Colonic Irrigation: What Is It And Should I Get It?
The Debrief: Google 'colonic irrigation' and you’ll get a mixture of articles claiming it’s a miracle cure or warning that it’s incredibly bad for you. What's the truth about getting a colonic?
Artwork by Emma Dajska
Colonic irrigation - AKA getting water blown up your arse for 40 minutes - has had a bad rep as of late. If you google the procedure, you’ll get a mixture of articles claiming it’s a miracle cure (written for colonic irrigation clinics) or claiming it’s incredibly bad for you (everyone else) - but how true is this?
As someone with IBS who, every month or so, gets to the point of getting their debit card out while on a colonic irrigation clinic’s website, I wanted to see how helpful it really is, how harmful it can be, and what actually happens when your stomach gets pumped full of water.
‘A piece of equipment called a speculum is inserted into the rectum,’ explains Charlotte Jamieson, a colonic therapist at HydroHealing. ‘That speculum is far enough to get past the internal sphincter muscle, and purified water is very gently allowed into the colon. All it’s doing it going through the colon, softening fecal matter, and flushing out the bad toxins.’
Bonus: there are two tubes, on with water going in, one with water (and fecal matter) going out - and sometimes you get to watch it.
‘It’s so fascinating,’ says Inez, 26, who was one of Charlotte’s clients fairly recently. ‘You lie there and she talks you through everything and how she's going to 'call it poo, because that's what it is' - and you can choose whether you have a mirror put over your rear end and watch it come out. Obviously I did this.’
‘The filling you with warm water bit is so weird - it wasn’t how I imagined at all, and I had spent a long time imagining it. It's almost uncomfortable. There was a point where I said she had to stop because I thought I would pop,’ she continues, with me listening open-mouthed.
Issy, 32, also had a colonic and agrees that it’s weird but in a really good way: ‘Watching the tube full of, well, y’know, was weirdly hypnotic,’ she says. ‘It felt like it was really good for me. All the lumps that had been living in the sharp corners of my gut, being massaged out, made me feel so virtuous.’
So you may feel virtuous after a colonic, but what is that water actually supposedly doing?
‘It’s a detoxing treatment aiming to soften and loosen fecal matter that’s coating the inside of your colon, and has potentially been there for a long time,’ says Charlotte.
‘Whatever is in your colon, goes back into the bloodstream - so that fecal matter can accrue toxins, and the longer it’s there, it turns more toxic. It’s a breeding ground for bacteria and, if we’re able to remove that, obviously that toxic matter is also removed,’
Toxic matter in your colon, according to Charlotte, has an array of effects that said colonic can then help with - including lack of energy, headaches, and general wellbeing. Crucially, though, it also gives your tract an exercise - which is great news for people who suffer from constipation.
‘There’s a muscle action called peristalsis that pushes food through your system,’ Charlotte explains. ‘A colonic is designed to stimulate the peristalsis movement in the colon, like taking your bum to the gym, which in turn helps strengthen in for the future. People who suffer from constipation and a sluggish colon can really benefit from this.’
So it’s a good workout for the colon, plus it flushes out loads of bad toxins - so far, so good. But the main criticism for colonic irrigation is ironically its own selling points: yes, it flushes out bad bacteria, but in doing so, it’s also criticised for flushing out the good bacteria with it.
‘The microbiome in the gut - all the good bacteria that help break food down - is incredibly important,’ says Dr. Nick Read of the IBS Network and co-author of Cooking For The Sensitive Gut. ‘The big question is, to what extent are colonics depleting those micro-organisms, and how much damage are you causing?’
Can you have too many colonics?
According to Dr Read, the key is in the frequency with which you have colonics. Occasionally, you shouldn’t be doing much harm to the flora and fauna of your poor little stomach. If you have them every week, you could start causing problems for yourself.
‘If the colonic microbiome is depleted, it can cause the gut wall to become permeable - and one big area of concern is cirrhosis of the liver, or inflammation of the liver. When people talk about alcohol causing inflammation of the liver, the reason it causes this is because alcohol increases permeability of the gut and lets the bugs from the gut into the rest of the body.’ So if you’re constantly flushing out the bacteria in your colon, you could increase the chances of ‘bugs’ getting into places they shouldn’t.
However, infrequent colonics - Dr.Read says roughly once a month - do have health benefits for certain symptoms, regardless of what scare-mongering articles may have you believe. Provided you have given a full medical history, and you don’t have undiagnosed colonic disorders (undiagnosed diverticulitis and colitis can be especially dangerous - and Charlotte is careful to explain that ‘the list of those who can’t have colonics is as long as your arm’), it can really help those with constipation, as Charlotte mentioned earlier.
If you have constipation, it may well just make it a lot easier and encourage the colon to start working properly,’ says Dr. Read. ‘A stagnant gut will grow a particular bacteria that produces methane and makes the colon more stagnant, so slows it down even more. Once you get constipated, you get more constipated as you harbour the bacteria. If you flush these bacteria out with a colonic, you can start the colon going again, and hopefully will re-establish other species of bacteria so will find the constipation lessens.’
Does a colonic cure bloating?
For things like bloating, it’s a little less clear how much a colonic can help. While some people find you get an immediately flat stomach, both Charlotte and Dr. Read caution against going for colonics just for this reason.
‘Yes you may weigh less, but it’s poo weight,’ says Charlotte. ‘When we take toxic matter out of the body, every part of the body is working better - every part of the body is being fed more nutrient-based blood so you can have a general feeling of wellbeing, sleep better, but your stomach depends on whether it’s poo that’s protruding out. Not everyone will walk out with a flat stomach.’
Dr Read adds: ‘If someone is getting a lot of bloating and has a colonic, they will for a time get rid of bacteria causing that - but they’ll soon come back again. It’s not a long term miracle cure!’
The psychological effects of a colonic
While there is conflicting research on the idea of fecal matter needing to be dislodged from your colon, and varying opinions on the intensity of the benefits of a colonic, one thing is for certain - the psychological plus points are overwhelming. And this isn’t just an airy-fairy mind over matter effect either; overwhelming research shows that the brain and the colon are intriniscally linked, so having a colonic could really help dislodge those emotional barriers, which in turn can help with your digestion. Especially for those suffering from constipation.
‘Charlotte said some people cry, because you keep a lot of tension in your guts,’ Inez, who had the colonic, tells me. ‘She had a woman who couldn't let any poo out, until she talked about her divorce and finally loads of deeply embedded black shit started coming out that had been in there for years.’
Charlotte herself explains: ‘The brain and the digestive system are really strongly linked. If we get stressed or are worrying, our bodies release stress hormones, sending us into flight or fight hormone. This means that we’re in danger, so all our energy goes to the heart, the brain and the muscles so we can stand, fight or run away - and certain parts of us stop working as well. The digestive system is one of those places.’
This means that when we’re emotionally agitated, our bodies produce fewer enzymes with which to break down food - leaving us unable to go to the loo properly, or just feeling really sluggish. Colonics relax the colon, and relax our minds to the extent that things can get working again.
On top of this, it might just psychologically make you a bit healthier. Issy, who also had a colonic, found it really helped kickstart her detox: ‘People think colonics are just pumping shit out of you, but it’s also a chance to talk to an expert about your gut and intestines, which I don’t do very often.
The therapist listened to my digestion woes, told me I should probably give up milk (turns out she was right, I am lactose intolerant), eat cleaner and cut out my Sainsbury’s fish pie addiction. I’ve lost weight and just generally been better at eating to help my body.’
So should you have a colonic? Not every week. But if you’ve got digestive problems, are medically OK to go ahead with one, and don’t get freaked out by tubes being inserted into your arse, then by all means give it a go. It could just give your tummy the kick start it needs to get better again.
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