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Clean Your Colon Health or Hype?

Focused on Health - March 2010

By Mary Jane Schier

Ads promoting colon cleansing for everything from acid reflux to weight loss appear to be everywhere.colon clean

But prominent medical experts stress that no scientific proof has been published to support any of those claims.

“Colon cleansing has been around for a long time, yet no evidence exists that it prevents disease or improves health,” says John R. Stroehlein, M.D., professor in MD Anderson’s Department of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition.

The one exception where cleansing the colon is essential involves preparation for a colonoscopy.

“The accuracy of examination by colonoscopy is highly dependent on the effectiveness of cleansing the bowel. 

READ ALSO: Ensure success with colonoscopy prep

“Otherwise, colon cleansing is not necessary and, in fact, may be harmful,” Stroehlein says.

The remarkable colon
The colon is a crucial part of our gastrointestinal tract, which is very efficient in conserving fluids and electrolytes and storingcolon image waste for elimination.

All parts of the colon work together to rid the body of food waste and toxins.

“The colon is quite remarkable because it is uniquely designed to care for itself,” Stroehlein says.

The average adult colon measures about 3 to 4 feet in length and 2.5 inches in width.  This long muscular tube is constantly moving watery contents along its path to be eliminated after fluids and electrolytes are conserved.

One of the colon’s priceless contributions is maintaining healthy bacteria content to protect our body from certain infections.

Myths about laxatives
egyptianAlthough there are references to the ancient Egyptians using laxatives to get rid of bowel buildup, the popularity of colon cleansing has grown primarily in the last 25 years. 

Today, colon cleansing products are touted for losing weight, treating acne, controlling acid reflux, increasing energy and a host of many other health problems. 

“Some colon cleansing regimens contain laxatives or natural products with laxative properties, which can cause dehydration or loss of crucial electrolytes, such as sodium and potassium.  These electrolytes are necessary for optimal function of nerves and muscles,” Stroehlein explains, then adds:

“And some laxative products containing sodium phosphate have been reported to cause kidney damage.”

Stroehlein notes the need to educate people about “the damaging effects of rapid weight loss induced by quickly getting rid of water and stool.”

The bottom line
Despite countless ads promoting colon cleansing, scientific studies have not shown that the commonly promoted pills and liquids have any health benefits. 

Stroehlein is particularly concerned about claims that colon cleansing prevents colon cancer.

Countering that misconception, he says, “The important message is that appropriate screening with colonoscopy has been shown to reduce your chances of developing colon cancer by allowing the removal of pre-cancerous polyps.”

READ ALSO: Colon screening: Colonoscopy vs. virtual colonoscopy

“Interestingly, there is no proof that individuals who experience constipation have a higher incidence of colon cancer and absolutely no evidence that colon cleansing can prevent the disease,” he stresses.

His advice for anyone considering a colon cleansing product:  Consult your health care professional and also check out reputable medical websites.

“My take-home advice to help prevent colon cancer – and many other cancers – is to follow guidelines about periodic screening, particularly after age 50; eat a healthy diet with plenty of vegetables, fruits and fiber; get regular exercise; use alcohol in moderation; and definitely do not smoke,” Stroehlein says.

© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center