Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Getting to the Bottom of Colon Cleansing

By Joanne Benhamu

Colonic cleansing has persisted as an alternative therapy for centuries despite a lack of evidence.

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Sir Arthur Hurst, Founder of the British Society of Gastro­enterology, said in 1935: “No organ in the body is so mis­understood, so slandered and maltreated as the colon”.

Medical history is liberally peppered with claims that the bowel causes all disease, as decomposing waste stagnating in the bowel “poisons” the body. These beliefs originated in Ancient Egypt, where physicians believed that faecal putrefaction released a noxious substance into the blood, producing “heat” and increasing pulse. Bodily decay would follow. The solution was a combination of purgatives and venesection.

The Cnidian School in early Greek medicine drew from these beliefs, adopting the putrefactive principle and the concept of Hippocrates’ four humors. The digestive cycle was believed to last 3 days– anything longer than this would bring fever, disease and imbalance of the humors.

The great Roman physician and philosopher, Galen, expanded these ideas in the 2nd century with the concept of miasmas (airborne particles) given off during putrefaction. Galen hypothesised that this was a plausible model for disease transmission. Humoral imbalance, however, persisted as the overriding theory of illness until the late 19th century.

Johann Kampf’s concept of infarctus – that impacted faeces would cause distension, thickening and slowing of blood and fluids – revived the idea...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.