Flush with possibilities

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 2006, 12:00am

GORGEOUS WEATHER, beautiful beaches and indulgence in food and booze make up most people's holiday fantasies. Colonic irrigation doesn't tend to feature.

Yet the treatment, which involves impacted waste being flushed from your large intestine, is often combined with spa and detox packages - especially as it can be cheaper overseas than at home.

For art consultant Annette Aylmer, 42, going to a clinic in Bangkok offered both a holiday and a chance to help treat the irritable bowel syndrome and bloating that had plagued her for years.

'Although it was a reputable place and had loads of patients from overseas, it was one of the most painful experiences I've ever had,' she says of the procedure that flushed her colon with a solution of diluted coffee. 'I knew it would be uncomfortable, but I felt such terrible pain I told them to stop the treatment. I was sweating and screaming in pain.'

Although there are many reliable colonic irrigation centres in Hong Kong and overseas (and Aylmer has become a convert, after successful treatments in Hong Kong), to a novice it may sound a little alarming, not to mention invasive.

Patients recline on a bed in a private room. A thin lubricated tube - usually about the thickness of a pencil - is inserted about two centimetres into the rectum by the patient or therapist. Water is fed into the tube until the patient feels the urge to make a bowel movement, at which time diluted and dissolved waste from the colon flows out with the water. The procedure can take up to an hour.

The colon is the last stop in our digestive process. It absorbs water and nutrients, and eliminates waste. Proponents of colonic irrigation say that the concertina design of the muscular colon (which is, on average, two metres long) means that waste gets trapped and rots in crevices.

A poor modern diet - with its preference for animal fat, dairy, processed foods and refined sugars, over fibre, fresh vegetables and fruit - is said to be another factor in the colon's difficulty in flushing out waste. The build-up of toxins and bacteria is said to lead to health problems.

The benefits of colonics are said to include detoxification, weight loss, clearer skin, more energy and a lower incidence of allergies.

Discussing the finer points of one's bowel movements is somewhat embarrassing for many and not usually a subject for polite conversation. Yet colonic irrigation has become dining-room chatter due to its popularity among people suffering from digestive complaints and concerns about bowel cancer. Given that it's the second most common form of cancer in Hong Kong, the US and Britain, it does seem worth asking whether colonic irrigation works.

According to fans - said to include the likes of Ben Affleck, Courtney Love and the late Princess Diana - it does. Madeleine Sung was so impressed by the beneficial effects on her water retention and stomach cramps that she studied to become a member of the US-based International Association of Colon Therapy. This equips people to administer the treatment. In 2001, Sung set up the HydroHealth clinic in Central.

'My immune system is far better now,' she says. 'Even if I catch something like flu, it only takes me a couple of days to recover, whereas before I would have had to go to the doctor and take antibiotics.' Sung suggests that first-timers have eight to 10 sessions over four to six weeks. Many of her clients have sedentary, stressful jobs, with long working hours that tempt them to eat unhealthy lunches.

But Chu Kin-wah, a colorectal surgeon for the past 25 years, doubts the procedure's efficacy. 'It doesn't work, it's costly and there's potential harm either through perforating the superficial lining of the intestine or for patients who have heart, kidney or liver problems,' he says. 'It definitely doesn't prevent bowel cancer, which is mostly diet-related. We don't have any scientific evidence that colonic irrigation improves people's health.'

The lack of scientific data didn't put off Christina Tam Yin-bing, who opened the Mind Body Colon Cleansing Centre in Central six years ago. 'I've seen colonic irrigations help a lot of people not just physically, but mentally,' Tam says. 'When you cleanse the body physically you help to cleanse it mentally, too.'

Chu says he suspects that the psychological reaction rather than physiological benefits draw people back.

But Tam views colonic irrigation as a key part of a preventative health strategy. 'If you become sick, the body produces toxins. If you have a chance to release those toxins you can heal yourself quicker.'

Tam suggests that first-timers have 12 sessions and one liver flush over four to six weeks. This frequency, which isn't an uncommon recommendation, concerns Chu.

'It's impossible and undesirable to make the colon sterile and free of bacteria,' he says. 'If you want to modify the equilibrium [or bacteria], then use other methods. Modify the food you eat. Eat more fibre and less meat and fat.'