most of these benefits are supported by anecdotal claims and are not supported by scientific evidence. Some of the potential benefits of a colon cleanse include:

  • Removing toxins from the body

  • Improving symptoms of IBS and inflammatory bowel disease

  • Providing cognitive improvements such as mental clarity

  • Improving blood pressure

  • Alleviating arthritis symptoms

  • Improving energy levels and reducing fatigue

  • Improving gut and intestinal health and promoting colon function

  • Boosting the immune system

  • Enhancing a person’s general well-being

There is no scientific evidence that can strongly support any of these health benefits. There is some research that suggests colon cleanses can have positive effects on IBS symptoms and and that they could be used in preparation for colonoscopies. The studies, however, had a low number of participants, making it difficult to reach reliable conclusions.

More studies need to be done to prove the potential health benefits of colon cleanses.

Risks of a Colon Cleanse

Colon cleansing procedures can have side effects ranging from mild to serious. Some of the more common mild risks of colon cleanses include:

Depending on the type of liquid used, it's also possible to experience burns and inflammation. Colon cleanses that use hot water or coffee that is not room temperature brings the risk of burning. These burns cause inflammation to the walls of the rectum. In some cases, the burns cause the rectum to narrow so much that surgery is required for treatment. Using equipment that controls the liquid's temperature might reduce this risk.

A colon cleanse might also cause electrolyte depletion. This is because absorbing large amounts of water through the rectum can lead to low blood sodium or potassium. The inappropriate use of oral laxatives can also cause electrolyte imbalances. Dehydration is also a risk.

You may also develop an infection from a colon cleanse. This is usually caused by bacteria from the gut inadvertently invading the blood or other nearby tissues through the large amounts of water used.

One of the most serious risks is the tearing or the perforation (the making of a hole) of the bowel walls. Another serious side effect can be renal failure.

Some herbal colon cleanses have been linked to aplastic anemia (when your bone marrow can't make enough new blood cells) and liver toxicity.

People with a history of gastrointestinal disease, colon surgery, hemorrhoids, kidney disease, and heart disease are more susceptible to the more serious side effects of colon cleansing.

Editor's Note: The FDA and Federal Trade Commission have tried to punish companies that sell medical devices for claiming that the devices can also work for colon cleansing.

A Quick Review

A colon cleanse is a procedure in which your colon is flushed out and cleared of its contents. Many people believe colon cleansing has impactful health benefits like improving your immune system, reducing blood pressure, improving digestive health, among many others. However, these benefits are anecdotal. Currently, there is no strong scientific evidence that can support these claims.

While colon cleanses have some purported benefits, they also carry some risks. Potential risks and side effects of a colon cleanse include infection, burns, dehydration, electrolyte depletion, and perforations. Some individuals may be at higher risk of experiencing these side effects.

If you or a loved one are interested in getting a colon cleanse, talk to your healthcare provider about your options and to determine if a colon cleanse is right for you.

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