It’s shamelessly bandied about between friends with hopeful new year’s abandon, but the word ‘colonics’ describes a practice dividing the medical industry. Hannah Blamey and Rebecca Long flush out the facts on personal plumbing.

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Internet forums are full of people who swear by irrigating their insides with the practice variously known as ‘colon cleansing’, ‘colon hydrotherapy’ and simply ‘colonics’, with feeling feather light, dropping a couple of kilos and being more regular among reported perks. It makes flushing the waste from your insides with water sound almost like, well, fun.

But despite gaining acceptance in audible conversation, personal, er, plumbing (medical name ‘colonic lavage’) is turning stomachs in the medical fraternity.

Industry pioneer and founder of Sydney’s Colon Health Clinic Bianca James says it’s imperative that people recognise that colonic lavage is in fact an invasive procedure – which is easy to forget when you can snap up a spring clean for $49 on Groupon.

Like other invasive procedures, the process of flushing your insides with water demands medical training, which registered nurse James laments many therapists don’t have. Colon therapists need to be medically qualified and uphold infection control procedures, says colon therapist James.

What can I expect?

Despite ‘pop health’ framing the ‘colonic’ as a path to rapid weight loss – and indeed removing sludge, mucous and waste can instantly zap a few kilos – the ultimate aim of colon cleansing, according to James, is to “facilitate the removal of stagnant faecal matter and subsequent proliferation of bacteria and their toxins, and re-educate the colon to perform its natural functions effectively”. While you’re unlikely to notice a major reduction in overall body size, you may feel markedly ‘lighter’ and more energetic. You can expect to pay between $90 and $120 per treatment.

BEFORE

Each facility will have different protocols, but James explains that a medically-run clinic will usually ask you to complete a comprehensive heath appraisal before facilitating the procedure, to ensure the procedure is appropriate for your health state and goals.

Health checks prior to a procedure at a medically-run clinic can involve testing urine for body hydration, pH levels and diabetes, after which you are weighed and your blood pressure is taken.

DURING

The exact process depends on which of two systems you choose – open non-pressurised, or closed and pressurised.

In the open system, you can expect to lie on a couch that has a toilet built into it. Then, James explains, a pencil thin, sterile, disposable, single use rectal tube is inserted into the anus, and warm, purified water is gently infused into the bowel.

At this point, a feeling of fullness and the need to eliminate faecal matter make that built in toilet seem ingenious! The process is repeated for around 40 to 45 minutes, or until 14 litres of purified water has made its way around your bowel.

Like the open system, the closed system comes with the creature comfort of a massage table. The major differences with the closed system are that the procedure is totally controlled by a therapist, the tube is significantly larger (about the width of a 50 cent coin), and rather than a set amount of water, the therapist continues to pump water into the bowel until you indicate you can’t take in any more, which James says tends to be at about 40 litres.

When this occurs, advises James, the therapist will reverse the valve and water and faecal waste “is sucked back through the tube, then through an attached tube with the size and look of a vacuum cleaner hose, then through a viewing tube and into a regular toilet”. Like the open system, the treatment usually takes around 40 minutes.

AFTER

Following the procedure, therapists will examine your eliminated waste for candida and look for other parasites, blood, mucous, undigested food and any other abnormalities, says James. You will also receive a detailed treatment report with recommendations for both your diet and lifestyle. While it is undeniably invasive, James insists that “the experience is generally a positive one”.

Real results, or real waste?

Despite claims of its capacity to buoy the body’s functions and make you feel better, the benefits of colon cleansing are often disputed. A study at Georgetown University went as far as claiming that there is ‘limited clinical evidence validating colon therapy as a health promotion practice’ – a thesis shared by the head of Flinders University’s department of human physiology, Professor Simon Brookes.

While he doesn’t dispute that some candidates believe they reap the benefits, the expert in pseudoscience does attribute benefits to a placebo effect.

"…there is absolutely no medical evidence that it carries any benefits at all," says Prof Brookes, who asserts that the underlying idea that we carry toxins in our bodies and need to clean our bowels is a furphy.

But James says case studies and recent science quash Prof Brookes’ position. “We have ample proof of the benefits, and the lives colonic lavage therapy has saved.”

An early-90s study at Britain’s Royal College of Surgeons concluded that the 52-plus toxins produced by the bowel were the major factor in controlling human disease.

The risks

It doesn’t take much googling to come up with stories horrific enough to put you off your high-fibre cereal – from the case of six patients being infected with hepatitis C in Sydney in 2000, to anecdotal reports of perforated bowels that can’t help but ring alarm bells.


Prof Brookes claims that colon procedures carry significant risks such as rupturing the gut wall. “There have even been deaths associated with it; that people would mess around with such an important part of the body is ridiculous,” he says.


But James, who was enlisted by NSW Health to help devise guidelines after the hepatitis incident, assures that rogue operators, not the procedure, create the risks.
She concedes that lack of regulation in the industry, in which respective state guidelines are not enforced for therapists and clinics are not subjected to mandatory inspections, jeopardises consumers’ safety.

"It is up to the general public to do their own due diligence to ensure their safety," she says, reiterating the importance of checking that clinics use medically-qualified therapists.

For further information visit colonhealth.com.au or health.nsw.gov.au