Is a Colon Cleanse a Good Idea? How Often Should You Do It?

Dr. Zora DeGrandpre authorDr. Zora DeGrandpre, ND
Naturopathic Doctor
Colon Cleanse Expert

Overview | Benefits | Side effects | When | How often | My detox plan | References

Is a colon cleanse a good idea? and if so, when, how and why? How often should you do a colon cleanse?

There are basically two ways to do a colon cleansing. You can do it on your own, in the comfort of your own home or go to a specialized office that performs a colon irrigation. Also called colonics, this method uses water sometimes combined with enzymes, teas, coffee or various herbs to clear the intestines.

Related topic: Overnight colon cleanse recipe.

The Concept of Autointoxication

The concept of autointoxication originates with ancient Egyptian physicians who believed that waste material that was not regularly excreted by the bowels could produce increases in harmful bacteria and other parasites.
(They didn’t really call them bacteria, though )

According to their belief, this waste could form a sort of “reservoir” for toxins, harmful byproducts and other substances that could then be absorbed into the blood and the body. The “auto’ part in Autointoxication meant that an individual’s body was producing its own toxins simply by not adequately eliminating waste!

Unfortunately, while this does make sense, there is not a whole lot of medical evidence to support this idea. Some—but not as much as you might like to see.  On the other hand, most everyone who has had to deal with constipation or—as some like to call it—irregularity – can tell you, not having regular bowel movements can be one of the more uncomfortable times in anyone’s life!

And there is no denying the fact that regular and comfortable bowel movements are important for overall health and wellness.  It IS waste after all—the sooner it is gone, the better, right?

What is Considered Normal Colon Activity

One question I am often asked…often in a kind of “off-hand” way, is “What IS a healthy bowel movement and how often should it happen?”

Maybe a bit of a surprise, but there is no absolutely normal pattern—there is a range of normal. Some people have a daily bowel movement and that is normal for them.  Others have bowel movements throughout the day—while others have one or more bowel movements every other or even every third day.

You can determine your own “normal”: when you are feeling at your best. Do you have a bowel movement every day or is your pattern different—whatever that pattern is when you are feeling best is your normal.

When Should You Consider a Colon Cleanse?

If you are feeling bloated, have discomfort or pain or are just extremely uncomfortable, then I often recommend that patients do some form of colon cleanse.

I don’t often recommend a full colon irrigation, but I very often recommend some form of an at-home cleansing. I should add here that maintaining a high-fiber diet, at least 50 grams of fiber (soluble +insoluble) every day can help keep you regular.

Life being what it is—eating on the runs, for example, there will be times that a colon cleanse provides very needed relief as well as other benefits.

How Often Should You Do a Colon Cleanse

This question also gives a range of answers.  For most people, eating a high-fiber (and balanced) diet allows them to have regular bowel movements—most of the time.  For many, a cleanse 3-4 times a year is best.  Others, may find that once-a-month cleanse is usually enough.

For some people, a colon cleanse may be beneficial 2-3 times a month and for a few, weekly cleansing works best.  Most of the time, I recommend either 3-4 times a year or the once-a-month cleanses.

Doing more cleanses can start to be problematic—remember, the goal is to achieve YOUR normal—intervening too often, even with all-natural products, can make your colon  “lazy”—it’s called “Lazy Bowel Syndrome”.  It can also be complicated by non-regular eating patterns, eating disorders, some medications and digestive disorders like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory digestive conditions like Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

So, make sure if you have any of these conditions—or any other medical conditions—to talk to an understanding physician for the best advice on how often you should cleanse.

With that in mind, for most people, the goal is to make sure you have as regular bowel movements as possible. So, you regularly cleanse either 3-4 times a year or to ease discomfort with occasional constipation as needed. You should always talk to your physician, but especially if you find yourself needing  cleanses more than 6 times a year. You want to make sure there is nothing else going on, and, if you are taking medications that are affecting bowel movements, to see if there is a better alternative for you.

The Benefits of a Colon Cleanse

The potential benefits of a colon cleanse can be many. But the first and most important, well, at least as far as I am concerned (!) is that a colon cleanse can relieve that sometimes all-encompassing discomfort. It allows you to get all the things done that you want to do!

Beyond that, a colon cleanse may:

  • Improve digestive functions
  • Increase your energy level
  • Help you maintain a healthy weight.
    Don’t fall for the idea that if you poop, you have lost weight. Technically, the entire digestive system is outside your body, so that weight was never really you. However, since doing a cleanse can help your energy and comfort levels, you should be more able to maintain your level of physical activity
  • Lower the risk of colon cancer.
    We don’t know if there is a direct effect because there have been no studies on this. We do know, however, that colon cleansing before colonoscopies increase the ability to detect colon cancer early—and that is a huge advantage.
  • Help maintain a stable mood.
    This benefit can seem unrelated to a colon cleanse until you realize that 5HTP and serotonin are found at the highest levels in the digestive system. 5HTP is the biochemical precursor of serotonin—and serotonin, while it has many functions, is also known as the “happiness hormone”. It may be that a colon cleanse allows a “rebound” effect with 5HTP and serotonin. Again, there are no studies to prove this, though.
  • Reduce inflammation in the digestive system.
    There is a bit more evidence for this benefit. The essential idea is that clearing the colon of fecal material can improve the function of all the eliminative organs. (Liver, kidneys, lungs and the skin). Thus, can decrease inflammation in the digestive system. In fact, one study on colonic irrigation system showed decreased inflammation in patients with IBS.
  • Improve liver function.
    This is very important because the liver does most of the biochemical detoxification work. The liver dumps the products into the gallbladder which in turn releases those detoxified substances into your colon for elimination

Adverse Effects of a Colon Cleanse

Irrigation-type colon cleanses tend to have more possible adverse effects as compared to the gentler, at-home colon cleanses. But, there are precautions to take with at-home cleanses as well.

The adverse effects can include:

  • Diarrhea.
    In turn, diarrhea can cause dehydration and loss of essential minerals. In those with kidney conditions, this can be serious
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Bowel damage.
    This is a greater concern with irrigation techniques, but theoretically, using harsh laxatives, for example could damage the lining of the bowels.
  • Weakness
  • Mood changes
  • Loss of healthy gut bacteria

If you have a history of digestive, heart, liver or kidney disorders, be sure to consult a trusted healthcare professional for advice before using a colon cleanse.

My Favorite Detox Approach

I like to keep things as simple as possible—for myself and my family as well as for my patients. So, I recommend (and do):

  • A whole-foods diet rich in soluble and insoluble fiber (see below).
  • Eat enough high quality lean meats (mostly poultry, some game meat),
  • Wild fish (3-4 times a week)
  • Lots and lots of fresh vegetables and fruits
  • Along with a raw fruit and vegetable plate, nuts and seeds (which I add to just about everything)
  • I use primarily olive oil in all cooking.

Be active

I always recommend to be physically active. Simply taking a walk can help “massage” the bowels and help you eliminate stool more easily.

Take magnesium

I recommend magnesium to help maintain bowel regularity and to do a gentle cleansing.

For colon cleansing, use ozonated magnesium.

For an ongoing support, it is important to make sure you are not deficient in Magnesium. So, supplement with a very soluble magnesium salt like a citrate or a gluconate. Magnesium is critical for so many functions in the body and with the exception of people with kidney or neuromuscular disease and pregnant women, it can be taken very safely. Just to be on the safe side, always talk to your own physician first.  Oh yes—magnesium can also help you sleep better!

Start with 50mg of magnesium twice a day and slowly increase it as needed.  For some, that’s enough. By the time one gets to 300mg a day (in divided doses) nearly everyone can experience complete and comfortable bowel movements.

Daily Habits that Can Work as a 24-7 Colon Cleanse

Get enough fiber from whole foods

Having an adequate intake of both soluble and insoluble fiber is one of the best things you can do for your colon.

Soluble fiber makes a sort of gel to allow for easier stool passage.
Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, adds bulk for more regular stool passage.

Both help soften and moisten the stool. Soluble fiber can also help maintain normal blood sugar levels and improve both digestion and absorption of nutrients.

Generally speaking, I recommend at least 50 g of combined soluble and insoluble fiber every day:

  • Significant amounts of soluble fiber are in beans, whole grains, apples (with the peel), berries and starchy tubers like potatoes, yams, rutabagas and turnips
  • Significant amounts of insoluble fiber are in whole grains, seeds and the edible skin of fruits and berries

Eat foods that love the liver

I also recommend “foods that love the liver”. The liver is among the most important organs of detoxification we have. Overall, I’d have to say that the liver knows its business!  Our goal therefore, is to support the liver as it is doing that business.

I recommend trying to include at least one of these foods that love the liver into at least one meal every day.

  • Beets and beet juice
  • Wild fish.
    Fish with high levels of omega-3 fats help reduce inflammation and support the liver. These fish include salmon, mackerel, river trout, cod, herring, sardines and anchovies. Oysters are also high in omega-3 fats.
  • Leafy green vegetables.
    True story—while shopping at a local store, I saw a young woman looking frazzled and frantic. Are you OK? I asked. She said that she was trying to find leafy green vegetables because her doctor had recommended that she eat more of them. But, where were they?  WHAT were they?  As It happened, she was standing at the produce section, right in front of bunches of spinach!  I said—you are standing right there!  That’s spinach!  You are right in front of it…and next to the spinach –see—there’s kale, some collard greens, beet greens and there’s some mustard greens over there. I frankly looked around to see if someone was filming this as a joke. Here I was, the only naturopath in town and this lady was asking me about how to identify leafy greens!!
  • Garlic.
    Garlic is one of my favorite all-around beneficial herbs…and it’s not just because we grow our own! Garlic has been shown to reduce the fats in the liver, allowing it to function more optimally.
  • Berries of all kinds and grapes
    Antioxidants found in high levels of berries and grapes can protect the liver
  • Nuts and seeds

Your liver loves coffee too(!)

Coffee can reduce fats in the liver, possibly protecting against fatty liver disease. It also appears to normalize liver enzymes and increases the level of antioxidants.

Green tea appears to also provide similar protective effects according to several animal studies

Foods to avoid

Sometimes it is also important to know what foods to avoid.  I tell my patients—and anyone else willing to listen—to avoid all packaged, processed, fatty, salty and sugary foods.

Not only will avoiding these foods help keep your colon functioning optimally but avoiding these foods can help you maintain normal blood pressure, blood sugar levels and blood fat levels. AND avoiding these foods can help you avoid energy crashes too. The high sugar content in many processed foods may boost your apparent energy levels. But, later…later is when the crash comes and you end up feeling…well, pretty poopy!

A Colon Cleanse Story

A few years ago, I had a patient come in who had a medical history that was among the most complicated I had ever seen. Simply put, if it ended in “itis” this 50- year old man had it. (The suffix “itis” means inflammation).

We worked to change his diet (see below), and his daily exercise habits (well—to create daily exercise habits would be more accurate). The goal was to use these natural lifestyle alternatives and see if  we can slowly decrease his need for medications.

He also had chronic constipation, so along with a healthier diet, we started to use magnesium (in the form of magnesium citrate) to encourage easier and more frequent bowel movements.  I used only diet and magnesium (in slowly increasing doses) because he was taking so many different medications it was important to minimize any potentially harmful interactions. We started at 50 mg of magnesium citrate twice a day (morning and evening) and increased it by 50 mg every other day. He started having easier and more regular bowel movements at 300mg a day, and when he hit 400mg, that continued to be the daily dose.

One year later…

Over a period of about 1 year, this patient improved his diet, had regular (daily) bowel movements and lost about 10 pounds.  He also started walking every day—just a few blocks at first, but eventually walking about 1.5-2 miles most days. He was also able to decrease his blood pressure medication as well as his diabetes medications AND able to decrease his use of all his other medications.

Was it the colon cleanse, the change in lifestyle habits or maybe just that someone took the time with him?  I don’t honestly know. But, I do know that without the mild daily “lift” from the magnesium, the road would have been more difficult for him. THAT would have made it more difficult for him to be successful!

References

  1. Impact of colonic cleansing on quality and diagnostic yield of colonoscopy: the European Panel of Appropriateness of Gastrointestinal Endoscopy European multicenter study.
  2. Colon Cleansing: A Popular, but Misunderstood Natural Therapy.
  3. The Colon Revisited or the Key to Wellness, Health and Disease.
  4. Treatment of irritable bowel syndrome with a novel colonic irrigation system: a pilot study.
  5. Effect of garlic powder consumption on body composition in patients with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial.
  6. Review of natural products with hepatoprotective effects.
  7. Coffee and Liver Health.
  8. Green Tea Extract Rich in Epigallocatechin-3-Gallate Prevents Fatty Liver by AMPK Activation via LKB1 in Mice Fed a High-Fat Diet.
Dr. Zora DeGrandpre, ND
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