Debunked: Colon Cleanses

Warning: If you are squeamish about the subject of bowel movements, beware, because we’re going to go there. This is an article about poop… or more specifically, the colon where it resides before it leaves your body. Poop has always been a popular topic amongst young children (trust me, I have three of them), but only recently has that subject gone mainstream. Conversations about colon health used to be confined to gastroenterologists’ offices, but now there are infomercials, articles, blogs, and all sorts of programs available for people seeking to cleanse their colons. These programs make big promises… but do these colon cleanses work?

Many colon cleanse programs and products are marketed under the premise that the average person is walking around carrying pounds of decaying fecal matter in their intestine. Some marketers go so far as to say that there’s a putrid mess caked on the walls of your intestines, and that their detox, product, or cleanse can rid you of this mess. They then offer an array of potions and enemas to help “clean you out.”

For people who feel constipated and bloated, these products sound like a great idea. No one wants a decaying mess of feces caked onto their insides. So, these folks purchase the program and then dutifully follow the advice. They consume a bunch of herbal pills, eat specific foods in a pattern according to the cleanse program, and after several days… the results can be very impressive. Some people will will purge the most impressive bowel movement they’ve ever had. I have had patients bring me photos (I’m not kidding) of bowel movements the likes of which you’ve never seen. We’re talking massive volumes of material that would make any toilet quake in fear.

People who experience purging these huge and frightening volumes of poop are often proud of them, and some even post pictures online as evidence that their cleanse worked (I do not recommend Googling these websites). It’s easy to see why this cleanse seems effective: the impact of this sort of release makes people feel better. They often report feeling clean inside, and feeling “lighter.” Sounds relieving, right?

The problem is, colon cleanses are a total scam. All of that material in the toilet bowl after one of these cleanses is not old, accumulated waste. Those impressive bowel movements are actually created by the cleanse itself. The things you eat and drink during a cleanse, along with the herbs that these cleanses include, actually create this impressive waste. Many cleanse herbs are fibrous and mucilaginous herbs which attract water, and this essentially creates a mold or a cast of your own intestine. So, you form this snake of material inside yourself and then you release it. That impressive release gives a person a psychological placebo effect of feeling clean. In truth, that material was never there before the cleanse: it’s a product of what you ingested.

It is amazing that the marketers of these programs are able to convince people that the walls of their colons are caked with putrefying waste. There are over 15 million colonoscopies performed every year in the US… and it turns out that after a quick rinse called a colon prep, it’s surprisingly clean in there. If you’ve ever had a colonoscopy, or looked at the images taken by a colonoscope, you’ve seen that the inside of the colon is clean once remnant stool has been passed. The colon is not dirty and layered with filth. In fact, doctors can easily see the mucosal layer of the colon wall, including the blood vessels. This is evidence that you’re not carrying around toxic garbage in your colon, so don’t be fooled.

Digestive health is indeed a fundamental way to keep toxins from accumulating in your body, regulate your bowel movements, and benefit your health in the long term. You do not need a “colon cleanse” to enjoy healthy digestion. The first and most important step is to focus on eating a whole foods, plant-based, fiber rich diet. Daily physical activity is also an important aspect of digestive health. Specific dietary supplements like probiotics and digestive enzymes can also provide additional support. No colon cleanse required.

– Dr. Joshua Levitt