A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Does colonic irrigation do you any good?

May 25, 1990

Dear Cecil:

Enclosed is an article extolling the virtues of colonic irrigation. After reading it we are convinced that removing our primal fecal matter will cure all that ails us, although we're a little apprehensive about the "lighted viewing tube" that seems to figure in the process. Can you tell us more?

Cecil replies:

You've heard people say, "he's so full of it." Well, after the colonic irrigators get done with him, he won't be. We're talking about a high-tech enema here. This accomplishes pretty much the same thing as a low-tech enema, except that, thanks to the lighted viewing tube, you get to watch the, uh, end result.

The article you enclose, which comes from some New Age dingzine, explains the whole thing in the words of one Ann R., colonic irrigator extraordinaire. Ann says when we get stressed out our "lower level system" stops digesting, resulting in a sluggish colon. "The waste matter which is supposed to leave the body is now stopping it up and making not only the colon but the liver, the lymph and the sinuses congested." Hear that? You take all those pills when you get a runny nose and now it turns out you've been cramming stuff in the wrong end.

Well, never again. Call Ann. "I've been giving colonics for 5 years and never get bored," she says. "I like the one-on-one counseling and am usually surprised by the various objects that present themselves in the lighted viewing tube of the machine. Yes, you can watch everything come out and see what you're really made of or what you've been holding onto for days, months, or years! … You can let go into a completely enclosed system — no smell — no mess. You will likely experience a sense of well being and warmth like an internal hot tub. The pressure gauge lets me see how you feel; you are completely in control."

Colonics, we learn, will cure all manner of ailments. "A man with asthma of 20 years had a colonic each day for three days and lost 17 lbs. of fecal matter and mucus and became asthma free," Ann writes.

The typical colonic machine consists of a water tank and a couple tubes, one to get the water in, the other to get it (and whatever else) out. More than that you're just as well off not knowing. To be honest, the whole idea isn't new; it was common in the 19th century and continued up till the 1930s. But after that time it was increasingly regarded as quackery.

The medical profession today, as you might expect, does not think much of colonics. There is little evidence that the procedure has any genuine therapeutic value, and the idea that it will cure sinus problems, asthma, earaches, migraine headaches, and the like is simply preposterous.

People do get constipated once in a while, a problem most prevalent in the elderly. But the symptoms are pretty straightforward — you don't go to the bathroom for a long time — as is the cure, usually a laxative. If you don't go for a real long time you may experience considerable pain, and in extreme cases you can wind up in the hospital. There is no evidence, however, that dangerous toxins or excess fecal matter or what have you build up in the colons of people whose digestive systems are operating normally.

Some colonic advocates say the typical American junk food diet distorts the colon and that irrigation gets it back into shape; gastrointestinal specialists, while not denying that many people eat poorly, dismiss the idea that the colon has a "right" shape.

Colonics also have some serious drawbacks. They remove useful bacteria from the intestine, and the tubes can injure the sphincter and tissues. If the equipment isn't properly sterilized it can cause infection. At least 36 people were infected by a poorly designed machine used at a Colorado clinic in the late 70s; seven died.

Then again, what the hell. The chances of a serious problem are small. If we've got room in this country for bungee jumpers, we can surely handle a few colonic irrigators. So man the pressure gauges if you've a mind to. Just don't tell Cecil.

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