We doctors are trained to understand and analyze a vast number of problems and treatments. Nonetheless, after many years of practice, I still encounter questions for which my training as an allopath (M.D.) has left me unprepared. No part of my medical school curriculum or residency in Internal Medicine dealt with colon cleansing as an approach to healing or prevention. It's time I become educated.Many colon cleanses include fasting. Almost every major religion has a long history of some type of fasting ritual, including Lent, Ramadan, Yom Kippur, and many Hindu and Buddhist traditions. There certainly appear to be spiritual benefits to fasting and cleansing the body, but are there any physiologic benefits? In Chinese medicine, fasting is considered part of preventive health care. In some early cultures, fasting did help people, after a long winter, to shed the extra fat that kept them warm. The early rationale for colon cleansing came from the ancient idea of auto-intoxication (self-poisoning), which the ancient Egyptians first documented, and the Greeks adopted and expanded upon. The theory holds that stagnation, or rotting of food, takes place in the large intestine (colon). This causes toxins to form, which then may be absorbed, or perhaps harbor parasites or unhealthy flora. The colon is seen as a sewage system that becomes a cesspool if neglected. The theory continues that constipation causes hardened feces to accumulate for months (or even years) on the walls of the intestine that block it from absorbing or eliminating properly. In the 19th century, studies in biochemistry and microbiology appeared to support auto-intoxication, and mainstream Western physicians promoted it. It was not until the early 20th century that it became evident that advances in science were no longer supporting this theory. Despite this, belief in the concept of auto-intoxication persists among groups of alternative health care practitioners, naturopaths, homeopaths and the public at large. Colon cleansing (also known as colon therapy) encompasses a number of alternative medical therapies intended to remove feces and nonspecific toxins from the colon and intestinal tract. Colon cleansing uses two general methods: *Oral cleansing regimens: Oral procedures involve emptying the colon by drinking large quantities of water, juices, fiber, herbs, laxatives, dietary supplements, or by following a special diet. *Colon hydrotherapy (also called a colonic or colonic irrigation): Tubes may be used to inject water, sometimes mixed with herbs or other liquids, into the colon via the rectum. Either method might be combined with a variety of relaxation techniques including sauna, aromatherapy baths, deep breathing exercises, walking and meditation. Western Medicine does agree that the body can accumulate toxins (although they most typically occur in small amounts that are not likely to be harmful to most). Many foods have natural toxins, such as arsenic. Dangerous substances that are foreign to our normal cleansing system include botulinum, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), phthalates, asbestos, lead, and methyl mercury. However, most of us in medicine today do not agree that modern life so fills us with these poisons from pollution and additives that we need to be periodically cleaned out, or detoxified. In spite of many celebrities practicing it for weight loss and wellbeing, and health retreats offering them, there are still no valid scientific studies that show that they actually work. Until approximately 1920, physicians had been taught to accept the concept of autointoxication. Medicine abandoned it because it was clearly demonstrated around that time that symptoms of headache, fatigue, and loss of appetite that accompanied impaction of the bowels were caused by the actual distension of the colon rather than by the production or absorption of toxins. Direct observation of the colon during surgical procedures or autopsies found no evidence that hardened feces accumulate on the intestinal walls. Scientists today note that natural chemicals in our foods may be thousands of times more potent than artificial additives, and that most Americans are healthier, live longer, and choose from the most healthful food supply ever available. Our bodies' continuous metabolic processes dispose of accumulated toxic matter through the colon, liver, kidneys, lungs, lymph nodes and skin. In fact, there can be harmful effects to colon cleansing, including the spread of harmful bacteria, and altering the natural balance of bacteria, minerals, or other chemicals that keep the colon in balance. Some types of enemas have been associated with heart attacks, electrolyte imbalances, infection, and damage to the bowel (including perforation). Frequent colon cleansing has actually led to dependence on enemas to eliminate waste. While detoxification therapies abound, there are simply no compelling reasons for the vast majority of us to consider using them. No scientific evidence supports the alleged benefits of colon cleansing. The bowel itself is not dirty and barring drugs, disease or mechanical blockage, it cleans itself naturally without assistance. As a scientist and physician, until valid studies are done which support either the dangers of leaving traces of toxins in our bodies, or the benefits of cleansing such toxins, I do not recommend such procedures. Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
********** Published: May 24, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 06