A colon cleanse is a popular alternative remedy that some people claim removes waste and toxins from the colon. However, there is little scientific evidence to support the use of colon cleansing routines, except for those that doctors prescribe.
Most of what researchers know about safe colon cleansing comes from studies that aim to find ways to improve the colonoscopy procedure rather than to boost energy levels or treat intestinal problems.
People may refer to colon cleansing methods by different names, including:
- bowel cleanses
- juice diets
Most colon cleansing products supposedly help detox the colon or remove harmful substances, such as mucus and dry stool. Some people also use colon cleanses to help relieve constipation.
In this article, we discuss some popular colon cleansing methods and the science behind them. We also consider their potential benefits and risks.
Using water is one of the easiest and safest ways to cleanse the colon naturally. Water moistens stool and gives it bulk, facilitating its passage through the colon.
A person who is dehydrated will have fewer bowel movements because their body is trying to retain water. It will reabsorb water from the bowel, which results in the stool becoming dry, hard, and difficult to pass.
Everyone’s daily hydration needs are different, but it is vital to drink plenty of water throughout the day.
Other beverages, including caffeinated ones, contribute toward a person’s daily water intake, but plain water is the best option as it does not contain any calories.
The same study identified constipation as a significant risk factor for colorectal cancer. Drinking at least eight glasses of water a day can help prevent constipation, and it offers many other health benefits too.
Raw fruit and vegetable juices contain many elements that may help cleanse the colon, including fiber, phytochemicals (beneficial plant chemicals), and natural sugars that act as laxatives, such as sorbitol and fructose.
Proponents of juice cleanses recommend the following types of juice:
- apple, including the peel
Some colon cleanse plans recommend consuming only fluids for a few days at a time to help cleanse the colon and digestive tract.
Most health authorities recommend against juice cleanses. Raw fruit juices can contain compounds that are hard on the kidneys and liver. Without any treatment to kill harmful bacteria and viruses, these juices can also make people ill. They may pose significant dangers for those with medical conditions, such as diabetes.
It is best to consume fruit and vegetable juices in the form of smoothies to keep all the fiber, water, and nutrients intact.
Fiber adds bulk to stool, which reduces the time it spends sitting in the colon and increases the number of bowel movements that a person has. Many natural, whole foods are rich in fiber, including:
- whole grains and cereals
People who find it difficult to get enough fiber through their diet can try taking fiber supplements. Popular fiber supplements include:
- psyllium (Metamucil)
- polycarbophil tablets (FiberCon)
Fermented foods often contain high levels of probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that contribute to gut health.
These bacteria help the bowels move stool out of the colon regularly and reduce the risk of gas, bloating, constipation, and infection.
Common fermented foods that contain probiotics include:
- yogurt and Greek yogurt
- apple cider vinegar
- beer and cider
- some types of cheese
Research suggests that probiotics may help prevent and possibly treat colon cancer, but researchers agree that more studies are necessary to understand these effects. A healthy gut biome offers numerous other benefits for overall health and immune function.
Some foods contain resistant starches, which are types of sugar that are difficult for the body to break down. These starches remain mostly undigested and become bulk in the stool.
The more bulk there is in the stool, the sooner the bowel is stimulated into action, possibly helping cleanse the colon.
Foods high in resistant starches include:
- potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams
- sugar beets
- sugar cane
- sweet corn
- green bananas
- beer and cider
- vegetable stems, tubers, and roots
- buckwheat and millet
- al dente pasta
- white bread
- cornflakes and muesli
Unlike other starches, digesting resistant starches produces compounds that research shows may help:
- prevent colon cancer
- improve macronutrient regulation
- alter hormone levels, potentially improving mental and physical health
- prevent or control diabetes
- prevent or control obesity
Regularly drinking lemon juice can have a positive effect on digestive health. It seems that people experience the most benefit when they drink it on an empty stomach, which allows the compounds in the lemon to interact more easily with the gut mucosa.
Having a clean colon is crucial for certain screening tests, such as colonoscopies. Most people receiving colonoscopies have to consume a colon cleansing preparation the night before the procedure.
In a 2015 study on colonoscopies, one group of participants received a preparation of ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, in addition to the standard fluid mixture of polyethylene glycol (PEG). The participants who took vitamin C had better bowel preparation than those in the other groups.
Lemon juice is very high in vitamin C so it may be an effective natural colon cleanser.
Some herbal teas may be beneficial for digestive health.
Australian research from 2014 found an association between herbal tea consumption and a lower risk of colon cancer.
Other natural teas, such as ginger or lemon tea, may also help digestion.
There are currently no proven benefits of colon cleanses, natural or otherwise. However, people who promote colon cleanses claim that they provide major health benefits, including:
- increasing energy
- removing toxins
- improving liver function
- boosting the immune system
- aiding weight loss
- relieving bloating, cramps, and gas
- reducing the risk of colon cancer
- improving mood
Some of the potential risks of colon cleansing include:
- electrolyte imbalance and dehydration
- vomiting and nausea
- abdominal cramps
- dizziness and fainting
- loss of healthful gut microflora and increased risk of infection
- bowel ulcerations, which are open cuts and sores
- bowel infection
- kidney damage and failure
People with preexisting bowel conditions should avoid bowel cleansing methods unless a doctor performs or prescribes them. Bowel cleansing methods, especially aggressive ones, can cause a flare-up of symptoms in people with specific conditions, such as:
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- kidney conditions
- liver conditions
- prior colon surgery
- heart conditions
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) do not regulate natural colon cleanse products.
The FDA have also taken legal action against companies who were using unproven medical claims to promote cleanse products, stating that they could reduce the risk of cancer or treat serious medical conditions.
The U.S. National Institutes of Health also point out several possible risks of cleanses, including:
- diarrhea, which could lead to dehydration
- bacterial infection from unpasteurized juice
- lack of nutrients
- weakness and fainting
People with kidney conditions should avoid drinking large quantities of juice because it can contain too much oxalate, which can cause kidney problems.
People with diabetes and other metabolic conditions should also avoid detoxes or extreme diets and instead follow a healthful, doctor-recommended diet.
Severely restricting calorie intake, which is often part of colon cleanses, can also be damaging to a person’s overall health. It rarely contributes to long-term weight loss or well-being.
Always talk with a doctor before starting a colon cleanse, even one that uses natural ingredients.
Anyone who does try a colon cleanse should be aware of the possible side effects, such as diarrhea and weakness, and seek medical care when necessary.