Digestive complaints, such as constipation, can lead to the build-up of waste in the large intestine and bowel. But can a colon cleanse help?
The term colon cleanse refers to the removal of waste and toxins from the large intestine. Two of the main objectives of doing this are to reduce stomach bloating and relieve constipation. Although there’s insufficient scientific evidence to support the effectiveness of colon cleansing routines, many people swear by detox products and procedures.
However, they should only be used as short-term or one-off solutions. If your symptoms are causing you to flush out your large intestine regularly, you’re advised to talk to a dietitian or your GP rather than relying on a colon cleansing routine.
What is a colon cleanse?
Most colon cleansing products claim to remove harmful substances from the walls of the large intestine. There are two main methods.
- A procedure called colon hydrotherapy. It’s also known as colonic irrigation. This involves using water to flush waste material out of the bowel via a tube inserted into the rectum.
- Products that you take by mouth. For example, there are supplements, laxatives, juice diets and herbal teas that claim to have a detoxifying effect in the colon.
The aim with both approaches is to force waste through the digestive system. By cleaning the colon it’s suggested stools will pass easily, reducing discomfort. There are also a wide range of other suggested wellness benefits, from boosting energy levels to weight loss. But there’s insufficient scientific evidence at the moment to back up the theory.
Does the colon need cleaning?
For most people, the colon does a good job naturally. Clearing waste is after all, a key function of this lower end of the gut. The large intestine (or colon) is a key part of your digestive system. This long, muscular tube removes water, salt and nutrients from the food you eat. The waste that remains moves through the colon before it’s passed as a stool. This process helps maintain a healthy microbiome (or balance of bacteria) in your large intestine.1
But sometimes things don’t work as well as they should for some reason. When faeces build up in the large intestine for too long, constipation and bloating can happen. And this is when people can find detoxing provides relief by getting things moving again. A colon cleansing product can stimulate bowel movements, providing short term relief. Anecdotal evidence suggests, for many, it gets the job done and gets things back on track.
However, it’s suggested that a frequent, drastic cleansing routine could change the constitution of the microbiome in your colon. So, by over-detoxing you could actually remove bacteria that keeps this lower section of your gut healthy.
It’s also important to note that there are many side effects associated with overdoing colon cleansing. From nausea, dizziness, diarrhoea and dehydration, to more serious damage to the kidneys and bowel.
Is there a more natural alternative to a colon cleanse?
This depends on what’s driving you to seek a colon cleanse. If the end goal for you is to relieve constipation, it’s worth considering how changes to your diet could instead encourage regular bowel movements and ease the passing of stools.2
A high fibre diet
How much fibre do you need in a healthy, balanced diet? UK government guidelines recommend an adult daily dietary fibre intake of 30g.3,4 In reality, most adults only eat an average of about 18g per day. Finding ways to increase fibre in your diet could help to relieve (and prevent) constipation by aiding digestion.
To measure fibre intake, you’ll have to closely inspect nutritional labels on food. But to give you an idea, here’s the fibre content of some popular foods.
The amount of fibre in some common foods:5
- Two slices of wholemeal bread – 3.5g
- Small bowl of muesli – 2g
- Small apple – 1.3g
- Half an avocado – 2.6g
- 5 dried dates – 3g
- 1 medium pear – 3.3g
- 1 medium banana – 1.1g
- Baked beans (2 tablespoons) – 3g
- 2 spears of broccoli – 2.4g
- Carrots (2 tablespoons) – 2g
- Boiled lentils (2 tablespoons) – 1.5g
- Small baked potato (skin on) – 2.7g
However, it’s important to note, that if your bloating and constipation are caused by a digestive condition (e.g. IBS, colitis or Crohn’s disease) increasing fibre intake could make symptoms worse. Always discuss any changes to your diet with a GP first.
Increase water intake
Water and other fluids help your body absorb nutrients by breaking down food. Drinking plenty of water and staying hydrated is a great way to regulate digestion. The NHS Eatwell Guide recommends drinking 6 to 8 glasses of fluid a day.6
Water also helps fibre to pass through the digestive tract. So, if you’re increasing fibre to help with constipation, it’s essential that you also increase your water intake.
Adding probiotics (or friendly bacteria) to your diet could replicate some of the action of a colon cleanse. By eating probiotic-rich, fermented foods, you can introduce good bacteria to the gut. One of the benefits of this is encouraging regular bowel movements.
Yoghurt, miso, kimchi, pickles, kombucha, and kefir are some examples of natural sources of friendly bacteria.
Summary: Are colon cleanses effective?
The question of whether colon cleansing improves the effectiveness of digestion is a topic for debate. However, if the desired effect is to relieve constipation and regulate digestion, anecdotal evidence suggests a colon cleanse can provide short-term relief. However, some simple changes to diet could also help, and it’s recommended you attempt these first before considering any form of colon cleanse.
Last updated: 9 July 2020