For the Love of God, Don't Get a Colon Cleanse

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

What if you could lose weight, have more energy, get glowing skin, and possibly cure chronic disease... you just had to sit with a tube pumping water up your butt for 30 minutes? Oh, and those miracle results aren't guaranteed or even backed up by science.

Seems like a resounding "no thanks," but there are swarms of health and wellness "gurus" who claim colon cleansing, or colonics, can do all that and more. Yep, that's right: They say you should get your colon power-washed on a regular basis.

The procedure has been around for at least 20 years, but has gained popularity in recent years thanks to outspoken celebrity advocates. Gwyneth Paltrow, the queen bee of health and wellness, swears by them. Celebrity nutritionist Kimberly Snyder touts them as part of her Beauty Detox plan. Reality-TV stars, the gods and goddesses of pop culture, have shared their experiences with colon cleansing, which, again, is supposed to make you live your best life, somehow.

The problem? Colon cleansing is still pretty controversial. After all, there's no scientific evidence to support claims that regular colonics are necessary or even beneficial. And for a pretty invasive procedure -- tube up your butt! -- the risks can outweigh the supposed rewards.

What exactly is a colonic?

Colon cleansing goes by many names: colonic, colon irrigation, or colon hydrotherapy. Put basically, it's the process of injecting water into the colon through a tube in the rectum, and flushing it out, usually with a special machine, because a garden hose would be even more inadvisable.

Proponents of the procedure claim there's a buildup of waste in your colon that needs to be washed out in order to detoxify the body. It's supposed to help everything from mild constipation to chronic fatigue and weight loss. But these benefits are more anecdotal than scientific.

There's no research to back up the benefits of colonics

Yeah, so that's a tiny little problem with allowing a stranger to stick a tube up your anus. "People think that eliminating all waste will lead to weight loss and glowing clear skin. However, there is little research on colonics, especially as they pertain to a beauty benefit," says Dr. Gina Sam, gastroenterologist with Mount Sinai in New York City. She adds that most doctors don't advocate for colon-cleansing treatments, unless you're getting a colonoscopy, and even then only if the traditional prep methods don't work.

In fact, researchers who reviewed 20 studies on colon cleansing found that it doesn't offer much of anything, except maybe some discomfort -- and potentially dangerous side effects, like severe nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.

Colon cleansing could be harmful in the long run

Colonics aren't just a potential waste of time; they could lead to some unfortunate health complications.
"Colonics flush away beneficial mucus and microbiomes, which helps the body's immune system to detect and fight foreign antigens," Dr. Sam says. "So you're lowering immunity, which is never a good idea." There are also risks associated with the tubes that are used, including infection and abscesses, which are exactly as painful as they sound, and might require surgery.

More serious side effects can happen for people who have a heart condition, kidney problems, or an inflammatory bowel disease such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis, according to Dr. Kathlynn Caguiat, a gastroenterologist at Manhattan Gastroenterology. Those risks include infection, dehydration, and an electrolyte imbalance, which can cause irregular heart rhythm or lead to neurological symptoms such as lightheadedness, dizziness, headaches, or seizures.

That hasn't stopped colonic fans from promoting their benefits

There's no scientific research to support the claims promised by colon hydrotherapy, and doctors argue that your body's digestive system is already pretty efficient in cleaning itself out, as anyone who's stayed out late drinking booze and eating pizza knows. But advocates of colon cleansing still swear by its effectiveness.

Jane Goldberg, PhD, psychologist, and founder and owner of La Casa Spa and Wellness Center, opened her business 23 years ago after her mom had success with colonics during her bone cancer treatments. Dr. Goldberg says cleaning out your colon is important for overall detoxification and health, and can even help with back pain.

"People come because they feel better, they experience the benefits of it," she says. "They have less pain, they do feel more energy, because toxicity will make you pretty tired."

Cassie Karopkin, colon therapist at Colon Therapy NYC, says colonics have helped her clients with clearer skin, constipation, GI issues, and pain relief, but emphasizes they go hand-in-hand with eating well and an overall healthy lifestyle.

"It speaks for itself," Karopkin says. "I would never tell somebody, 'You should come back.' They just come back because it works."

As more wellness centers open up offering colon therapy, and more celebrities become vocal about getting their own colons cleaned out, the more appealing the procedure may seem. Just be wary of the potential side effects, and shaky research, before getting your shit pumped out.

Christina Stiehl is a Health and fitness staff writer for Thrillist. She has zero interest in getting a colonic. Follow her on Twitter @ChristinaStiehl.