Opinion » Antidote

Every Party Needs a Pooper


I'm sure you have heard the radio infomercial for some colon cleanser that claims John Wayne had 40 lbs. of undigested meat in his bowels when he died. I don't ever believe that crap (ha ha), but it never fails to surprise me how they try to freak us out. Hearing that again the other night reminded me to ask your opinion of colonic irrigation. Is there any legitimate reason to put yourself through something like that? BTW, when I was a kid, I thought a "high colonic" was some sort of cocktail my parents drank.


The Duke would surely spin in his grave to find his legacy as the most virile star of 20th century movie Westerns hijacked by pitchmen to sell Super Colon Blow. The meatpacking rumor, of course, is completely false. According to the myth-busters at Snopes.com, Mr. Wayne was quickly and privately buried following his death from cancer in 1979, and no autopsy was ever done. Further, the common claim that everyone has years of built-up feces wallpapering their intestines should be just as quickly buried; the now-routine colonoscopy has clearly shown the widespread absence of fecal fossils. So the question becomes: Without this excuse, what reason could there be for internal pressure washing?

Also known as colon hydrotherapy, a colonic is really a very tidy, super-sized enema. The procedure begins with the anal insertion of a disposable or sterilized nozzle, which combines inflow and outflow attachments. While laying on one's left side, a machine pumps in a few pints of warm filtered water, and then allows it to be expelled. Repeatedly filling and expanding the lower colon presumably stimulates the upper bowels to empty. At some point, the client is instructed to hold the liquid inside while rolling over for a brief abdominal massage. About 15 gallons of water (and sometimes added herbs or minerals) will have been used by the end of a typical 45-minute session. Most interestingly, the outflow tube contains a glass viewing port to allow the therapist to inspect the effluent. On the lookout, I suspect, for goldfish and old license plates, some colon-jockeys have brazenly declared seeing "three-foot long pieces of cheese" and "chunks of meat." It seriously makes me wonder about their ability to work the machine.

Colonic irrigation is touted to be of primary benefit for irritable bowel syndrome and similar gastrointestinal conditions. However, fearless promises of skin clearing, weight loss and immune boosting are abundant. Justification for such claims usually concerns "reducing the toxic load" associated with a condition called autointoxication. Which, itself, is a bit of a toxic load.

Autointoxication was a theory first described in the 1800s in which rotting feces in the intestines would cause poisons to be absorbed into the body. Physicians, then, went so far as to surgically remove part of the colon as a treatment. Today's irrigation promoters have re-branded "poison" as "toxin," and instead of surgery, they simply send in a cleaning crew. The view of the reality-based community, such as those who require evidence, are best represented by the title of a 1997 article in The Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology: "Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science."

My review of the current medical literature still did not reveal a single article demonstrating evidence of therapeutic benefit of the procedure. Associations of colon hydrotherapists can offer only anecdotal evidence or testimonials as proof of the value. To be sure, there are plenty of people who feel better, healthier and even enjoy a regular colonic--but beyond (dare I say it?) pleasure, an actual need is apparently absent.

Contrary to laxative commercials, regularity is relative--some people defecate several times a day, while other perfectly normal individuals move their bowels only a few times a week. Constipation is not defined by frequency of movements, but rather by hardness of the end product. When help is needed, additional dietary fiber is usually all that is required, and fiber is only slightly less glamorous than hiring strangers to insert objects into your rectum.

Like bathing a cat, bathing a colon is not without some risk. Though quite rare, cases of bowel perforation and spread of infection are well-documented. More commonly, however, changes in electrolyte balance (especially when softened water or saline is used) and disruption of important beneficial bacteria are the main concerns. Occasional dizziness, nausea and cold sweats are simply a bonus. And if your colon hydrotherapist tells you she saw a T-bone steak float by, you might consider shooting an e-mail to Snopes.com.

Dr. Ed Rabin is a chiropractor practicing at Life Chiropractic Center in Boise. Send Super Colon Blow and health-related questions to theantidote@edrabin.com (on the Web at www.edrabin.com).