Colonic hydrotherapy is a treatment that involves flushing out waste material from the bowel using water. We’ll take a look at how the digestive system works, the perceived benefits and risks of colon cleansing and some tips for maintaining colon health.
What is colonic hydrotherapy?
Colonic hydrotherapy, colon cleansing or colonic irrigation is the process of flushing out waste from the colon (the large intestine) with fluid. The belief is that removing waste, gas and toxins from the colon helps maintain colon health.
During a cleanse, a colonic hygienist will have the client lie on a table. Around 60 litres of fluid is flushed through the intestine via a tube inserted into the rectum. This liquid is usually sterile filtered water but sometimes herbs, enzymes or probiotics are added. The water is then expelled through a different tube and the process is repeated. During this, the therapist will often massage the abdomen to help release any trapped gas and excess waste. Sessions usually last between 45 minutes to an hour.
Is colonic hydrotherapy needed?
Colonic irrigation is not necessary to maintain colon health. The only time a colonic may be recommended is in preparation for a colonoscopy. This is because the body naturally cleanses itself of waste materials through the digestive system and bowel.
Some people may still choose to have a colonic as they believe it helps detoxify the body, amongst other health benefits. However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that colonic hydrotherapy offers these benefits and, in some cases, it can actually be harmful. We’ll explore the risks of this treatment below, but first, let’s understand how the digestive system works.
What is the digestive system?
Our digestive system is an incredible thing. At around 30 feet long, the digestive system starts at our mouth and ends at the anus. Its main job is to convert the food we eat into the energy and nutrition our body needs and then eliminate waste. There are many different processes and factors at play, so the system can encounter problems from time to time. We call these digestive problems and they include conditions like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and Crohn’s disease. Temporary problems can also occur, like constipation and diarrhoea.
It takes around 24 hours for food to pass through the digestive system (though this depends on what food is consumed and in what quantity). It’s normal to have a bowel movement between three times a week and three times a day. Sometimes, however, this process moves too quickly (causing diarrhoea) or too slowly (causing constipation). There are many things that can upset the balance of our digestive systems, including poor eating habits, lack of exercise and disease and infections.
A strong connection between the mind and gut has also been discovered. This means things like stress and anxiety can cause a physical reaction in our digestive system. Think about the last time you were stressed or anxious - did you feel as if your stomach was ‘in knots’? Or that you had ‘butterflies’ in your stomach?
How does the digestive system work?
The digestion process starts in our mouths when we chew and swallow our food. We are already breaking up the food, ready for our stomach and small intestine to do their thing. These parts of the system then use chemical processes to break down our food and absorb the nutrition we need from them.
Once our food (or the mixture that was once food) leaves our small intestine, nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to the cells around our body. At this stage, we have already absorbed 95% of the nutrition we need. The next process happens in the large intestine. Here, water and remaining nutrients are absorbed. Our large intestine also neutralises the leftover waste, making it safe to pass through the body. There are also bacteria working away in the large intestine to ferment waste (this is what produces gas) and produce essential vitamins.
When we eat well, exercise regularly and are generally healthy, our digestive system does a great job of eliminating waste. When some of these factors are off balance, however, digestive problems may occur. Colonic hydrotherapy was designed to support colon health, preventing these issues and promoting overall wellness.
The history of colonic hydrotherapy
A form of colonic hydrotherapy, known as enemas, has been used since ancient Egyptian times, dating back to 1500 BC. Ancient Greeks also practised inner cleansing, as well as traditional Chinese and Indian civilisations. It was at the turn of the 20th century that the equipment used today was developed.
Why have a colonic?
For some, colonic hydrotherapy is thought to provide relief from symptoms of digestive problems. This helps the system rebalance and work healthily. For others, it may form part of a well-being routine, maintaining digestive health.
Practitioners of colonic irrigation say that the treatment offers several benefits, such as:
- supporting the immune system
- boosting energy levels
- improving the absorption of nutrients
- reducing gas and bloating
- encouraging the bowel to move and function normally
Is colonic hydrotherapy safe?
It is important to note that there is little medical evidence that supports these benefits. Whilst the NHS describe it as a safe treatment, colonic hydrotherapy should not be undertaken without considering the potential risks. Due to these risks and possible side effects, colonics are generally not recommended by doctors. Some of these concerns include:
- tears to the rectum
- electrolyte imbalance
- anal soreness and irritation
If you are still interested in having a colonic, ensure that the procedure is carried out by a professional. Colonic hydrotherapy is not regulated by law in the UK, meaning anyone can call themselves a colonic hygienist.
When finding a professional, be sure that they are a member of a professional body or accredited register. This way, you know they have met a good standard of practice. Organisations include the Association of Registered Colon Hydrotherapists (ARCH) and The Institute of Professional Colon Hydrotherapy (IPCH).
Find out more about professional bodies on Therapy Directory.
Who should avoid colonic hydrotherapy?
Whilst colonic hydrotherapy is generally not recommended, some people should especially avoid it. If you suffer from the following, you are advised not to have this therapy. This is because colon cleansing can make these conditions worse.
- high blood pressure (uncontrolled)
- heart disease
- kidney failure/illness
- heart disease
- bowel or rectal cancer
- severe anaemia
- severe haemorrhoids
- fissures or fistulas
- liver disease
- Crohn’s disease
- strangulated abdominal or inguinal hernias
- rectal bleeding
- GI (gastrointestinal) haemorrhage/perforation
- have had previous colon surgery
The Association of Registered Colon Hydrotherapists advises against this procedure if you are pregnant, at any stage. If you are unsure or concerned, speak to your doctor about whether or not you are able to undergo colonic hydrotherapy.
After your treatment
While you are advised to take it easy after your treatment, there is no recovery time and you should be able to get back to your normal routine immediately. In the first few hours, you may notice you need to empty your bowel more often. This is to eliminate any remaining water or waste. After that, you may well find that you don’t need to use the toilet for some time (even a few days) as your bowels have been completely emptied.
In the days following, you may feel a boost in energy levels, however, some report feeling tired and a little under the weather. If you have any concerns at all, speak to your therapist as they will be able to explain how your body is reacting.
To give your digestive system a break following treatment, you may want to avoid heavy foods and those that you know irritate your stomach. Natural, easy-to-digest foods are a good option.
Depending on the outcome of your first session, your health history and your health goals, you may be recommended further treatments by your therapist. The number of suggested treatments will vary from person to person.
Frequently asked questions
Will it hurt?
Having colonic hydrotherapy should not hurt. It may feel a little strange when the tube is inserted and you may feel the urge to push it out, but this sensation will pass. When the water is filling and emptying from the bowel you may feel movement and fullness, but this shouldn’t be uncomfortable. Some people feel cramping when the bowel is filled, but this shouldn’t be intense and will pass once it is emptied.
How do I know it will work for me?
Everyone is different and responds differently to this therapy. That means there is no guarantee that colonic hydrotherapy will help your symptoms. Provided your doctor has ruled out any risks, the best way to find out if it’s for you is to speak to a therapist.
Do I need to do anything before my treatment?
No, there’s nothing you need to do to prepare for your treatment, but you should avoid a heavy meal and consuming a lot of fluid immediately before. Alcohol should also be avoided.
Is it embarrassing?
Not at all. Of course, it’s natural to feel a little embarrassed but your therapist will help put you at ease. You’ll remain covered for the entire time and have privacy to change. What’s more, a sealed system carries the waste away hygienically so there’s no mess or smell.
Colon health tips
While colonic hydrotherapy is thought to help maintain colon health, what you eat, drink and do will have a greater effect. Here are some general tips that you can implement to keep your colon healthy:
- Stay well hydrated - This helps keep stool hydrated and eases/prevents constipation. Avoid drinking too much alcohol.
- Consume a high-fibre diet - Fibre helps retain water and stimulates healthy bacteria in the colon.
- Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables - Try to consume five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. Consuming whole grains, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats has been linked to a decreased risk of colon cancer.
- Try to exercise regularly - Moving your body helps encourage consistent bowel movements. The recommended daily exercise is around 30 minutes of moderate activity.
- Limit red meat - Try to reduce red and processed meat consumption where possible. These contain saturated fats which have been linked to increased risk of colon cancer.
- Take probiotics - Probiotics are live good bacteria that are thought to help restore the balance of bacteria in the gut. Some evidence suggests that probiotics can be useful in easing the symptoms of related issues such as IBS. Speak to your doctor or a nutritional professional if you’re considering taking probiotics.
- Have regular screenings - From 50 years old, it’s recommended that people get regular colonoscopies. This can identify abnormalities and polyps early on to stop the development or spread of colon cancer.
For more information on gut and colon health, visit Nutritionist Resource.