You may have googled it out of curiosity or overheard someone at brunch talking about doing an “internal spring cleaning,” but how much do you really know about colon cleansing? It’s probably not as much as you think.
Colon cleansing can refer to everything from protocols used to prepare the colon for medical procedures to at-home attempts to ease bloating and constipation. From enemas to herbs and beyond, people have been intrigued by the idea of cleaning out their insides for a long time (apparently, DIY enemas were all the rage in 17th-century France).
But what’s the appeal when we all have digestive systems equipped to cleanse our body of toxins? Let’s unpack.
- ABOUT OUR EXPERTS: Dr. Chelsea Azarcon, N.M.D., is a naturopathic doctor. Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., is a natural medicine doctor, nutritionist, and the co-founder of Ancient Nutrition.
What Exactly is a Colon Cleanse?
Though the specific protocols used can take a few different forms, colon cleansing generally describes practices intended to remove accumulated waste, toxins, and bacteria from the colon, which is the final part of the large intestine. Think of it like a detox for your digestive tract.
The concept here is basically to help the colon do its intended job of shuttling waste, toxins, and bacteria out of the body (yes, through poop). “Colon cleansing is based on the idea that most of us are not achieving complete elimination with bowel movements, leaving toxic waste sitting in our intestines,” explains naturopath Dr. Chelsea Azarcon, N.M.D. “Cleanses are designed to help us release this ‘backup.’”
Though the digestive system has natural methods for removing waste, it’s not always able to do the job perfectly, according to natural medicine doctor Dr. Josh Axe, D.N.M., D.C., C.N.S., co-founder of Ancient Nutrition. That’s in part because of the impacts of allergies, consumption of chemicals (including pesticides), and inflammation within the gut.
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“Having regular bowel movements is important for removing bacteria, heavy metals, and excess fatty acids from the body,” Axe explains. But because of a variety of modern factors, the colon can accumulate waste over time that can become toxic to the body. This is a particular concern for those who experience constipation.
The Believed Benefits Of Colon Cleansing
When the colon needs help getting garbage out of your system, cleansing can help improve digestive health and overall well-being, Axe and Azarcon suggest.
Proponents believe colon cleansing practices can offer numerous benefits, such as improving digestive efficiency, increasing energy, and enhancing the body’s absorption of vitamins and minerals. Meanwhile, some turn to cleanses to help reduce fluid retention and encourage weight loss.
In more medical settings, healthcare providers may utilize colon cleanses to support detoxification in cases of motility issues (i.e. constipation) or fecal impaction (which occurs when chronic constipation causes hardened stool to back up in the colon), says Azarcon. Colon cleansing is also used before colonoscopies, which require that the colon is completely clear from accumulated waste so that it can be checked for abnormalities like lesions, explains Axe.
Different Methods of Colon Cleansing
Various methods of colon cleansing are used both in and out of healthcare settings to support the same end. Here’s a look at the most common approaches to giving those insides a clean slate.
Colonics and Enemas
A colonic (a.k.a. colonic irrigation or colon hydrotherapy) is a process in which the colon is flushed out with fluids administered via a tube entered directly into the opening of the colon (yes, your backside). Think of it like pressure washing your colon. A colonic is typically performed by a professional in a medical office using specialized equipment, explains Axe. As you expel the fluid from your system, it takes accumulated waste with it.
“Generally, if I want someone to use a colon cleanse, I will refer out for professional colonics,” says Azarcon, who believes professionally administered colonics are generally the safest and most effective.
Enemas are essentially the DIY version of colonics, often done at home with a kit using water or other solutions to stimulate a bowel movement and help clear the colon and intestines. “Enemas are an attractive option for people who don’t want to visit a specialist and prefer an inexpensive alternative,” Axe explains. You can purchase enema kits at most drugstores.
Colonic and enema solutions vary in composition and purpose. The simplest and most commonly used solution is water (often filtered to reduce the risk of side effects). Water is gentle on the system and works by hydrating waste materials, making it easier for them to pass through the colon and be eliminated, explains Axe.
Sodium or saline solutions (a mixture of water and salt) are another option that healthcare providers commonly use. These solutions are isotonic, meaning they contain electrolytes, which can be beneficial for avoiding side effects following a colon cleanse, such as dehydration.
Finally, sodium phosphate solutions, which are often found in over-the-counter enema kits, are also available. Sodium phosphate works by drawing water into the colon, which softens the stool and stimulates bowel movements.
Also worth noting: A quick dive into the social media deep end will yield lots of content about coffee enemas, in which, you insert coffee directly into your colon via a tube in your bottom. The idea here is that coffee stimulates the digestive organs, promoting the release of toxins, says Axe. The caffeine in the coffee also causes the colon muscles to contract, which can help in expelling waste. Research suggests serious side effects like inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract can occur in rare cases, so think twice before pouring your morning brew out of your mug and into an enema bag.
Cleansing With Potent Herbs
For those who prefer a gentler (but still quick) route to cleansing the colon, certain herbal supplements can help you hit the toilet and clear things out, stat. This approach usually involves consuming herbal teas, powders, or capsules known for their ability to sweep the colon and trigger bowel movements.
Some of the best go-to’s when you’re after quick cleansing: senna (this herb is powerful so turn to it mindfully), aloe vera, ginger, and garlic. These herbs are known to swiftly stimulate the colon and aid in the elimination process. (Not to mention, aloe, ginger, and garlic are generally supportive for digestion.) You’ll often find these herbs, among others, in combination herbal formulas geared towards speedy colon cleansing, such as Irwin Naturals Extra Strength Colon Flush.
Read More: 15 Signs That Something Is Off With Your Gut
In a pinch, Axe also recommends a DIY drink made with 3.5 ounces of warm purified water, half a teaspoon of high-quality sea salt, half a cup of 100-percent apple juice, one teaspoon of ginger juice, and two tablespoons of fresh lemon juice. This combo helps stir up gastric juices that can help clear you out swiftly and relieve constipation and bloating.
Lifestyle Adjustments For Colon Health
Sometimes, people who want to promote colon cleansing make broader lifestyle changes, whether in combination with or in lieu of other protocols. There are a number of ways to support overall colon health and function.
Fiber keeps things moving smoothly in your digestive tract and offers many benefits for colon health. Think of it as the broom that sweeps your colon clean. Foods high in fiber include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes. While fiber needs vary depending on your body size and overall diet, Azarcon recommends aiming for about 30 to 50 grams of fiber each day by “eating the rainbow” (a.k.a. a variety of different fruits and veggies).
2. Gut-Supporting Herbs
Besides fibrous foods, incorporating other plants—especially herbs like ginger, cinnamon, peppermint, aloe vera, and turmeric—regularly can help keep your gut in overall good shape and your digestion on track, research suggests. Azarcon also frequently uses the herbs triphala and cascara for everyday colon support.
Water is essential for a healthy colon, as it contributes to regularity and fights constipation by helping dissolve fibers and allowing for easier waste passage. Aim for at least eight glasses of water (consider adding a hydration powder for extra impact) and other hydrating fluids per day, including herbal teas, bone broth, and seltzer.
These beneficial bacteria are like the friendly neighbors in your gut community, helping balance the microbes in your gut microbiome, which is crucial for digestive and colon health, according to Axe. You can find probiotics in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut or in supplement form (most often in capsules that are taken daily on an empty stomach).
Try to eat one serving of probiotic foods per day (think one cup of yogurt or half a cup of sauerkraut), suggests Axe. Or, take a daily probiotic supplement that contains about 10 billion CFUs or more.
5. Castor Oil Packs
“Castor oil packs help support regular elimination by helping to relieve liver congestion,” says Azarcon. “Chemical constituents within castor oil are believed to help increase the release of toxins from the body—and the liver is the primary organ of detoxification.” She has found that castor oil packs can promote healthier bowel movements, helping to move toxins out of the body and support a healthy colon.
Just keep in mind that, “if you try castor oil and still aren’t having daily formed bowel movements with complete evacuation, it’s a sign to work with a good functional or naturopathic medical doctor to check for other underlying conditions and to help get your gut health back on track,” Azarcon notes.
6. Regular Exercise
Physical activity isn’t just good for your heart; it’s great for your colon, too. Regular exercise helps stimulate bowel movements, fights inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, and moves your overall digestive system toward optimal health. Studies have found that both moderate exercise (like walking briskly, cycling, or swimming), as well as more vigorous bouts of exercise (like running or HIIT), can help to protect the colon and support digestion.
7. Mindful Eating
Digestion starts in the mouth, and giving your food the attention it deserves can help prevent digestive issues down the line, according to Azarcon. She recommends slowing down to eat, chewing your food thoroughly, and avoiding eating “on the run” as much as possible.
“Eating mindfully changes the physiology of digestion, including by producing more digestive enzymes,” she explains. “Chewing food well increases the surface area digestive enzymes have access to to break food down, which supports overall digestion.” That means an easier time for your colon down the line.
8. Putting a Limit on Processed Foods
Highly processed foods are often low in fiber and high in ingredients such as added sugar, trans fats, refined grains, processed meats, and other additives that can ultimately undermine colon health. “Simply put, these foods create inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract and can damage the intestinal lining,” says Azarcon. Cutting down on processed foods (including cold cuts, desserts, baked goods, rolls, pasta, and sugary drinks) can help reduce the burden on your colon, she suggests.
Is Colon Cleansing Safe?
It’s important to note that while colonic and enema solutions are widely used, colon cleansing procedures should be approached with caution. They can disrupt the natural balance of the gut microbiome and can potentially lead to side effects like dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and, in rare cases, perforation of the colon—particularly when not performed properly. Because limited research supports the efficacy of these practices for detoxification, and some studies suggest that colon cleansing can sometimes do more harm than good, many in the scientific community are skeptical.
To air on the safe side, always consult with a healthcare professional before undergoing such forms of colon cleansing, especially if you have pre-existing health conditions. And be sure to only have a colonic performed at a reputable facility that uses sterile equipment to reduce the risk of side effects such as infections, says Axe.
The use of herbs and folk remedies like castor oil packs is generally gentler and less risky. Just note that they could still contribute to effects like diarrhea, so it’s important to monitor your body’s reactions and always follow product recommendations.
The Bottom Line
Intensive colon cleansing practices aren’t a good option for everyone—and certainly aren’t a magic bullet for long-term health or weight loss. However, gentler means of supporting your colon and keeping your toilet time healthy and regular—such as taking digestive system-supporting herbs and supplements and making healthy lifestyle changes—can certainly have short-term and long-term payoffs.