Christopher Walker wants me to shit my brains out.
At least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from his seemingly ubiquitous YouTube ads for his supplement brand Umzu’s colon cleanse pill zuPOO, which have been chasing me around the internet. Wearing a red Umzu beanie, with a thick, brown beard and a mustache fanning out over his upper lip, Walker monologues and fear-mongers about the five-to-20 pounds of toxic poop we all supposedly have inside of us. “All that poop just sitting there, rotting away inside their intestines and colon,” he explains. “Is it any wonder that colon disease is on the rise with all that poop just sitting inside of your body?”
According to Walker, the founder and CEO of the Colorado-based company, zuPOO is the answer to clearing out that “toxic” poop, with promised benefits including everything from quick weight loss and a slimmer appearance to more far-fetched claims of helping chronic, hard-to-solve problems like “fatigue, brain fog, focus/attention issues, mood swings, anxiety and depression.” These claims take advantage of a new wave of research on the microbiome that’s made some promising — but by no means definitive — connections between the biology of our guts and our mental and hormonal health, in order to promote unproven cures based on anecdotal evidence. The supplement rounds out a product line of all natural capsules that claim to help men boost everything from their testosterone and energy levels to the size of their loads.
Meant to be taken for 15 days before bed, the $29.95 zuPOO bottles contain six ingredients, including cascara sagrada, a laxative made from the bark of a shrub, and bentonite clay, which some animal studies have shown can draw certain toxins out of the body.
The testimonials on Umzu’s website are splattered with shit jokes and warnings about potentially explosive flatulence in public. “All I can say is you better invest in a family pack of some high-quality toilet paper before you start taking this,” reads a typical customer review. “The things coming out of me will haunt my nightmares forever,” another zuPOO user reports. What’s less clear are the health impacts of ejecting all of this waste from your system, particularly when stacked up against Umzu’s ambitious claims.
The idea of a colon cleanse isn’t particularly new. In the late 19th century, the French doctor Charles Bouchard coined the term “autointoxication” after studying medical practices of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, describing the supposedly negative impacts of feces buildup in the intestines. But despite the growing popularity of the colonic about 100 years later, there’s still “no evidence,” per the Mayo Clinic, that this type of cleanse brings any type of medical benefit (other than the essential work of cleaning out before a colonoscopy). Our colons cleanse themselves, and doctors warn that these types of interventions can sometimes do more harm than good. Any benefits have remained in the realm of personal experience — the type of testimonial you’ll find on Umzu’s site, or in the Reddit threads where health nuts, aspiring bodybuilders, self-quantifiers and others mistrustful of mainstream medicine post the results from the experiments they’re conducting on their own bodies.
Walker projects the image of a particularly trustworthy self-experimenter, with a narrative of healing his own tumor, a background in neuroscience as an undergraduate at Duke and an Instagram account full of shirtless pics showing a 31-year-old man with the body of a fitness model (and “before pics” showing his chubbier torso before he optimized his health). His narrative of transformation is one he seems to repeat every chance he gets, but without much in the way of actual detail. Case in point: When we spoke back in October, my attempts to nail down the specifics of his health journey were met with vague and nonspecific language.
Born in San Diego to parents in the military, Walker grew up outside a Marine Corps base in Northern Virginia with an interest in science and medicine. At 16, he took a mission trip to Mexico, where he says a doctor supervised him performing bladder surgery on a local. “The person was totally fine; there were a lot of doctors around,” he tells me. He was determined to become a neurosurgeon, but as a senior in high school, he started experiencing mysterious health problems, including weight-loss, a plummeting libido, brain fog and low energy. “I didn’t really know what was going on,” he says. “I just knew I couldn’t function properly.”
Entering Duke to study neuroscience in the late 2000s, he ended up taking medical leave after ending up in the ICU. It turned out that the Aleve he was taking for chronic joint pain had caused three ulcers and internal bleeding. For whatever reason, his doctors never tested his blood until six months into his medical leave; finally, they sent him to a specialist, who tested his hormones and found his testosterone levels to be abnormally low. The culprit was a blocking tumor on his pituitary gland.
At that point, Walker says he became “obsessed with trying to solve my issues naturally, just because the only options they gave me were being on medications for the rest of my life, or doing a surgery.” “Disgusted with the medical system” (as he writes on his blog), Walker went back to Duke and relied on the university’s labs to figure out “the reality around feedback loops with hormones and using positive feedbacks to essentially override the blocking nature of the tumor.” Within 18 months, his methods of “smart nutrition” and “lifestyle optimization” worked — no pharmaceuticals, hormone replacement therapies or surgeries needed. According to Walker, the tumor was still there, but the symptoms had gone away.
When I ask him to explain how he figured out something that other researchers hadn’t, he talks about experimenting with fasting, different supplements and strategies for raising testosterone levels described by other guys on the internet. “It was kind of logic,” he explains. “It was, essentially, doing my curriculum, picking classes that I thought were relevant, looking at how the endocrine system works. Through feedback loops, and all the hormone signaling. Certain patterns with different organs and the brain and the body, where you can — using logic — be like, ‘Okay, this organ signals to this organ using these hormones or these peptides,’ and then, ‘Is there a way for me to naturally influence that by signalling?’ You break it down, step-by-step like that, and you can find different areas where it’s helpful to optimize and test out stuff, and it will, over time with the right feedback, start to correct itself.”
After college, Walker started podcasting and blogging about his experiences, inspiring others to try out his nutrition plans and supplement regimes. In 2015, he started Umzu, which he claims is profitable, fully self-funded and completely rooted in research, even when the research cited is sometimes just a single study conducted on lab rats.
Recently, Walker went low-key viral after he put out a video that claimed the probiotic l. reuteri could help men grow the size of their testicles. The video cites a 2014 study that did indeed claim that rats fed l. reuteri resisted testicular atrophy as they aged and had greater semen volume. As the video picked up more and more views, headlines about Umzu and bigger balls proliferated. However, when Wired UK did some more critical reporting on the claims, the author of that 2014 study told the magazine that his paper in no way claimed that a human male could “consume the probiotic and find out that his balls got bigger the next day.” Per Wired UK, Facebook and Instagram ended up taking down one of Umzu’s ads for violating its misleading claims policy, too.
Though the video still circulates in YouTube ads, Walker is unapologetic, emphasizing that the study showed increased semen volume in those rats (in spite of its headline “How to Grow Bigger Testicles”). It could still be worth it to take his l. reuteri-filled supplement Floracil50, Walker claims, because it “could possibly help people, and it does. You read the reviews on it, tons of reviews about how it actually increases semen volume.”
But should we trust normal guys to accurately measure the fluctuations in their semen volume, which can vary so much on any given day? “They’re reporting it,” Walker tells me. “You can trust them if you want or not.”
Again, that level of self-reporting is the best evidence Umzu can offer for zuPOO as well. The same could be said for almost all of alternative medicine, really. People are saying it works. You can trust them or not. But doctors are saying it doesn’t and that in rare instances some of these methods and fads could potentially cause harm.
It’s a matter of trade-offs, I suppose: The potential harm of trying to raise testosterone levels through all-natural supplements can seem rather inconsequential at a time when steroids and testosterone replacement therapy have become almost normalized, even among younger men. The same goes for the idea of trying to heal anxiety through a colon cleanse pill when weighed against the pharmaceutical methods that exist, and the side effects they might engender, including addiction.
Whatever the accuracy of Walker’s claims, the cultural space he occupies is no longer a subculture — it’s mainstream and it’s not going anywhere, the actual evidence almost irrelevant.