It’s tipped as a fast way to flush away festive excesses. But do you really need a colonic?

You’ve got to give it to the colonic industry. No other sphere of medicine has managed to make private business quite so glamorous; it seems that as long as it’s in the confines of a dedicated clinic, a bowel motion is a modern badge of honour. A statement that you make mistakes, but own them.

Google’s keyword auto-fill says concepts most often linked with the anatomical version of a drive-through car wash are weight loss and feeling lighter.
But can a quick interior squirt really reverse the excesses of the festive season?

Industry pioneer, registered nurse and founder of Sydney Colon Health Clinic ( Bianca James says that the practice technically known as ‘colonic lavage’ is steeped in hopeful folklore.

What is colon cleansing?

The real purpose of colon cleansing 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”. 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.

As for exorcising dietary demons, any ‘evidence’ is likely to be psychosomatic. The head of Flinders University’s department of human physiology, Professor Simon Brookes, doesn’t dispute that some patients do feel lighter, or cleansed after a good ol’ rinse, but he pins it on a placebo effect. “…there is absolutely no medical evidence that it carries any benefits at all,” says Prof Brookes.

The hard, cold, cruel fact is that there’s no getting around the science of calories consumed versus calories expended. No pill or procedure – liposuction nothwithstanding – can trick the system that says it takes a caloric deficit of 3,500 calories to lose around half a kilo of fat.

If you’re giving us a dirty look and recalling how your jeans magically did up when you had gastro, consider this: even producing four to six litres of diarrhoea soon after eating only reduced calories absorbed by around 12 per cent in a study of young women published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Within hours the energy from your Campari and gyros has been distributed to temporary storage points and the only way to delete it is to use it up. Days after the fact you’ve got no hope – even with a blinged up bidet.

Virtual colonic
If you do want to feel lighter or use colonic lavage as a kind of reset ritual, here’s what you need to know. First you’ll complete a comprehensive heath appraisal to ensure the procedure is appropriate for your health state and goals. Pre-procedure checks at credible clinics can involve testing urine for body hydration, pH levels and diabetes. Once you’re in the clear, weight and blood pressure are taken.

The exact, er, hosing 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 with 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 follows.

The procedure 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.

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 diet and lifestyle recommendations.

Warning bowels
Despite vocal proponents peddling colonic lavage’s potential to prevent disease (Hippocrates was a fan), recent events have put the procedure through the wringer. Criticisms span futility, threat of infectious disease and ruptured stomachs.

A study at Georgetown University went as far as claiming that there is ‘limited clinical evidence validating colon therapy as a health promotion practice’. Prof Brookes says the idea that we carry toxins in our bodies and need to clean our bowels is unfounded.

Then there’s the case of six people being infected with hepatitis C in Sydney in 2000.

Perhaps most worrying (whether amplified for the purposes of anti-colonic propaganda or not) are reports of perforated bowels. “There have even been deaths associated with it; that people would mess around with such an important part of the body is ridiculous,” says Prof Brookes.

James, who was enlisted by NSW Health to help devise guidelines after the hepatitis incident, says that despite perceptions instilled by 49-buck daily deals, colonic lavage is an invasive medical procedure. It should be performed in a medically-run clinic by medically-trained practitioners au fait with infection control procedures. Many practitioners, James laments, are not medically trained.

She says the industry lacks regulation and that state guidelines are not enforced.  “It is up to the general public to exercise their own due diligence to ensure their safety.” Don’t be afraid to grill the therapists about their training and check facilities before committing. Expect to pay $90 to $120 per treatment.