As humans, we do things that we know are against our best interests.
For example, we often choose to watch TV instead of exercising; to eat sugary foods instead of healthy ones; and to have that extra glass of wine on occasion. And when you add these poor choices to all the things we’re exposed to on a daily basis (e.g. chemicals in foods, airborne pollution, and other environmental factors), it might make sense that our bodies are filled with toxins that can impact our lives in a variety of ways. These might include loss of energy, increased gas and bloating, difficulty losing weight, and more.
But what if there was a way to flush all these accumulated toxins from your body, essentially giving you a fresh start? Maybe your energy levels would finally increase so that you could make it through the day without feeling sluggish. Perhaps your bloating would be reduced, so you could finally have that sleek, flat belly you’ve always wanted. And maybe—just maybe—you’ll be able to finally lose some of that stubborn weight.
Enter colon cleansing (a.k.a. detoxification) supplements. These over-the-counter products claim to provide many of these same benefits, and to provide them using all-natural ingredients. But before you run out and buy one, it’s important that you have all the information you need in order to make better purchasing decisions, which is exactly what we’ll provide in the article. Here, we’ll discuss:
- What detoxification supplements are
- How they claim to work
- Available evidence for manufacturers’ claims
- Whether or not a colon cleansing supplement is right for you
- Methods that detox supplement manufacturers use to steal your money
But first, a quick history lesson.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act
Passed in 1994 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) is almost a case study in the power of political spin. This is because, although it was promoted as addressing the “need for consumers to have access to current and accurate information about supplements,” it actually did nothing of the sort.
Granted, the DSHEA did move the industry forward in some ways, such as formally defining what a nutritional supplement is, outlining labeling guidelines, delineating the types of claims manufacturers could make, and setting manufacturing practices, it also put the burden of proof on the FDA. But why is this important?
Prior to passage of the DSHEA, supplements manufacturers wishing to market their products as drugs (e.g. "articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease" and "articles (other than food) intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of man or other animals") had to obtain premarket approval from the FDA. After its passage though, supplements manufacturers could market their products without being required to substantiate their claims in advance.
In essence, this opened the floodgates for manufacturers to make essentially any claim they wanted about their supplements, and the burden of proof was now squarely on the FDA’s shoulders to prove these claims were overblown or outright lies. And as you can imagine, it takes much longer to file an action against a manufacturer than it does for them to produce the supplement in the first place, which has lead to very weak governmental oversight. (Note: A detailed history of the FDA’s nutritional supplements regulation, including what led up to the passage of the DSHEA, can be found on the Harvard.edu website.) We’d also recommend reading through our Nutritional Supplements Buyer’s Guide for additional information.
How does this relate to cleansing and detoxification supplements? Let’s find out.
What Are Detox Supplements (Supplements for Detoxification)?
As the name implies, detoxification supplements are a category of nutritional supplements claimed to help rid your body of unwanted toxins, usually in the form of capsulated herbs and other natural ingredients, but have also recently been marketed in tea form.
The marketing angle that manufacturers use to convince customers to buy their detox supplements vary, fluctuating from helping you to lose weight and increasing regularity, to improving overall health and boosting digestion. But the overarching theme among these supplements is that they claim to provide you with better health by flushing toxins, primarily from the bowels.
How Do Detox Supplements Claim to Work?
In order to accomplish these benefits, colon cleanse manufacturers feature a variety of ingredients in their detox supplements, although some of the most common are:
Aloe Vera – Aloe is a well-known laxative, as it irritates the inside of your bowels and flushes them of their contents.
Cascara Sagrada – A shrub whose bark is ground up and used as an ingredient in some supplements, especially cleanses. Like aloe, cascara is well known for its ability to work as a laxative. However, medical professionals recommend that you don’t use a cascara-containing supplement for more than one week at a time.
Bentonite Clay – A natural bulk laxative often prescribed by doctors to help relieve constipation. However, it may cause constipation in some instances, since bentonite tends to pull water from your colon. Because of this, be sure to drink plenty of water along with any supplement you’re taking that contains bentonite.
Psyllium Husk – A natural, high-fiber ingredient that increases the bulk in your stool, helping it to move through your intestines.
Probiotics – While detox supplements that include probiotics are still in the minority, they seem to be gaining ground, so we thought it should be included here. Probiotics are basically “good” bacteria that can help combat a variety of symptoms, including gas/bloating, a compromised immune system, and much more. For a full overview of these tiny little “soldiers,” be sure to read Probiotics 101: A Beginner’s Guide.
Did you notice a trend among these ingredients? Not to be too crude about it, but they all help you poop. Why is this important? Because unless you consider using the restroom a healthy “cleanse,” then supplements containing these ingredients might not provide all the benefits you’re expecting.
With this said, although we’re passionate about supplements here at HighYa, we’re definitely not doctors. So let’s take a look at what the scientific community has to say about colon cleansing and detox products.
What Does the Scientific Community Say About Colon Cleansing and Detox Supplements?
Before digging into the clinical evidence for detox supplements, let’s first define what we mean by whether or not one of these products “work.” In other words, we’re aiming to find out if:
- Flushing your colon of excess waste can provide you with any health benefits, and
- If they’re necessary in the first place.
What Health Benefits Do Colon Cleanses Provide?
Remember, we’re talking about clinically proven benefits here, not ones claimed by manufacturers. And the answer? The number of real-world benefits provided by colon cleansing is somewhere very near zero.
During our research, we found a comprehensive review originally published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, the authors of which “searched Medline, EMBASE, and the Cochrane Collaboration Database to identify relevant articles [about the benefits of colon cleansing] published between 1966 and 2008. They also reviewed abstracts from gastroenterology subspecialty conferences and the alternative medicine subset of PubMed.”
Admittedly, while irrigation techniques were also included in the review along with supplements, what did they ultimately find? “The authors report the notable lack of good-quality published evidence of any health benefit from colonic cleansing and the many publications concerning adverse events, including death.”
So, not only is it dubious if colon cleanses provide any benefits, they can actually be harmful to your health in some instances. The Mayo Clinic drives home the point further by writing, “Proponents of colon cleansing, on the other hand, believe that toxins from your gastrointestinal tract can cause a variety of health problems, such as arthritis, allergies and asthma. They believe that colon cleansing — also called a colonic or a colonic irrigation — improves health by removing toxins, promoting healthy intestinal bacteria, boosting your energy and enhancing your immune system. However, there's little evidence that colon cleansing produces these effects.”
In fact, colon cleansing can sometimes be harmful, because it can result in side effects such as cramping, bloating, nausea and vomiting.” Ultimately, “The practice of colonic cleansing to improve or promote general health is not supported in the published literature and cannot be recommended at this time.”
Is Colon Cleansing Necessary?
Because it’s highly probable that colon cleansing won’t provide you with any tangible benefits, you probably guessed that they’re not necessary to begin with—and you’d be right. According to WebMD:
“Colon cleansing is based on the theory that waste collects in the colon over time and stagnates there, causing toxins to form and spread throughout the body – a phenomenon known as ‘autointoxication.’
“But experts say there is no such thing as autointoxication, and that the human body is actually very good at taking care of itself. Colon cleansing is really a strange fad, says Ruth Kava, PhD, RD, director of nutrition at the American Council on Science and Health in New York City. “The body can cleanse itself quite well. The kidneys and lungs remove toxins and by-products from the blood stream, and regular bowel movements remove any waste products from the gastrointestinal [GI] tract.”
Bottom Line: Should You Buy a Detoxification Supplement?
As always, if you’re thinking about taking any kind of supplement, colon cleansing or otherwise, the first person you should speak with is your physician. Often times, they’ll have a fairly good idea of many popular detox supplements and can make recommendations based on your specific diagnosis.
But remember this: As we mentioned above, cleansing supplements will very likely not provide you with any real-world benefits, and can even be dangerous to your health, so it’s likely that your doctor will recommend avoiding them altogether.
Lack of clinical evidence and necessity aside, if you’re still thinking about trying a detoxification supplement, there are two more important reasons you might want to reconsider your decision.
Free Trials and Autoship Programs
If everyone’s being honest, it’s highly likely supplements manufacturers understand their detox supplements don’t work, and that a large percentage of their customers will not purchase from them again. As a result, they’ve woven some crafty methods of hanging on to your hard-earned money into their business model.
The first way they do this is through free trials, often lasting 14 days from the date your order is placed, and often priced at $4.95, allegedly to cover shipping and handling costs.
During these trials, you’ll be sent a full supply of the supplement (generally enough for 30 or 60 days), and once they expire, you’ll be billed for the full price of the product, which can be upward of $100. Whatever price you end up paying though, considering the lack of evidence for colon cleanses, it’s likely far out of line with any benefits you can realistically expect to achieve.
After your trial expires and you’re billed for your first order, you’ll then be enrolled in the company’s autoship program, which means you’ll continue receiving a fresh supply of the colon cleansing supplement on a regular basis, and your credit card will be charged accordingly. And while these companies claim that your autoship enrollment can be canceled at any time, they often make the process as difficult as possible. In some instances, we’ve read reports where consumers were forced to cancel their credit cards in order to put a stop to the recurring charges.
Bottom line: Not only can cleansing supplements be harmful to your health, they can also be harmful to your wallet. Our recommendation would be to hold off on your purchase and to speak with your doctor before committing to a decision.