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Are colon cleanses a necessary tool for colon health or just a fad? One colorectal surgeon weighs in.

Spend any amount of time reading about wellness trends, and you’ll likely come across information on colon cleanses. There are wellness spas devoted to them and TV shows that highlight their every detail. You might have even overheard someone you know or follow on social media swear that “getting a cleanse” is the secret to better health.

Colon cleanses boast benefits such as helping you lose weight, improving your mood and boosting the immune system. But is there any truth to the widespread claims?

What is a colon cleanse?

Also known as a colonic, the practice of cleansing the colon (and our bodies, in general) has been around for thousands of years.

There are two main types of colon cleanses — in-office and at home.

“Colon cleansing involves flushing out the colon with a large amount of water or herbs,” explains Sasha Slipak, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Geisinger.

In-office colon cleanses typically take place at a spa or wellness center. During your appointment, you’ll lie on a table while a technician inserts a thin tube into your rectum to send water (and sometimes herbs) into your colon and large intestine. This type of procedure is also known as hydrotherapy.

Dr. Slipak adds that cleanses can also refer to supplements you take at home to clean out the colon, including:

  • Enemas
  • Laxatives
  • Herbal or “detox” teas

Side effects of a cleanse

Some colon cleanses claim to remove toxins from the body. But here’s what they don’t tell you: The process of “cleansing” the colon can actually remove healthy gut bacteria — which isn’t a good thing. These healthy microbes play an integral role in your overall health, impacting everything from your immune system to cholesterol levels.

Removing good bacteria during a colon cleanse can lead to a variety of side effects, including:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Gas and bloating
  • Cramps
  • Diarrhea

“Side effects from a cleanse can also lead to dehydration,” adds Dr. Slipak.

When to get a colon cleanse

There’s really only one scenario in which you should get a colon cleanse.

“The only time cleaning out your colon is recommended is to prepare for a colonoscopy,” Dr. Slipak says.

But this isn’t something you’ll need to figure out by yourself. If you have a colonoscopy coming up, your healthcare provider will give you guidance on the right way to prep for it.

The day before your colonoscopy, you’ll need to follow a liquid-only diet and use laxatives. Doing this helps properly empty your colon so your doctor can get a clearer view of your colon and rectum.

“Before your colonoscopy, your doctor will be there to walk you through the process and make it as easy as possible,” says Dr. Slipak.

Achieving your best colon health

If a colonoscopy isn’t in your immediate future, you can skip the cleanse — whether that’s a colonic or taking supplements at home — and take these steps to keep your colon in the best of health.

  • Limit alcohol: If you do drink, stick to one drink per day, max. (One serving is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.)
  • Cut back on red meat: To reduce your risk of colon cancer, eat no more than 18 ounces of red meat per week (approximately 4 servings). “Consider swapping red or processed meats for poultry and fish,” says Dr. Slipak.
  • Eat a balanced diet: Fill your plate with fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy, fermented foods and lean proteins.
  • Exercise more: Aim for being active for at least 20 minutes a day, three to four times a week. Choose moderate exercise such as walking, running, swimming or lifting weights. “Regular exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, which can lower your risk of developing colon cancer,” Dr. Slipak says.
  • Try a fiber supplement: Many of us don’t get enough fiber in our diets — a fiber supplement can help with that. Besides keeping you regular, adding fiber to your diet can aid digestion and improve colon health. Supplements are available in a variety of forms, including:
    • Probiotic capsules
    • Drinkable powder
    • Gummies
    • Chewable tablets

“Besides making lifestyle changes, it's also important to get screened regularly for colorectal cancer,” Dr. Slipak says.

Regular preventive screenings can reduce your risk

Colorectal cancer is the second most common type of cancer in the United States. But it’s one of the few types of cancers that can be prevented. In its early stages, colon cancer often has no symptoms, which is why getting a colonoscopy is so important.

The American Cancer Society recommends all men and women with an average risk of colorectal cancer begin regular screenings at age 45.

“If you’re worried about your risk, talk to your healthcare provider,” says Dr. Slipak. “They can help build a personalized care plan tailored to your needs and personal history.”

Next steps:

Meet Sasha Slipak, MD
Learn more about colorectal surgery at Geisinger
Learn more about gastrointestinal health at Geisinger

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