Colon detoxification – myth versus science

Listen to the radio for a few minutes. Or watch late night television for a bit. Through the commercials hawking insurance with talking geckos, promoting treatments for erectile dysfunction, and, exhibiting the coolest, fastest, most fuel efficient car, you will run across the reason for all that ails you–your failure to use colon detoxification to fix your problems.

Colon detoxification or, sometimes, cleansing is one of those strange alternative medicine ideas that hangs around without one single bit of evidence supporting it. We’re going to take a look at it with the feathery dinosaur’s skeptical eye.

The myth of colon detoxification

The belief in this junk medicine started with the “death begins in the colon” trope, which has over 4 million Google hits. It’s an idea started by the Bernard Jensen, chiropractor and pusher of the wide breadth of pseudoscientific woo, including hydrotherapyfastingreflexology, color therapy, polarity, glandular balancing, homeopathyherbologyacupuncturecraniopathy and personology.

The basic principle of colon detoxification is that the colon has years of built up “toxins” which are the cause of all disease; the cure for all illnesses then is to cleanse all the “toxins” from one’s body. It always amuses me that the woo pushers have absolutely no science backing their nonsense. Consequently, they make it so easy. Take this supplement, you disease will be cured. Rarely is that true.

There’s a whole bunch of junk science pseudoscience built into this myth, such as, “the management of constipation is one of the most important steps you can take to protect your health.  The consequences of colon toxins, from the accumulating, rotting debris, colon parasites, attached to the wall of a sluggish colon, damaging your body, stealing your food, poisoning your body with their wastes are going to make you sick before it kills you.” Rotting debris? Really. Seriously, what are feces if not “rotting debris,” a fundamental function of a health colon.

One of the beliefs of the colon cleansing crowd is that there is some sort of toxic sludge layering the walls of the intestinal tract like “spackle.” Yeah, I heard spackle used in an advertisement, but the colon detox woo pushers usually call it “mucoid plaque.” It’s usually described as a black tar goo that adheres to the walls slowly releasing toxins into the bloodstream, while killing you.

Also some of these people also believe that you carry “pounds” of this stuff, so proper cleansing keeps your weight down. There are all kinds of photos of the mucoid plaques removed from intestines. Amusingly, many of the photos are from intestinal tracts impacted with the very substances that were supposed to cleanse the same colon! In other words, the photo below is exactly what you’d expect to see if you consumed a lot of the colon-cleansing stuff–it is simply the coagulated colon cleansing substance, not some “plaque” attached to the colon.

 

colon detoxification
What woo-pushers considered mucoid plaque. Actually can’t tell what it is.

Again, the colon detoxification pushers claim that:

  • Cleansing will reduce excessive weight
  • Cleansing will cure diseases (all kinds, just name it, they’ll blame it on your colon)
  • Cleansing will expel parasites
  • Cleansing will remove toxic chemicals
  • Cleansing will prevent death

So let’s review the peer reviewed articles that support these amazing claims. Hang on. They’re right here. Oh wait (assume crickets everywhere).

 

The real science

First, the whole idea presumes that our digestive tract is “clean.” Well, it isn’t. According to Science Based Medicine, the “colon is crawling with hundreds of species of bacteria, where the most common species (E. coli) makes up only 1% to 2% of the total bacterial count and by the time the stool makes it out around 10% of its mass is made up of bacteria.” Sounds disgusting, but frankly without all those bacteria we wouldn’t be able to digest food, and process certain foodstuffs. We should love our dirty colon.

We do have a certain obsession with bacteria and “germs.” Some microorganisms are definitely dangerous, if not deadly if they get into the gut. Listeria and some subtypes of E. coli can contaminate our food supply and can be very harmful.

But these are rare, and have little to do with your colon’s health. In general, your skin, mouth, intestine, lungs and other organs are filled with bacteria, most of them living in a harmonious relationship with your body.

According to an article in the LA Times, Dr. Bennett Roth, a gastroenterologist at UCLA simply states that these claims are “wrong.” He continues to say that, “there is absolutely no science to this whatsoever. There is no such thing as getting rid of quote-unquote ‘toxins.’ The colon was made to carry stool. This is total baloney.”

The fact is that the intestinal tract contains mostly bacteria, which can aid digestion. “An enema or laxative does not get rid of more ‘bad’ versus ‘good’ bacteria,” said Dr. David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, in the same LA Times article. It gets rid of both. “We don’t like the idea of carrying bacteria, so lots of folks want to cleanse. But remember, bacteria can be your friend.”

Other experts in gastroenterology have said the same thing. Dr. Ranit Mishori, an associate professor of family medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. has stated that, “I have yet to see a well-designed study on colon cleansing in a reputable medical journal to support its health claims.”

Dr. Mishori also added that colon detoxification had significant potential harm with little benefit. These issues include:

  1. Colon cleansing can cause side effects. We lack data on either potential benefits or risks from any cleansing method. This cleansing may put a person at risk of being dehydrated and creating massive electrolyte imbalances which can have an effect on normal heart rhythm and leg cramps. Some herbal cleanses may also be linked with liver damage.
  2. There’s no scientific evidence that colon detoxification actually removes toxins from the body or contributes to better health. 
  3. Sorry, but colon cleansing is not an effective strategy for weight loss. What ever weight loss observed is generally temporary as a result of the removal of excess water and stool. Real weight loss requires the permanent loss of fat tissue.
  4. Colon cleansing and colonic irrigation are not safe for everyone. Individuals with kidney disease or heart problems, who try colon cleansing, may have trouble maintaining proper fluid balance. And individuals with prior gastrointestinal problems, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, need to avoid colon detoxification because it may exacerbate the symptoms.
  5. Cleansing’s effect on gut bacteria is unknown. The gut contains beneficial and harmful bacterial that remain in a balance that keeps  you healthy. In fact, some of the good bacteria are critical in reducing levels of bad bacteria. A thorough colon cleanse cannot possibly get rid of all bacteria, but is indiscriminate in what it removes. It’s possible that the cleanse will actually support the growth of bad bacteria, which will really make you sick.

Frankly, there is just no evidence of any of these claims about colon detoxification or cleansing. If it were true, it would be on of the most studied parts of medicine, the one panacea for all ills that afflict a human being. Physicians would test your bowels on your first visit to determine the state of your health.

What is most amusing is that a PubMed search of colon+mucoid+plaques produces precisely 0 hits. In addition, in a review of websites promoting products that claim to remove ‘mucoid rope’ or plaque from consumers’ intestines, Howard Hochster, Professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at New York University School of Medicine, wrote that these websites are “abundant, quasi-scientific, and unfortunately convincing to a biologically uneducated public.” He also noted that these sites can be entertaining, but they are troubling in that they promote a belief that has no basis in gastrointestinal physiology.

 

The TL;DR version

It seems that the colon detoxification promoters have some odd obsession with bowel movements, even the quality and quantity of those movements. Dietary fiber is important in a well balanced diet, and the modern American diet seems to be lacking in the whole grains, fruits and vegetables that provide significant amounts of good fiber. But cleansing the colon is an unnecessary waste of money and time.

There is absolutely no evidence, none whatsoever, that colon detoxification helps you in any way. It is junk medicine and pseudoscience, nothing more. I thoroughly searched various medical research databases to find anything that would indicate that colon detoxification is supported by any sort of evidence based medicine. There was none.

Wait, I was wrong. Colon cleansing is n important step prior to colonoscopy. The gastroenterologist needs a colon cleaned of fecal material so that he can visualize any polyps and other precancerous lesions on the wall of the colon. The pre-procedure colon cleanse is very thorough, and there is no evidence that a giant mucoid plaque is pushed out of your colon. There is one more thing about colonoscopies – which uses a high resolution camera to visualize the colon wall – physicians have never observed a “mucoid plaque.” You’d think after millions of these images, dozens of papers would be published about this concrete impacting the colon. Funny that.

To be honest, this just appears to be another way for quacks to make money from gullible consumers who think that cleansing their gut will be their way to cure all that ails them. That’s it.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in April 2013. It has been revised and updated to clear up some issues, to fix some formatting problems, and to clear up some wording.

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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!