Colon cleansing proponents believe the treatment provides health benefits by cleaning out the digestive system. Cleanses are done through water irrigation or with dietary supplements that are similar to laxatives. Colon cleansing may produce results similar to a laxative by getting stool out of the bowel, but there are important differences.
Colon cleansing means removing waste material from the colon through a type of enema called a colonic irrigation or by taking supplements that move the bowels to expel the waste. People who use cleanses believe the process removes toxins from their digestive systems and allows healthy bacteria to grow. Some proponents believe that cleanses support the immune system and give you more energy.
Laxatives are medications that help you move your bowels when you are constipated. Over-the-counter laxatives work through several different means. Bulk-forming products add water to stool to make it large and soft, which triggers bowel contractions, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. These products typically contain fiber. Lubricant laxatives coat stool, helping you pass it more easily. Saline laxatives draw fluid into your bowels from surrounding body tissues, and stool softeners blend water into the stool. Stimulant laxatives force the bowels to contract and push out waste material.
Colon cleansing promotes the passage of stool, but the process is supposed to clean out toxic waste material that clings to the intestinal walls and does not get passed in normal bowel movements. Laxatives are meant to stimulate normal elimination when it stops due to constipation. Most laxative products are gentle because they work by adding moisture and bulk to stool, but stimulants are harsh because they cause contractions, and they should not be used for more than a few days, the American Academy of Family Physicians advises.
Colon cleansing falls under the category of alternative medicine because there is no proven need for the process, although people who eat low fiber diets tend to have more sluggish bowels than those who consume fiber-rich foods. The digestive system keeps itself clean during its normal functioning and does not accumulate material that needs to removed, according to Dr. Picco. Eating a high fiber diet, drinking plenty of water and exercising regularly keeps the bowels healthy, reducing the need for laxatives by preventing constipation.
Colonic irrigation is potentially dangerous, Dr. Picco warns, because it can cause dehydration and bowel perforation, and people with kidney or heart problems may experience a dangerous rise in electrolytes. Improperly cleaned equipment can give you infections. Laxatives have side effects like gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea and nausea, and you can become dependent on them if you use them too often.