The world of colonic hydrotherapy has always amused me. I first encountered it in my pre-naturopathic life, in an animated discussion with a very passionate colonic hydrotherapist. I recall my horror and simultaneous intrigue with her lurid tales of dark rubbery substances being liberated from the bowels of clients, accompanied by the primal moans of emotional releases.
A lot of colonic exposure has since passed by me (pardon the pun). I managed a colonic hydrotherapy clinic, facilitated colonics in another, have been the principal naturopath with a team of colonic hydrotherapists in a Thailand detox centre, experienced tens of colonic sessions personally and now am co-authoring a textbook chapter on it. This surprising level of unplanned involvement still leaves me with a number of murky queries about its benefits for everybody, occasional dodgy business model and unregulated training standards.
Essentially, colonic hydrotherapy involves flowing water via a speculum inserted in the anus, ideally to flow through the entire large intestine. The intention is to cleanse accumulated faeces, balance resident microflora and increase colonic tone to enhance better functioning, namely adequate peristalsis. Correctly administered, colonics can be supportive for people with impacted faeces, chronic constipation issues and parasite infestation, and, with experienced guidance, for more serious bowel disorders.
In the early 20th century, before the popularity of pharmaceutical medicines, it was often employed for a wide range of conditions, including fever, gallstones and liver and kidney problems, based on the understanding that an under-functioning bowel leads to “autointoxication” due to “putrefacation” and excess growth of bad bacteria.
Colonics can be damaging in some conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease. There are dangers associated with colonic hydrotherapy, for instance infection, nausea, bloating and irregular stools. Also, cases of bowel perforation have been reported. This is dependent on the type of speculum used, how and who inserts it and the integrity of the client’s bowel tissue. The overall evaluation in the literature suggests the risks are small in relation to the overall benefits.
Colonics are commonly used and often heavily marketed for detoxes, hangovers, weight loss, flat tummies and clearer skin. There’s lots of marketing — and many myths — surrounding colonic hydrotherapy, such as everyone requiring repeated sessions or the “concrete colon” needing high-pressure hosing. Such myths have been spawned through oral teachings, the lack of enforced training standards and the financial pressures of small businesses.
Colonics have been smeared repeatedly by the medical orthodoxy, which often belittles the use of water in healthcare as inert and has a general prejudice against natural medicines. In addition, there have been only a handful of scientific studies and clinical trials performed looking at the efficacy of the therapy, and therefore a strong reliance on private clinical experience.
Interestingly, language reflects lots of issues about something we rarely discuss (ie defecating). For example, people who waffle on about nothing of value, are called “full of it”; people who are angry are often described as “shitty”; and those who are unable to get organised and directed are considered unable to get theirs together. Whether or not colonic hydrotherapy helps on these levels is something I am curious to hear about!
There are two main types of colonic hydrotherapy systems. The “open system” is generally self-administered (ie self-insertion) and water flow is via gravity, stemmed by the natural rhythmic release from the natural bowel movement. With the open system, one is generally alone in the room for the most part of the session. The “closed system” is administered by a therapist, who inserts the speculum, controls the flow and temperature of the water, and the direction of the flow. They provide gentle rhythmic massage on the abdomen to physically affect the colon and help stimulate the release.
Regularly, the therapists also provide gentle counselling and encouragement during the release. My preference is for the closed system with a compassionate professional. It is more controlled, works more gently with the bowel, and the therapeutic relationship supports the entire process of release. In all honesty, I am yet to hear a primal moan, however certainly emotional releases of some intensity are not uncommon.
Without doubt, the regular function of the colon is of paramount importance to health, and more so during a detox to remove toxins bound up in bile. There is some evidence to support the old-fashioned “autointoxication” concept, showing that levels of toxic metabolic products from “bad” bacteria are reduced through colonic hydrotherapy.
Colonic hydrotherapy is an excellent adjunct to cleansing, particularly during fasting wherein the natural peristalsis generally ceases, due to lack of bulk. When pure water cleanses the entire bowel of faeces, the resulting feeling is one of lightness and greater clarity. Although I have had both good and bad experiences with colonics, when undertaken sensitively, tailored to the individual and in conjunction with a complete health program, I highly rate the use of colonic hydrotherapy during a cleansing process. Of course, it’s not for everybody.
Sally Mathrick is a practising naturopath. She has authored the Sparkle Wellness & Detox e-Guide, available at sparklewell.com.au.