Montreal Gazette

I HAVE A GUT FEELING SOMETHING’S WRONG HERE

- JOE SCHWARCZ

I ’m

told I’m full of, ummm, “crap.” And so are most of you. Literally. So say the promoters of various colon cleansers. Actually, they’re not quite so crass; they prefer to use gentler terms like fecal matter, impacted waste or “spackle.”

But the message is clear. Our colons are loaded with a repulsive noxious sludge, the result of an improper diet and a “toxic” environmen­t. This goo sticks to the wall of the colon, boosting our body weight. Worse, it releases its foul contents into our blood, poisoning our entire system. The result? Bloated sickies who lack energy and mental clarity.

The unnamed toxins cause, we are told, ailments ranging from asthma, allergies and prostate problems to cancer, heart disease and an impaired sex drive. Luckily, there is salvation in sight. We can sweep the fetid guck out of our colon with one of a myriad colon cleansers that compete for our attention and, of course, for our dollars, via ads that populate radio waves, magazines and the Internet.

And what spirited and imaginativ­e ads! One product claims that we have anywhere from six to 40 pounds of waste, feces and undigested food stuck in our bodies. Another compares the weight of the waste to carrying a bowling ball in our gut. Then there are accounts of famous people who died and were found to be full of intestinal sludge. John Wayne, depending on which product’s info you’re reading, was found to have anywhere from 40 to 80 pounds of impacted matter in his colon. A curious claim, given that no autopsy was performed on the Duke.

But the most inspired ads are the ones that provide us with a visual extravagan­za of the “mucoid plaque” that is eliminated by users of colon cleansers. The pictures show the relieved patient holding the cause of his former misery, a long, gummy looking repulsive excretion.

This, we’re told, is the toxic guck that had built up in his colon over years before making a triumphant exit, stimulated by the wondrous colon cleanser!

Now let’s get real here. Have pathologis­ts who have carried out thousands of autopsies seen pounds of goo encrusted in intestines? No.

Have colo-rectal surgeons who have operated on colons thousands of times seen such sludge? No. Have radiologis­ts who have perused thousands of X-rays of the colon noted the buildup of “mucoid plaque?” No. Why? Because it doesn’t exist.

It was the invention of naturopath Richard Anderson, who created Arise and Shine, a popular colon cleanser. So what then is the yucky stuff that has emerged from the rear of a happy colon cleanser devotee that we see revoltingl­y displayed in those photos on the Web? Supposing that the pictures are not faked, I suspect what we are looking at is the colon cleanser itself making an impressive appearance.

Although the specific ingredient­s in these products vary, they all contain some sort of laxative, be it a fibre blend or an extract of cascara sagrada bark, well known to stimulate intestinal contractio­ns.

Classic fibres include psyllium husk, flax seed, fennel seed, slippery elm bark, apple pectin and guar gum. All of these can send you running in a hurry. And they are indeed prescribed for that very purpose by physicians. But problems can arise. Fibre absorbs water in the gut and sometimes can swell, making it difficult to expel. Usually this is prevented by drinking lots of water, which helps flush out the fibre before it has a chance to expand and form an intestinal blockage. In rare cases, with just the right (actually wrong) amount of water consumed, the mixture of fibres can be expelled as a long, stringy, slimy glop.

The likelihood of this happening is increased if the colon cleanser contains bentonite clay, sometimes included for its ability to “absorb toxins.” Such an impressive excrementa­l display would be very rare, and certainly not something that all users should expect, contrary to what the promoters imply. And most assuredly the disgusting exudate is not any sort of toxic buildup being expelled.

Of course, just because the pounds of intestinal gunk exist only in the sluggish mind of some quack, we can’t assume that products that help to evacuate the colon more regularly have no merit. What we need, though, are not baseless statements like “a dirty colon is a breeding ground for disease” or testimonia­ls from users about how their bad breath, dizziness, irritabili­ty or “brain fog” were resolved after scrubbing and buffing their colon. How about some evidence?

You can search the scientific literature high and low and you will not find any proper controlled trial of colon cleansers showing they have any health benefit. How about problems? Possible. Back in the early 90s, guar gum, an ingredient present is some colonics, was banned in the U.S. from diet products. At the time chewing gum with added guar gum was a hot seller because it was supposed to curb the appetite by filling the stomach as it absorbed water. It did, but it also caused esophageal and intestinal blockages. And yet, there it is today in some colon cleansers. One of these actually makes the claim of weight loss as it uses guar gum to “evercleans­e” the pounds and pounds of (nonexisten­t) “spackle” from the colon. It is not the colon but the absurd claim that needs to be cleansed.

While the cleaning effect of colonics on colons is questionab­le, their effect on cleaning out bank accounts is not. A month’s supply needed to “dredge toxic sediment” can run up to a tidy little sum. Why not spend the money instead on what goes into the colon rather than on what comes out. A diet high in whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables is what your colon and the rest of your body really needs.

Granted, your output may not be quite as spectacula­r as the samples seen in those colon cleanser ads but you and your bank account will be healthier. Of course, if you are a fervent believer in colon cleansing, you will not be deterred by my arguments and will remain convinced that unlike you, I’m full of “crap.”

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