As a general rule, I try not to stare people in the eye when I shit. It tends to make them uncomfortable.
A notable exception is when you’re on the receiving end of a colon hydrotherapy session, and your “therapist” comments on the undigested foodstuffs she just flushed from your lower intestine. “Ooh! Looks like someone had arugula yesterday!” In that case, eye contact only seems polite.
Colon hydrotherapy (aka a colonic) involves inserting a plastic tube into your rectum, and then having a practitioner repeatedly fill and empty your colon with water, thus ridding it of excess, hard-to-pass excrement. The procedure first became a wellness craze in the early 2010s due to its popularity among celebrities, including everyone from Gisele Bundchen and Gwen Stefani to Ben Affleck and Sylvester Stallone.
Colonics have become especially popular in recent years amid heightened interest in the microbiome—the millions of microbes that reside in a person’s stomach and intestines—and have been studied to help better understand colon cancer and other diseases. A major boon for the colon-cleansing industry came early last year, when walking lifestyle brand and occasional actress Gwyneth Paltrow recommended colonics as part of the official detox regimen for her wellness site, goop.
I probably don’t need a colonic. I’m already “regular” (i.e., I poop every day) and I doubt rinsing my colon will transform my attitude to happy-go-lucky.
On the other hand, I haven’t had a substantial bowel movement in weeks. You know, the kind of thick, hearty turd you take a moment to admire before flushing it down. The kind of poop that makes you want to take a photo and text it to your friends. A colonic might be the perfect opportunity to clear the pipes and make my poops great again.
Engage in a series of colon hydrotherapy sessions to improve my overall wellness.
Is it bullshit?
“Colonics are neither necessary nor beneficial, as our bodies do a great job of detoxifying and eliminating waste on their own,” Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone Medical Center, tells Shape. Indeed, no medical literature supports the claims that colonics are somehow beneficial — physically, mentally or otherwise. As with most health crazes, the “evidence” about their myriad benefits comes almost exclusively from testimonials, often from people who have a vested interest in selling you on the wonders of colonics. Color me skeptical, but I think colonic advocates are full of shit.
Weight loss, clearer skin, a more resistant immune system — they’re all achievable with colonics, according to colonic salespeople. Colonics can even improve our psychological health, helping us better deal with stress. I’d love to be a thinner, more radiant, more zen version of myself, so I’m hoping to bask in those potential benefits.
I’m lying on a table at an alternative medicine center, wearing a hospital gown, when my therapist, Elsa, walks into the room and prepares me for my first colonic.
I’ve never really dabbled in assplay, this colonic is, far as I can recall, the first time I’ve had a foreign object penetrate my anus. I never thought I’d lose my ass virginity to a stocky, middle-aged Swedish woman in a holistic wellness center in Beverly Hills, but life has a funny way of surprising you sometimes.
Attached to the nozzle in my rectum are two hoses — one for inflow, the other for “draining” — both of which connect to a cream-colored “Colon Hydrotherapy Machine” on the wall. Elsa turns a knob, and seconds later I can feel water snake its way through my colon, the pressure slowly building in my midsection. “When the pressure gets to be too much, say ‘Release,’” Elsa tells me. It does and I do, at which point she flips a large red lever and the clear tube fills with brown sludge. We repeat this process about a dozen times over the course of 45 minutes.
“Our body only has so many enzymes,” Elsa says, massaging my stomach, trying to dislodge stray pieces of excrement from the outside. Those enzymes break down our food, extracting its nutrients and converting it to waste, but they become less and less active as we age. Over time, their inactivity causes waste and toxins to build up in our colons, creating all kinds of health problems. Obesity, chronic fatigue, migraines, back ache — you name it, a colonic can cure it. Up to 90 percent of all disease originates in the colon, some claim.
The excess waste is also largely due to unhealthy American diets, which are heavy in dairy and carbohydrates and light on leafy greens and other digestion-aiding foods. My biggest problem, she says, is my propensity to pack all my food consumption into one or two enormous meals, instead of eating periodically throughout the day. “When you overeat, it’s like overloading the washing machine. Nothing gets clean!”
I don’t know about the veracity of what Elsa says, but I certainly feel relieved by our time together. Having my colon filled with water never stops feeling bizarre, but after 45 minutes of it, I feel refreshed and lighter.
And that’s only the beginning, she says. All I did today was unload waste from the past few days of eating. My colon still has old impacted fecal matter in it, and it’ll be a few more sessions until I’m fully “released.”
“The colon is the sewer of your body,” Elsa says. Apparently my plumbing is clogged.
The next morning I have a large iced coffee and find myself hurrying to a public bathroom to avoid shitting my pants. (This happens more often than I’d care to admit.) Fortunately, I make it in time to unleash leafy green hell on the toilet; I ate a lot of salad yesterday.
I share this anecdote with Elsa, and her feelings are mixed. Quickly moving a bowel movement is a sign of a healthy colon, but she’s worried I’m too reliant on coffee to poop.
Nonetheless, Elsa is impressed in my second session. My capacity to take on water has increased, she says, an indication that my colon is clearer than the day before. Per her advice, I’ve eaten nothing but protein and vegetables. (One of Elsa’s more controversial pieces of advice is that everyone should eat meat, much to the chagrin of one vegetarian Yelp commenter.)
“Sweet potatoes are not your friends!” she says as a half-digested sweet-potato fry flows out my out tube.
And yet I also feel like I’m getting hustled. Elsa says that it usually takes between six and 12 hydrotherapy sessions for a colon to be completely cleared, and that people should go through the process about once a year.
It’s just then that Elsa, apropos of nothing, acknowledges how controversial colonics are. Many doctors recommend against having a colonic, she says, and there is no good research on their benefits. Indeed, doctors say there are only potential downsides to receiving a colonic, including “bacterial infections, inadvertently poking holes in the colon or creating inflammation inside the gastrointestinal tract.”
And yet doctors don’t have any good answers for habitually constipated patients, Elsa continues. The best they can recommend is a laxative, which is a quick fix. Colonics are a more permanent solution.
Just then, I notice that the text on the hydrotherapy machine is in Comic Sans. The manufacturer either has a great sense of humor or a troubling indifference to industrial design. Regardless, the discovery unnerves me. It’s hard to take seriously an industry that uses the preferred font of internet scammers.
I take a day off from colon cleansing after session two at Elsa’s suggestion, and don’t move a single bowel the entire day. Oddly, this doesn’t make me feel bloated, and I can’t help but think it’s due to all the space I cleared in my therapy sessions.
The following day, I visit the clinic for my third and final ass-draining. Most people carry between five and 10 pounds of extra waste in their colons, Elsa tells me, and judging by my performance today, I believe her. I’m releasing more than I did in my first two sessions combined, suggesting I was far more constipated than I thought.
Elsa is pleased. There’s an infantilizing aspect to getting a colonic, in that a motherly woman rubs your tummy and cheers you on for making a poo.
But I’m also significantly less comfortable than in my earlier sessions. Try as I might, my body won’t relax and welcome the liquid flowing through my bodily canals. Instead it wants to expel the instrument. Sensing my unease, Elsa lets me off the table prematurely, sending me to the bathroom.
“I remember my first time getting a colonic,” she says. “It’s strange because you feel like you have to poop. And there’s a stranger there and pooping is usually a private activity.”
The days after my third session I feel unencumbered, more relaxed, cheerier. Liberated, even. I’m even able to efficiently pass four slices of Chicago-style deep dish pizza that I inhale in one sitting. It feels like I’m shitting a boulder, but I pass them all the same.
I don’t know if I need nine more hydrotherapy sessions — especially at nearly $100 per appointment — nor will I try to refute medical scientists and say it was a life-changing health experience. But I can attest that colon therapy is, at the very least, therapeutic, as soon as you get past the pooping in public part.