If you had to name important organs within your body, the chances are you’d immediately think of your heart, lungs and brain first. However, the colon performs some incredibly vital functions too and if you don’t take good care of it, you’ll soon start to feel the adverse effects.
But even if you eat a healthy and balanced diet, your colon may still need a hand from time to time so that it can function at its absolute optimum level. Colonic irrigation is a treatment, which purports to help counteract some of the problems that can be experienced within the colon and keep it in good working order.
Here’s a look at exactly what colonic irrigation is, why you might need it and the essential facts surrounding the treatment.
The function of the colon
Before considering colonic irrigation, it’s helpful first to have a really good understanding of exactly what the colon does and the role it plays within the body.
The colon, also called the large intestine, is a wide tube that connects your small intestine to your rectum and is approximately 5 feet in length.
By the time the contents reach your colon, the majority of the digestive process will have already been completed. The colon however is responsible for absorbing more water, fluids, some nutrients and salts and separating these from the waste material that needs to be excreted.
The cecum is the area which joins the small intestine to the large intestine which then goes on to be split into the following sections:
- The ascending colon. This lies vertically along the right hand side of the abdomen
- The transverse colon. This runs almost horizontally along the top of the colon
- The descending colon. This follows the transverse colon and runs back down the left hand side of the abdomen
- The sigmoid colon. This is a short curved piece of the large intestine which connects the descending colon with the rectum.
The rectum can be considered as a kind of “collection area” where waste products remain until they are excreted through the anus.
What is colonic irrigation?
Colonic irrigation is a process that should only be carried out by qualified practitioners and involves the bowel being flushed through with water in order to remove waste material.
During the treatment, you will lie on your side with a tube inserted into your rectum while approximately 60-70 litres of water are flushed through your colon. The theory is that all waste materials which can clog up your colon will be gently flushed out, leaving you feeling lighter and more refreshed.
A special kind of filtered water is typically used by clinics although some also add enzymes, herbs or even coffee to the fluids which are flushed through your body. In many cases however, it’s just plain water.
Tap water is not normally used because of the chemicals and impurities; these have the potential to cause unwanted side effects. The water which is used in colonic irrigation is typically filtered 2-3 times before being warmed to exactly the right temperature.
The process of colonic irrigation, or colonic hydrotherapy as it’s also sometimes called, takes around three quarters of an hour and costs between £45-90 a session.
Is it scientifically proven?
To date, there’s been no scientific evidence which conclusively proves that colonic irrigation provides health benefits. However personal testimonies and anecdotal evidence from those who undergo treatment all suggest a number of benefits (more about that further below).
The National College of Colon Hydrotherapy describes it as “a remarkably effective therapy for primary bowel problems and many secondary problems linked to poor bowel function”.
Although colonic irrigation is often described as an alternative therapy, it’s actually nothing new. It was often used in hospital prior to bowel surgery but before this, the practice dated back thousands of years to Ancient Greece. The Greeks believed that waste matter which was allowed to remain in the body for too long could become a toxin, and this philosophy has been neither proven nor disproven, despite much research.
Will the treatment hurt?
There’s no escaping the fact that the idea of a tube up the rectum sounds an uncomfortable prospect to most people and one, which may be more than a little daunting.
However, those who have undergone colonic irrigation often return for regular follow up sessions, which is testimony to the fact that it’s not really painful.
Those who have had the treatment describe the sensation as funny and unfamiliar to start with, and sometimes a little uncomfortable but not painful. This is typically just due to the pressure of water and the movement within your colon.
Some people actually find the sensations of colonic irrigation rather soothing!
Is colonic irrigation essential for good bowel function?
As with many unproven treatments, there’s much debate over whether colonic irrigation is responsible for bringing about the improvements it claims.
Sceptics suggest that there’s a number of different reasons that colonic irrigation is an unnecessary treatment.
Firstly, waste that remains within the body will be detoxified within the colon by friendly bacteria. The liver also plays a part in getting rid of any toxins which linger. Secondly, even if not all harmful toxins were neutralised, there is a protective membrane which surrounds the colon which prevents unwanted substances from crossing back into the bloodstream.
Just like many tissues within the body, the colon gets rid of the top layers of its cells every three days, approximately. This means there’s little time for waste matter to accumulate and build up.
Colonic irrigation is often said to leave individuals feeling lighter, and there’s suggestions that after treatment you could weight between 5 and 20 lbs less. However, this will simply be water rather than fat and it won’t represent a permanent loss.
So what’s the point of colonic irrigation then?
Although it’s true that on the whole, the colon does a magnificent job of eliminating toxins without any extra help, there are a number of potential benefits to colonic irrigation.
The western diet isn’t generally conducive to good bowel health and in the UK, constipation has become a very real problem. It takes the average woman 70 hours to have a bowel movement after eating, and the average man 60 hours. Experts suggest it should take no more than 24 hours. These statistics go a long way towards explaining why a third of visits to GPs relate to bowel complaints.
Those who have colonic irrigation report a number of desirable effects, and there’s claims that all of the following conditions can be improved or eliminated:
- fatigue and lethargy
- low energy levels
- weight gain
- constipation or irregular bowel movements
- easier bowel evacuation (some medical conditions require more rapid evacuation to provide complications developing)
Supporters of colonic irrigation have also claimed that they experience the following:
- feeling refreshed
- more energy
- mental clarity
- feeling of relaxation
- easier and more regular bowel movements
- glowing skin and radiance
- stronger immune system
- reduced risk of colon cancer
- reduced symptoms in chronic diseases such as arthritis and Multiple Sclerosis
How does colonic irrigation produce these results?
It is claimed that all of the above results are achieved by the removal of the build up of waste products, toxins and parasites from the colon which would otherwise remain and continue to affect your wellbeing.
In addition, the colon works by utilising the surface area available in order to absorb the necessary fluids and other nutrients through the walls and membrane. The less surface area available, the less effective the colon can be.
When debris, waste matter and other materials begin to accumulate within the colon, function inevitably reduces because of the lack of surface area. Colonic irrigation flushes away the waste material, freeing up the surface within the colon to once again function without hindrance.
These same materials which prevent the colon from absorbing the necessary fluids can also make bowel movements much more difficult. By partially blocking the passage, stools can become drier and more difficult to pass, leading to pain and constipation. Irrigation allows bowel movements to be made more easily, which in turn helps to reduce debris from accumulating so quickly.
Should everyone have it?
Although colonic irrigation is a therapy that is suitable for many people, there are some contraindications.
Anyone who has any of the following should avoid colonic irrigation:
- high blood pressure
- anal fissures
- heart disease
- ulcerative colitis
- kidney disease
Pregnant women should also avoid having colonic irrigation.
Any individual who is suffering from or been diagnosed with a digestive disorder should seem medical advice before undergoing colonic irrigation.
The importance of choosing the right practitioner
You may well find that colonic irrigation is a therapy which is offered widely and at many different prices. But cost should not be the single factor that determines which clinic you choose for your treatment.
Colonic irrigation practitioners are not yet regulated in the same way as doctors or other health professionals therefore it’s highly advised that you only seek treatment from a member of the Association of Registered Colon Hydrotherapists (ARCH).
As can be seen from the information above, there are some contraindications to having colonic irrigation and a responsible practitioner will carry out checks to make sure the treatment is suitable for you.
In addition, there is considerable skill in ensuring that the water reaches the right areas of the colon and that the debris is properly flushed out. This requires knowledge of the amount of water to use, the correct temperature and the right pressure. Any member of ARCH will be able to ensure you get the best results by using the appropriate techniques.
Is colonic irrigation dangerous?
No medical treatment or therapy can ever be said to be 100% without risks but colonic irrigation is generally regarded to be very safe.
As discussed above, using a registered practitioner is important as this will help to keep you safe. Sterile sheets and equipment are essential to prevent the transfer of bacteria and any reputable clinic should automatically provide this.
In 2011, the US publication, the Journal of Family Practice highlighted some of the risks of colonic irrigation. These included:
- blocked or torn bowels
- kidney problems
- heart failure
Therefore although the procedure is widely regarded as being very low risk, there are some possible dangers which you should be made aware of in advance.
Can I do anything else to have a healthy colon?
Although many people swear by colonic irrigation, it shouldn’t replace having healthy habits and lifestyle.
Although flushing out impurities and debris may well have a positive impact, what you put into your body will affect your health to a much greater degree.
For this reason, avoiding tobacco and alcohol, and only eating red meat in moderation is a very good idea. You should also increase the amount of fibre you consume to around 20-35g per day, both insoluble and soluble fibres. Whole grains and cereals are examples of insoluble fibres while fruit, vegetables, bran and oatmeal are types of soluble fibres.
Stay well hydrated at all times as this will help your colon to flush waste products through more efficiently and take up any offers of NHS bowel screening.