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28 Feb 2020 9:10
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  •   Home > News > International

    Is colonic irrigation effective for improving wellbeing, and is it safe?

    After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, you may be looking for a quick fix for that bloated, lethargic feeling. But is colonic irrigation — often touted as a detoxifying therapy — effective and safe?

    After the excesses of Christmas and New Year, I'm feeling pretty bloated and lethargic. A couple of friends have suggested colonic irrigation to help me detox and reset. Is colonic irrigation safe and does it live up to the hype? — Angela

    It might seem trendy, but colonic irrigation — the process of flushing out the bowel with water — has been practised since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians.

    But just because humans were doing something 3,500 years ago doesn't necessarily mean it's good for you.

    So what is colonic irrigation, and does it live up to the various wellness claims that are made about it?

    What is colonic irrigation?

    Colonic irrigation, also known as colonic cleansing, colon hydrotherapy or transanal irrigation, involves a tube being put into your anus and flushing out your bowel with water.

    It's often performed at specialty wellness clinics as well as by medical professionals.

    Colonic irrigation differs from an enema in that a lot more water is used, whereas enemas are a single injection of fluid (not always water) into the anus.

    What's it meant to treat? And what does the evidence say?

    Fans of colonic irrigation say it can help with things like bloating, irritability, low energy, managing weight, and general detoxification.

    "There's this belief that if you build up a lot of waste in the gut, toxins can enter the bloodstream and slowly cause people to get those symptoms," said Vincent Ho, a gastroenterologist from Western Sydney University.

    "So there are people who believe if you clean the colon and get rid of all that waste, it can help improve your health," Dr Ho said.

    But, he said, when experts have pulled together all the available evidence from various studies, there doesn't seem to be any clear benefit.

    "There's really no support for this practice for general health promotion, in other words, detoxification, improving your general wellbeing."

    OK, so the wellness evidence is scant, but is it harmful?

    On the whole, Dr Ho said colonic irrigation was pretty safe, but there are certain conditions that make the procedure potentially harmful.

    People with conditions like haemorrhoids, anal fissures, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis and other conditions that affect the anus or bowel are at risk of injury from either the tube used in the procedure or the water that's introduced into the bowel.

    Extra water being introduced into your body can also put pressure on your kidneys, which could cause problems for people with kidney issues.

    The thing is, you could have one of these conditions and not know about it, Dr Ho said.

    There are other considerations, for example, if people have a history of sexual abuse or are at risk of self-harm.

    "If you're thinking of undertaking colonic irrigation, it should be something you should discuss with a qualified health professional, such as a general practitioner, just to go through the pros and cons."

    Flushing out the colon also affects beneficial gut bacteria that live in our digestive tracts and contribute to your overall health in ways science is discovering more about every day.

    Does this mean colonic irrigation is completely useless?

    No, actually. There are a few groups of people it's very beneficial for, namely those with bowel dysfunction.

    Bowel dysfunction can result in chronic problems like faecal incontinence, where people have difficulty controlling their bowel movements, or severe constipation.

    It often happens in people with conditions like spina bifida, multiple sclerosis and spinal injury, where issues with their nerves mean their digestive system doesn't work as well as it should.

    For these people, colonic irrigation can be a lifeline.

    "It improves constipation, incontinence ... quality of life, and it can help promote their dignity and independence," Dr Ho said.

    "It gives them control over their bowel motions in a way they haven't had before."

    I still feel like I need to detox. What should I do?

    Your body already has great detoxifying machinery in the form of your liver and kidneys, and your gut is already really good at expelling waste.

    But if you feel like you've been giving these organs more than their fair share of work recently, there are ways to give your body a break without resorting to special procedures.

    "I can understand the need sometimes for a reset," Dr Ho said.

    "That idea is very appealing but there are better ways to achieve that. One of the ways is to look at your diet and exercise and, in some cases, medications administered by a health professional."

    A healthy, high-fibre diet will help your gut expel waste, as well as support your gut bacteria.

    And while the wellness benefits of colonic irrigation aren't backed up by science, Dr Ho said there is plenty of evidence other wellness practices really can make a difference to your gut.

    "There's been good evidence that some practices — relaxation exercises, meditation, yoga — can be helpful for irritable bowel syndrome," he said.

    This is part of our Burning Question series, answering your questions about health and wellbeing. Read some of the questions we've answered in the past:


    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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