Hits & Myths: are colon-cleansing products necessary for a healthy gut?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 9:30am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2014, 9:30am

Are colon-cleansing products and procedures necessary for a healthy gut?

The straight answer: No

The facts: There are many products, programmes and procedures that claim to "cleanse" or "detoxify" your colon. It's a common belief that years of bad eating habits can cause faecal matter and toxins, such as parasites, pesticides and chemicals, to accumulate and "stick" to the colon wall, causing a host of ailments, from stress, depression and fatigue, to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and even cancer.

But if you're a healthy individual, there is no need to use such products and procedures, says Dr David Chow, resident consultant, and specialist in gastroenterology and hepatology at Matilda International Hospital.

"The idea of colon detoxification has grown in popularity in recent years as more people become concerned about toxins in the colon. But there is no evidence to suggest that toxins can accumulate in the colon and cause IBS, allergies or cancer later in life."

There are millions of naturally occurring bacteria in the human gut. These microorganisms perform a range of useful functions, including keeping the immune system healthy, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, and producing vitamins and hormones. They are therefore essential for a healthy digestive system.

What colon-cleaning products and procedures do is upset the balance of these good gut microorganisms. When this happens, normal bowel function can become disrupted or impaired, leading to dehydration and a loss of nutrients, among other problems.

Even if the products and procedures used are "natural" or herb-based, it does not mean they are safe. In fact, there are real dangers associated with the regular use of laxatives, colonic irrigation and the like. Chow says electrolyte imbalance, colitis, rectal perforation and infection are just some of the risks to worry about.

Other potential side effects include nausea, diarrhoea, cramping, bloating and dizziness.

"Most gastroenterologists do not recommend colonic detoxification, not just because there's no evidence that it benefits the body, but also because there is sufficient proof that it has a range of harmful effects," says Chow.

"The US Food and Drug Administration also does not approve of the sale of colon cleansing devices."

The body does a good enough job of getting rid of waste and neutralising toxins.

For one, regular bowel movements ensure that waste is eliminated. Second, the colon is lined with special mucous membranes that keep dangerous substances from re-entering the system.

And there is no way for toxins to "build up" inside the colon wall, since the colon sheds old cells every couple of days, thus preventing an accumulation of harmful substances.

The most natural way to keep your digestive system in tip-top condition is to consume a high-fibre diet with plenty of vegetables and fruits, drink six to eight glasses of water a day - more if you're active - and to exercise regularly.

Exercise has been shown to stimulate the natural contraction of intestinal muscles, thereby helping your body eliminate waste more effectively.