Feature Archive

Awash in Speculation

More Than an Enema

WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Gary Vogin

When Hank Fry of Columbus, Ohio, entered his 40s, he took stock of his health and decided to make a few changes. "One of my goals is to play golf on my 100th birthday," says the business consultant. So he began exercising more and studying spirituality.

So far so good, most doctors would say. Then as Fry turned 50, he added a new practice for rejuvenation that has yet to gain the endorsement of any mainstream medical organization: colon hydrotherapy (also known as colonics or high colonic) -- a deep-cleaning water treatment for the colon. Fry bought a home colonic kit off the Internet and gives himself a treatment every six weeks.

Fry is one among many. Due in part to vigorous Internet promotion, colonics are growing increasingly popular. And that has some doctors concerned. Not only is there scant evidence of any health benefits, but also the practice could be dangerous.

Growing popularity

Colon hydrotherapy dates back to biblical times. No one is certain how many people employ this practice today -- either via home treatments or via outside clinics -- but many in the field say the numbers are increasing, along with overall interest in alternative health practices.

"It's exploding around the world," says Dick Hownninger of the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy, based in San Antonio, Texas. The association has more than 800 members, up from just 100 members in 1996. Most are colon therapists, who administer treatments.

The treatment

Colon hydrotherapy methods differ, but most follow the same basic procedure. The colon is filled with cool or warm water through a tube inserted into the rectum. After several seconds to a few minutes, the water and any fecal matter are drained through a second tube. This process is repeated several times in one treatment. Sometimes minerals are added to the water.

Most people administering colonics today use disposable, sterile tubing, and machines regulate the temperature and pressure of the water. Colon hydrotherapy itself is not regulated, although the association of colon hydrotherapists runs a voluntary certification program, as do several machine manufacturers.

Even among colon hydrotherapists there are different opinions on what benefits can be derived from the procedure. Some say that simply flushing out old fecal matter promotes energy and wellness. Others are more specific.

"We use colon hydrotherapy to tonify the bowel to help produce a better elimination practice for the body," says Mark Groven, a naturopathic physician and medical supervisor at the Bastyr University natural health clinic in Seattle, Wash.

Groven prescribes colonics for asthma, arthritis, sinus problems, chronic fatigue and constipation, usually in conjunction with other treatments such as nutritional remedies. "It's part of a total general wellness program," he says.

But neither Groven nor any other colonics advocates can cite any research showing benefits. They base their support largely on anecdotal reports from people who have had the treatment and from naturopathic literature that discusses its theoretical merits. A search for articles in a variety of standard medical indexes yielded no mention of colon hydrotherapy.

Spokespersons for the American Medical Association and American College of Gastroenterology said their organizations could not comment on colon hydrotherapy because too little is known about it.

Other conventional doctors are less reticent. "I'm not opposed to alternative therapies when they're used judiciously and have no significant risks," says Ross Black, a family physician in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. "The high colonic has some significant risks."

The dangers, Black says, include spreading infection from contaminated equipment and harmfully altering the chemical balance of the colon. A major function of the colon is to absorb minerals such as potassium and send them through the bloodstream. Colonics could wipe out these minerals and thereby cause deficiencies, Black says.

Even advocates, such as Groven, stress that the treatment is not appropriate for people with certain medical problems, such as appendicitis, hepatitis and ulcerative colitis, and should be used only under the supervision of a naturopathic or traditional doctor.

Black simply doesn't advise it. "At best, it would warrant further study," he says. "At present there's no evidence it's of use."

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Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005 11:14:12 PM