Other common name(s): colonic irrigation, high colonic, detoxification therapy, colon hydrotherapy, coffee enemas, enema irrigation, hydro-colon therapy, high enema
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Colon therapy is the cleansing of the colon (the major part of the large intestine) through the administration of water, herbal solutions, enzymes, or other substances such as coffee.
Available scientific evidence does not support claims that colon therapy is effective in treating cancer or any other disease. Rare cases of infection and death have been reported.
How is it promoted for use?
Proponents of colon therapy consider it to be a method of detoxifying the body through the removal of accumulated waste from the colon. Because they claim detoxification increases the efficiency of the body's natural healing abilities, it is sometimes promoted as a treatment for illness. It is often promoted as a general preventive health measure or as part of a routine internal hygiene regimen.
Coffee enemas have been promoted as part of several controversial cancer treatment regimens. People who promote the use of coffee enemas to detoxify the body claim that an "unpoisoned" body or a "clean" colon has the ability to recognize and destroy cancer cells. Practitioners claim coffee enemas can stimulate the liver and gallbladder into releasing toxins and flushing them from the body, allowing the body's immune system to battle malignant cells (see Gerson Therapy and Metabolic Therapy).
What does it involve?
Colon therapy or colonic irrigation is given by a colonic hygienist or hydrotherapist, through the use of plastic tubes inserted through the rectum and into the colon. A machine or gravity-driven pump sends large quantities of liquid (up to 20 gallons, although some practices report using more) into the large intestine. After filling the colon with water, the therapist might massage the abdomen to help move waste material, while fluid and waste are carried out of the body through another tube. The procedure is generally repeated several times, and the average session lasts from 45 to 60 minutes. In comparison to colonics, enemas might use up to a quart of fluid to flush out only the rectum. Fluid is instilled only once, and the person usually holds it for a time and then expels the liquid and stool while sitting on the toilet.
Coffee or herbs may be included in the treatment program.
In most US states, no training is required before you can call yourself a colon therapist or hydrotherapist. The International Association of Colon Therapists recommends 100 hours of classroom instruction before certification, somewhat less than 3 weeks of 8-hour days. Some certifying groups in Canada and other countries allow colon therapists to become certified with as little as 5 days of training.
What is the history behind it?
As far back as the ancient Egyptians, enemas and other “cleansing rituals” were commonly used to rid the body of waste products believed to cause disease and death. In the 19th century, proponents described the large intestine as a sewage system and claimed stagnation caused toxins to form and be absorbed by the body, which led to the theory of "autointoxication." Laxatives, purges, and enemas were routinely recommended to prevent the accumulation of waste.
Colon therapy became very popular in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, when irrigation machines were commonly found in hospitals and physicians' offices. Although the procedure became less popular when advances in science and medicine did not support its founding theory, colon therapy has recently shown an increase in popularity.
In 1985, the California Department of Health Services issued a statement that listed some of the potential hazards of colon therapy, including infection and death from contaminated equipment, death from electrolyte imbalance, and perforation (puncture) of the intestinal wall leading to life-threatening infection or death.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) generally considers colonic irrigation machines to be Class III devices, except for those sold for medically-needed colon cleansing (such as before an x-ray or colonoscopy, which are Class II devices). Unless state law says otherwise, a person buying such a machine is required to be licensed to prescribe colonic irrigation. The irrigations themselves are supposed to be prescribed and supervised by a health care provider licensed by the state. The FDA forbids practitioners and sellers from making claims about their services that have not been proven in scientific studies. The FDA has warned several companies to stop making such claims. No colonic irrigation machine or system has been approved for routine use.
What is the evidence?
Available scientific evidence does not support the claims on which colon therapy is based. It is known that most digestive processes take place in the small intestine, where nutrients are absorbed into the body. What remains enters the large intestine, where it passes to the rectum for elimination after water and minerals are extracted. Available scientific evidence does not support the premise that toxins accumulate on intestinal walls or that toxicity results from poor elimination of waste from the colon.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
The machines used for colon therapy are illegal unless used during conventional medical treatment. Illness and even deaths have resulted from contaminated equipment, electrolyte imbalance, or perforation of intestinal walls. People with diverticulitis, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, severe hemorrhoids, rectal or colon tumors, or who are recovering from bowel surgery may be at higher risk of bowel injury. People with kidney disease or heart failure may be more likely to experience fluid overload or electrolyte imbalances. If compounds such as coffee or herbs are added, remember that many substances can be absorbed into the body through the colon walls and cause toxic or allergic reactions. Colon therapy can also cause discomfort and cramps. Equipment must be adequately disinfected between uses to prevent infections being transmitted from one client to another.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer, may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
Aetna InteliHealth. Colonic Irrigation. Accessed at: www.intelihealth.com/IH/ihtIH/WSIHW000/8513/34968.html on June 2, 2008. Content no longer available.
Barrett S. Gastrointestinal quackery: colonics, laxatives, and more. Accessed at www.quackwatch.org/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/gastro.html on May 3, 2012.
Brown BT. Treating cancer with coffee enemas and diet. JAMA. 1993;269:1635-1636.
Cassileth B. The Alternative Medicine Handbook. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co; 1998.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Amebiasis associated with colonic irrigation: Colorado. Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 1981;30:101-102.
Eisele JW, Reay DT. Deaths related to coffee enemas. JAMA. 1980;244:1608-1609.
Ernst E. Colonic irrigation and the theory of autointoxication: a triumph of ignorance over science. J Clin Gastroenterol. 1997;24:196-198.
Green S. A critique of the rationale for cancer treatment with coffee enemas and diet. JAMA. 1992;268:3224-3227.
Handley DV, Rieger NA, Rodda DJ. Rectal perforation from colonic irrigation administered by alternative practitioners. Med J Aust. 2004 Nov 15;181(10):575-576.
Mishori R, Otubu A, Jones AA. The dangers of colon cleansing. J Fam Pract. 2011 Aug;60(8):454-457.
Norlela S, Izham C, Khalid BA. Colonic irrigation-induced hyponatremia. Malays J Pathol. 2004 Dec;26(2):117-118.
US Food and Drug Administration. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Chapter I, Subchapter H, Part 876: Gastroenterology-urology devices, subpart F. Accessed at http://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=876.5220 on May 4, 2012.
Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 12/11/2012