One of the many alternative health treatments available is a procedure called colonic irrigation or hydrotherapy, which removes waste from the colon using filtered water. Hydrotherapists believe waste can get stuck in the colon, where toxins can be reabsorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in autointoxication, which they see as the cause of many illnesses and symptoms.
The use of colonics can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, who used enemas. The practice was further promoted by Hippocrates and later by medical doctors in the early 1900s. By 1920, however, the American medical community rejected both the idea of autointoxication as a real disease and the regular use of colonics. ("Autointoxication is absolute nonsense," says Dr. Teddy Winstead, director of gastroenterology clinical research at Ochsner Medical Center.) However, many alternative health practitioners advocate colonic hydrotherapy as a way to maintain general health.
Two holistic practitioners in the New Orleans area who specialize in this treatment describe the process. Tabitha Bethune of Uptown Colon Hydrotherapy says her use of closed-system colon hydrotherapy is "a gentle, safe, drug- and chemical-free procedure." Marshall Meggs of Holistic Life says during a colonic irrigation session, "filtered water flows into the colon, gently stimulating the colon's natural peristaltic action to release softened waste. This process is repeated several times throughout the session, which can last about 30 minutes to an hour." For people concerned about possible contamination, Bethune says, "The instruments that are used are disposable, so the patients can be sure that what is being used on them is completely sterile." However, Winstead says, "The stuff (colon hydrotherapists) put into you isn't usually FDA-approved and may not be sanitary. There is also the risk of perforating your colon." To avoid these risks, make sure your hydrotherapist's equipment is sterilized and FDA-approved.
Proponents of colonic hydrotherapy list many illnesses and symptoms they treat with this procedure. "The proposed benefits of colonic irrigation are quite extensive," says Dr. Lisa Marie Chambers, a naturopathic physician in Mandeville. "(Benefits) include enhancement of the immune system, removal of toxic substances such as heavy metals, restored balance to intestinal microorganisms, restored pH balance to the colon and increased intestinal muscle tone. It has ... been used to treat constipation, insomnia, digestive disorders, colds and flu, skin conditions, fatigue, menstrual problems, headache, chronic fatigue syndrome, high blood pressure, poor mental state (and) irritability." Weight loss is often a documented result. Though Chambers does not perform hydrotherapy in her office, she recommends it to her patients.
"For me, an increase in energy was the main benefit," says Stephen Lee Kelly Jr., who had his first experience with colonic irrigation last fall and describes the experience as relaxing and soothing. "For a couple of weeks, it was easier to wake up in the morning, and I felt less groggy and dependent on caffeine. I definitely recommend it to other people."
Dr. Lydia Wheaton, a naturopathic physician in New Orleans, does not recommend colonics. "There are other ways to heal the body," she says. "This is an extreme procedure. Just like fasting, colonic irrigation has a big impact on the system. I know naturopathic doctors who live well, and they get colonics. It is their method of increasing detox. But bring it back to nature. When did we ever have water in our colons?" Instead, Wheaton prescribes the use of "gentler means such as healthy diet and lifestyle, sweating and exercise, which are just as effective and not as invasive."
Medical doctors generally do not recommend colonic hydrotherapy and do not perform the procedure in their offices. Dr. William Woessner, who specializes in family medicine, says he discourages his patients from colon cleansing. "I absolutely do not recommend it and see no medical indication for it, except the use of enemas in cases of severe constipation," Woessner says. "Otherwise, there is no scientific proof of its benefits, and (it) may draw out essential nutrients in the body."
Winstead says the colon is capable of cleaning itself. He debunks the belief, held by some hydrotherapy advocates, that waste accumulates in the gastrointestinal tract and adheres to the intestinal walls as toxin-ridden mucoid plaque, which is best removed via colonic irrigation. "When I do an unprepped colonoscopy, there is nothing adhered to the walls of the colon," he says. "I am a big believer in alternative medicine, but colonics is something I have never bought into at all."
Regardless of the argument for or against colonic hydrotherapy, all healthcare providers — medical, naturopathic and holistic — agree on a few things if a person decides on this treatment. First, see your physician to ensure you have no health contraindications (for example, pregnancy). Second, make sure the procedure is administered by a certified colon hydrotherapist. Finally, use this procedure as a supplement to an already healthy lifestyle, and take care of yourself after the procedure by replenishing the good bacteria your body needs and eating a nutritious diet.
"Remember to add super foods (like blueberries, broccoli, walnuts and oats) to your diet," Bethune says. Meggs also stresses the importance of diet: "The body needs food that is alive and full of nutrients and enzymes in order to maintain or regain good health. I advise people to take charge of their own health."