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Gross AND hazardous: Why do a colon cleanse?

August 01, 2011|By Rosie Mestel, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • An over-the-counter colon cleansing product. Doctors say these products, as well as colon cleansings administered by others, are not safe and don't help.
An over-the-counter colon cleansing product. Doctors say these products,… (Ken Hively / Los Angeles…)

Colon cleansing? Seriously, why would anyone go get their guts irrigated out if they didn't have to do it, say, as prep for a colonoscopy? 

OK, so I'm not a stellar housekeeper. 

I first read of the practice back in the early 1990s in an article by Cecil Adams, who answers readers' questions in his "The Straight Dope" column, and it made an impression. "We're talking about a high-tech enema here," Cecil wrote as part of his detailed -- too detailed -- response to a question about the practice. "This accomplishes pretty much the same thing as a low-tech enema, except that, thanks to the lighted viewing tube, you get to watch the, uh, end result."

viewing tube?

Evidently, the practice is alive and well -- enough so, at any rate, that three physicians felt moved to write a warning note about it in the Journal of Family Practice. The article, titled "The Dangers of Colon Cleansing," described two case histories of patients who showed up at emergency rooms after undergoing colon cleanses and experiencing severe nausea, vomiting, cramps and the passage of loose, very watery stools.  In one case, the patient had gone to a cleansing center. In the other, he had used a cleanser he'd purchased himself. (There are many such preparations available for sale, often containing herbs of one kind or another.) He was eventually diagnosed with "herbal intoxication." Both experienced electrolyte imbalances and one had to stay in the hospital for two days.

The article is an interesting read: Apparently, the practice goes back centuries and was very popular in the early 1900s. The rationale for doing it was the same then as now: a clearing-out of toxins from the body.

And then as now, the doctors write, there is no evidence that any such toxin-removal is either achieved or needed.

The authors' advice to the physicians who read the Journal of Family Practice: "Advise patients that colon cleansing has no proven benefits and many adverse effects" and "Ask patients with otherwise unexplained nausea, vomiting or diarrhea if they engage in colon cleansing."

Presumed lesson for the rest of us: Don't do this.

Here's an article written a few years back by the L.A. Times Healthy Skeptic columnist, Chris Woolston, about health products and fads and how to assess claims. It's aptly called Step right up, folks!  

Related: Purification, or just a purge?

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