Gut-healing techniques have been around for centuries. Before we had scientific studies highlighting the immune implications of a healthy gut microbiome, doctors and other healers implemented colon cleansing into their medical practices. Colonic hydrotherapy, or water therapy applied to the colon, is a group of techniques whereby water is used to cleanse out toxins and waste matter from the large intestine.
Historically, practitioners understood that what is not eliminated from the large intestine is reabsorbed into the bloodstream. The belief was that many toxins not effectively released may build-up inside the body, causing toxicities and many symptoms to arise. Traditional healers and naturopaths interpreted symptoms like headaches, poor concentration, joint aches and pains, fatigue, lethargy, irritability, nervousness, chronic skin rashes and more to be caused by these built-up toxicities. Early reports noted improvement for treatment of arthritis and constipation although no studies are available from the past 30 years. Colonics were implemented to bring individuals back to a state of balance or homeostasis. Historical theories behind the benefits of colonics are rooted in anecdotal evidence passed down through generations of various medical practitioners.
Modern Colonic Applications
What traditional doctors and healers didn’t understand was that colon health is about more than just eliminating toxins. It appears that colonics and enemas may alter the diversity of bacteria that line the gut mucosal cells. Some skin conditions, like atopic dermatitis, are correlated with changes in the population and the diversity of the gut microbiota. The literature and anecdotal evidence yield confounding information about colon cleansing and its effects on gut and skin health.
An important concept in understanding the gut microbiome is the notion of diversity in the gut. Some research suggests that increased diversity (a greater variety of different bacterial populations) is considered healthier while a decrease in the diversity is believed to increase the risk for disease and inflammation. Studies show that colon cleansing may cause a decrease in gut microbe diversity, which is correlated with increased skin symptoms and skin conditions. Colon cleansing also appears to decrease total microbial load of the gut, potentially leading to some long-term complications. It is commonly advised that some sort of effort to replace lost microbes, such as probiotic supplements, be taken following colonic treatments.
One research group determined that it takes about 14 days after a colonic treatment for the bacteria to recover to pre-treatment levels. However, in their study, these researchers found that the microbiota changes were more severe after a single colonic treatment, compared to two treatments. This result indicates that two or more doses of colonic treatments may be preferred over a single dose in clinical practice. What we still do not know is how the changes in the microbiota after a colonic treatment can affect health. More research studies that look to understand how the body’s inflammation or disease state changes after a colonic are still needed.
Therapeutic Colonics vs. Colonoscopy Preparation
It is important to distinguish colonic hydrotherapy treatments and enemas from preparations for colonoscopy exams. Enemas are simple water treatments, which work by using an open or closed gravitational system to allow water to flow into the colon, where it remains for up to 20 minutes and is then released. Enemas may be administered on oneself and may be done at home.
Colonic hydrotherapy treatments are done in a clinic and use slightly different tools. The water that flows into the colon is not held within but instead flows out steadily in a controlled manner, filtered through a septic system. Colonic treatments must be administered by another individual and work more slowly. However, because of the slower pace, there is often less discomfort experienced by the patient, leading to a more relaxed experience.
Preparations for colonoscopy exams are solely to evacuate the bowels and remove all contents to allow for better visualization of the colon lining. While similar steps for enemas and colonic hydrotherapy are taken, these procedures have distinct diagnostic purposes in medicine. The goal of a colonoscopy is to prepare the colon so that the scope may be used to fully visualize the colon. Colonoscopies are vital in screening for colon cancer. This should not be considered the same as getting an enema or colonic hydrotherapy.
Finally, it is important to identify some potential dangers of colonic treatments. Active inflammatory bowel diseases (Crohn’s Disease of Ulcerative Colitis), diverticulitis (inflammation of the colon), active infection of the colon, as well as colon cancer are contraindications for colonic treatments. If someone has a history of any of these conditions or a history of colon surgery, caution should be taken. Side effects may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, dehydration, electrolyte abnormalities, injury to the kidneys, inflammation of the pancreas, colon and bowel perforation, heart failure, and infection. Colonic therapies should be discussed with a qualified licensed health practitioner. Proper cleaning of all colonic equipment must be employed in order to decrease the risk of transferring bacteria from one individual to another.
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