Is colonic hydrotherapy just money down the drain?

Lying on a coach in a therapist’s treatment room, events organiser Tamily Cookson was not enjoying her first ever experience of colonic irrigation.

‘Every few minutes I was getting sharp cramps in my abdomen, like period pains,’ she remembers of that day in August last year. ‘A couple of times they got so bad I had to tell the therapist that I was really hurting. But she massaged my tummy and the pain did subside.
‘Afterwards, she assured me that this was completely normal. Her explanation was that because my bowel had become so impacted with old waste matter, I had to expect some discomfort.
‘She assured me that by the end of my course of treatment — three sessions costing £180 — I would feel completely different, lighter and less sluggish in mind and body.’ That night Tamily, now 35, struggled to get comfortable.
‘Far from feeling less bloated, I felt as if a balloon had been blown up in my body,’ she said. ‘When I went back three days later for the second irrigation the therapist told me the pains were normal and due to my bowels working properly for the first time.
‘The second treatment was less uncomfortable, although I did pass some pebbly matter, which she said was waste that had been trapped in the bowel crevices.’
It was during her third session that everything went badly wrong. ‘Halfway through the treatment, I started to feel extremely nauseous and within a few seconds I had the most awful diarrhoea followed by horrific cramps.
‘I was mortified, but my therapist virtually cheered. She said we had finally cleared out all the waste that had been sitting around for months and that my bowel was now finally free of accumulated toxins. Afterwards, she tried to sell me some vitamins and minerals, which she felt I was lacking, but didn’t try to push any more treatments on me. She said I was now in good place to kick-start a new healthy lifestyle.’
Sadly, this was far from the case. Rather than feeling energised by her expensive experience, Tamily — who had turned to colonic irrigation for what she admits was a ‘quick fix’ to lose weight after the birth of her son Sid, now two — ended up with six months of bowel disorders.
For a couple of weeks after the treatment, I had alternate diarrhoea and constipation, as well as nausea, which occurred almost every time I ate or drank something. I felt as if nothing ever settled properly in my stomach. That had calmed down by Christmas, although I still get it from time to time. But worst of all, I am now plagued by sickness bugs, which leave me incapacitated for a few days at a time.

But is Tamily right to blame colonic irrigation for her woes? It is a technique that has been around in one form or another since Egyptian times and involves inserting a tube into the rectum and flushing the colon and intestines with water. The theory behind it is simple. Proponents believe that food enters the intestines, where it is not broken down properly due to poor diet and lack of exercise.


‘I used to get them every couple of years, like most people. I have had five such episodes since my colonic irrigation and have to wonder if the two are linked.’
Instead, the waste stays in the intestine, rotting and causing toxins to accumulate, which then leak though the bowel wall and into the rest of the body causing ‘auto-intoxication’. One Nottinghamshire clinic (not the one Tamily attended) states on its website: ‘Some of this waste may have taken years to accumulate and now you could be re-absorbing concentrated amounts of it back into your body. ‘Free the blockage and your body will heal itself — your disease will simply go away.’
Indeed, Google the subject and you will find any number of clinics extolling the virtues of the procedure as a cure for medical problems ranging from the skin condition psoriasis to headaches and, of course, excess weight and bloating.
Controversially, former Bucks Fizz singer Cheryl Baker underwent colonic irrigation live on Channel 4 in 2003.
Virtually all of these clinics produce reams of patient testimony to back up their claims and there are countless forums where devotees share positive experiences. Inevitably, a whole host of celebrities have jumped on the colonic bandwagon, extolling the virtues of the treatment.
Princess Diana was one of the first public figures to openly have colonics in the Nineties, claiming they took ‘all the aggro’ out of her. Since then, stars including actresses Kate Beckinsale and Jennifer Aniston have admitted using the treatment.
Popstars Madonna, Courtney Love and Britney Spears are also fans, along with singer Usher. The R&B artist explained: ‘As someone who travels a lot, you don’t always eat the way you should so a lot of waste builds up in your body.’

I am not anti complementary medicine,’ she says. ‘I recommend  acupuncture and meditation to many of my patients, but I have seen solid scientific evidence that they can have some benefit. I wanted the same confidence if I was going to recommend colonic irrigation. But what I found was that there was no scientific evidence that colonic irrigation did any good. There were a couple of studies that had reported short-term benefits, but the patient numbers had been so small as to be negligible.


But now a report, released by an American GP last week, is threatening to blow open the whole debate around the science — or lack of it — behind this area of complementary medicine.  After continually being asked her opinion on the benefits of colonic irrigation by her patients,  Dr Ranit Mishori,  who lectures at Georgetown University, decided to launch an investigation.
‘Instead, I found that in some cases it could do harm. I found reports of a lady who had suffered a bowel perforation and other side effects can include nausea, cramps, long term bowel upsets and infection.
‘Coincidentally, as I was carrying out the research, I had two patients who had bowel disorders. One lady was suffering badly from diarrhoea and we couldn’t find a cure. In the end, she confessed that she had had colonic irrigation. It was the same story for the other patient. It made me wonder if this problem is more widespread than doctors have realised.’
Dr Mishori also found that many of the so-called ‘colon cleansing products’ that can be bought over the internet and are often recommended by therapists before irrigation, carry health risks, too.
‘Colon cleansing products in the form of laxatives, teas, powders and capsules with names such as Nature’s Bounty Colon Cleaner tout benefits that don’t exist,’ she says. ‘They are usually not monitored by government agencies and many contain strong laxative properties, which can lead to dehydration which in turn can cause renal failure. No one should take laxatives unless they are under medical supervision.
‘More should be done to inform people that this procedure can carry significant health risks. I believe colonic irrigation is not something that should be done by anyone who is not a doctor or a nurse.’
It is a sentiment that consultant gastroenterologist Dr David Forecast, of The London Clinic and St Marks Hospital, agrees with. ‘We may use colonic irrigation before colonoscopies and for extremely severe constipation, but that’s about it.
‘I am regularly asked by patients if they should pay for colonic irrigation and I always say no. Some of the physiological claims made by these clinics are totally inaccurate. For example, the idea that faecal matter sticks to the bowel walls and can sit there decaying for several months, or even years, is nonsense.
‘Waste matters keep on moving through the bowel no matter what. Some people may have sluggish bowels and constipation, of course, but — barring an extreme medical condition —  this will move in time. As a gastroenterologist of 20 years experience, I have looked up approximately 20,000 bottoms and can promise that I have never seen waste older than a few hours.
‘Likewise, the claim that faecal matter accumulates in crevices in the bowel doesn’t make sense. The bowel wall is smooth — if there are any hidden crevices, I have never seen one with my camera so I would be very interested to hear where the evidence for this statement has come from. Many therapists also talk about relieving blockages in the bowel. A bowel blockage is rare and a serious medical emergency.’
Experts are also concerned that repeated use of colonic irrigation may be disturbing what is a very delicate mini-eco system balance of good and bad bacteria.
‘We are only just beginning to discover what a unique and carefully balanced organ the bowel is,’ explains Dr Forecast. ‘Recent research has discovered, for example, that the average adult bowel contains about four kilos of bacteria which work in perfect balance to digest and remove your waste matter efficiently from your body. If you strip this mechanism away, which you will do with internal douching, then you may be doing real harm to your body.’
Dr Forecast is also wary of misdiagnosis. ‘Bowel symptoms such as feeling sluggish and constipated are vague and could point to medical conditions including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, bowel cancer or diverticulitis.
‘Pebbly faecal matter is a recognised symptom of IBS. This is why any unusual bowel symptoms should always be investigated by a doctor, not a therapist. Pumping warm water into the bowel of someone with IBS, for example, is adding insult to an already inflamed bowel wall. I am not surprised people have reported cramps and nausea after treatment.’

‘Admittedly, there is a lack of scientific evidence, but — like most complementary medicine — we have little funding and research is expensive. If people didn’t find that colonic irrigation helped them, they wouldn’t keep coming back. People with IBS, for example, find the warm water is incredibly soothing for their spasms and I have seen amazing improvements in skin conditions such as eczema.


Notsurprisingly, perhaps, ARCH, the 250-strong Association of Registered Colon Hydrotherapists, disputes these warnings. Roger Groos, a former biologist and founding member of ARCH, is adamant that, despite the lack of scientific evidence, the anecdotal testimony of thousands of clients should win over the sceptics.
‘Our members — which account for about half of the colonic hydrotherapists in the UK — undergo a rigorous two-year full-time or three-year part-time course, overseen by the highly respected Complementary and Natural Health Care Council, during which they learn about anatomy, biology as well as the link between body and mind. They also learn who to turn away. Our members would never carry out colonic irrigation on someone with inflammatory bowel conditions, such as Crohn’s Disease.’
Dr Mishori has a different idea. ‘Eat good food, plenty of fibre, exercise and your bowels will work fine. I won’t be recommending colonic irrigation to my patients.’
‘Don’t bother,’ adds Tamily wryly. ‘Quite apart from six months of stomach upset, £180 of my very hard earned money went, almost literally, down the drain.Now that does make me feel like a fool.’

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