Heard of flushing out your colon to improve your health?
Ads for colon cleansing claim that it prevents allergies, arthritis and asthma. Some claim the practice will help you lose weight and boost your energy. And some even claim it reduces your colorectal cancer risk.
But our experts say there’s no scientific proof to support any of those claims. We talked to John R. Stroehlein, M.D., and Robert Bresalier, M.D., professors in Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at MD Anderson. Here's what they had to say.
Your colon already keeps you healthy
Your colon is a long, muscular tube. It’s a key part of your digestive system. It removes water, salt and nutrients from the food you eat. The remaining solid waste forms stool.
Your colon then moves the stool along its walls to be expelled. This process rids the body of food waste and toxins. It also helps your colon maintain a healthy bacterial composition, known as your microbiome.
“Your microbiome plays a crucial role in protecting your body from infections,” Bresalier says. “It may even protect against colon cancer.”
The only time you should clean your colon is to prepare for a colonoscopy. A clean colon helps your doctor detect polyps that can become cancer. Polyps are small growths on the lining of your colon.
“Otherwise, colon cleansing is not necessary and, in fact, may harm you,” Stroehlein says. “The colon is quite remarkable because it can care for itself and keep you healthy.".
What's behind colon cleanses?
You may see colon cleansing as a solution to an unhealthy lifestyle. Or believe a good flush of your system can help remove waste stuck to your colon walls.
“Colon cleansing has been around for a long time," says Stroehlein. "Yet no evidence exists that it prevents disease or improves health.”
Products to clean your colon include:
- Herbal teas
- Colon irrigation or colon hydrotherapy (requires a doctor visit)
It’s best to see your doctor if you have concerns about your habits or health. And in the meantime, steer clear of colon cleanses, Bresalier says. “No data supports it as beneficial or healthy.”
Can a colon cleanse be dangerous?
If you regularly cleanse your colon, you could cause serious harm, Bresalier says.
Potential side effects include:
- Vomiting, nausea, cramps
- Bowel perforation
- Depletion of probiotics, sodium and potassium
- Kidney damage
Plus, colon cleansing changes your microbiome. “You may think you’re getting rid of toxins and instead, you’re removing the bacteria that keep you healthy,” Bresalier says. It's important to note that the cleansing you must do for a colonoscopy won’t cause harm. It’s a necessary prep step.
How to improve your colon health
There are steps you can take that are proven to improve your health and reduce your risk for colon cancer:
- Eat a plant-based diet. This means ditching the fried and processed foods, and eating more vegetables, whole grains, fruit and beans.
- Limit red meat. Eat no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat a week. Red meat includes beef, pork and lamb.
- Avoid processed meats. Say goodbye to bacon, sausage, deli meats and hot dogs. Cancer-causing substances form when meats are preserved.
- Get Screened. Screening exams for colorectal cancer are your best bet to prevent the disease. Exams can remove cancer-causing polyps.
- Maintain a healthy weight. What matters about your weight is the amount of body fat you’re carrying around and where. A higher percentage of body fat puts you at greater risk for colon cancer.
Colon cleansing has been around for a long time, yet no evidence exists that it prevents disease or improves health.