Monday, July 23, 2012

This Post is Full of Crap

There really are days when SkepticRD wishes she didn't have as many scruples as she does.  Especially when I see how much money can be made selling products to lose weight.  Today I want to talk about another piece of quackery that keeps coming back to haunt me, and that is the concept of detoxification through colon cleansing.
Colon cleansing actually has a pretty fascinating history, at least if you are a history of medicine nerd like yours truly.  Apparently the first records of this practice were found in both the Hindu Vedas and also in Ancient Egyptian writings (link), and contain fascinating stories about the "god of medicine and healing" landing on the banks of the Nile in the form of an ibis, picking up water in his beak, and shoving its beak up the physicians'…..(let's just say that SkepticRD spat her water all over the computer screen while reading that).  Recently I've heard that Rachel Ray and Dr. Oz were also touting said products, but a very quick internet search indicates that the colon cleanse people love to use the big name celebrities to give false endorsements (link)
One of my other SkepticHeros, Dr. David Gorski, has already done an extensive article on this over at the Science Based Medicine Blog.  He goes point by point over many of the different claims made by "colon therapists" including how you can't lose weight because of the accumulation of feces (or "toxic sludge" or "gunk" or whatever inflammatory term colon cleansers want to use).  Ask any GI surgeon who has performed a colonoscopy or any surgeon who has operated on the GI tract and you will find this simply does not happen.   And if your system was "clogged," wouldn't you think you would lose weight because no nutrition was actuality getting through.  And yet I still get questions, especially people who are wanting to try yet another diet, about "colon cleansing."  Why is the idea of colon cleansing so appealing to people?  Here are a few reasons why I think this doesn't go away:
1) The idea behind "I can't lose weight because of all the toxins in my body" is a nice way of lifting some of the responsibility off of one's self.  And honestly, what person who has struggled with their weight hasn't wished for a potion to "magically" clear out at least five or more pounds?  I also think that if people do have some guilt related to smoking, or drinking too much alcohol, or eating too much processed food they are hoping that taking this cleanser will somehow relieve them of the guilt.
2) Poor understanding of anatomy and our digestive system.  Very little absorption happens in the colon, about 90% of our nutrients are absorbed in the small intestine.  Anything that is considered toxic would have already been absorbed before it got to the large intestine.
3) Poor appreciation for how efficient our digestive system in clearing out the bi-products of normal metabolism and any other "extras" we take in.  Isn't it odd that the people who promote colon cleansing are usually touting it as a "natural" solution are usually the same ones that can't appreciate how much our body already does. 
4) Some people do have diets that lack fruit and vegetable fiber or they wind up taking medications that cause constipation.  They feel better after taking laxatives so they think—"wow, I don't have to change my diet I can just do this herbal product!"  Unfortunately the "quick fix" can be something they become dependent on.
5) Western obsession with cleanliness.  We are afraid of things that smell bad or that might have "germs" on it.  We take showers, why shouldn't we clean out the colon?  Because more often than not, the bacteria that is supposed to be in our digestive system is there for a reason.    Doing something as not-natural as a colonic (even if you use medical looking tubes and not an ibis) could disrupt the gut flora balance that's supposed to be there.
6) I also agree with Dr. Gorski's assessment that there are a lot of parallels to religious doctrine here—most world religions will speak of and have rituals involving "cleansing" and "purging."  Typically our bodies are seen as inherently bad and nothing that goes on inside the body is "purifying" enough; we need to have something come from the outside to make us clean.  Once again, this shows a poor understanding of how wonderful the body is and how the organs of elimination have evolved to keep the body in balance.
Take away message—there are no scientific reasons for any to do a colon cleanse, particularly for weight loss reasons.  If your diet has been less than healthy or you have put some un-healthy substances in your body,  there are no herbs or washes that will make up for that.  You have to start by putting the right foods in your body and let your wonderful digestive system do what it has evolved  to do.   (And if an ibis lands near you, you might want to keep an eye on it).

For the not faint of heart, you may also want to watch the Penn and Teller Bullsh*t episode on detoxing here.

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