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 colon cancer risk.
But our experts say there’s no scientific proof 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 Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at MD Anderson.
The only time you should clean your colon is to prepare for a colonoscopy, says Robert Bresalier, M.D., professor in Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at MD Anderson. 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.
Your colon 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 microflora.
“Your microflora plays a crucial role in protecting your body from infections,” Bresalier says. “It may even protect against colon cancer.”
“The colon is quite remarkable because it can care for itself and keep you healthy,” Stroehlein says.
So, why bother with a colon cleanse?
What’s behind colon cleansing
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.
Products to clean your colon include:
- Herbal teas
- Colon irrigation or colon hydrotherapy (requires a doctor visit)
“People tend to fixate on what’s ‘normal’ to keep their body clean,” Bresalier says. But what’s normal for one person, is not normal for another.
It’s best to see your doctor if you have concerns about your habits or health. And in the meantime, steer clear of colon cleansing, Bresalier says. “No data supports it as beneficial or healthy.”
The health dangers of colon cleansing
If you regularly cleanse your colon, you could cause serious harm, Bresalier warns.
Potential side effects include:
- Vomiting, nausea, cramps
- Bowel perforation
- Depletion of probiotics, sodium and potassium
- Kidney damage
Plus, colon cleansing changes your microflora. “You may think you’re getting rid of toxins and instead, you’re removing the bacteria that keep you healthy,” Bresalier says.
He also notes that short-term cleansing for a colonoscopy won’t cause harm. It’s a necessary prep step.
How to improve your colon health
If you want to improve your colon health and lower your colon cancer risk, follow these tips.
- Eat a plant-based diet. This means ditching the fried and processed foods, and eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans.
- Limit red meat. Eat 18 oz. or less each week of beef, pork or lamb to lower your colon cancer risk. Try chicken, fish, tofu or dairy foods.
- Avoid processed meats. Say goodbye to bacon, sausage, deli meats and hot dogs. Cancer-causing substances form when meats are preserved. Try baked chicken or turkey breast, beans, legumes or soy.
- Get Screened. Screening exams for colon cancer and rectal cancer are your best bet to prevent the disease. Exams can remove cancer-causing polyps. Follow MD Anderson’s screening recommendations.
- 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.
“You also should exercise, limit the amount of alcohol you drink and definitely don’t smoke,” Stroehlein says. And remember, even if you exercise, you need to sit less to reduce your cancer risk.