Colon cleanse products promise big health benefits, but deliver nothing

So-called miracle cures come in all forms, and one long-discredited golden oldie has been making a comeback -- the colon cleanse.

The practice of cleansing the colon with water and laxatives dates back to the ancient Egyptians, who believed decomposing food in the intestines bred toxins. From the late 1800s to the 1930s, many physicians subscribed to the same notion, by then known as "autointoxication," and prescribed the use of colonic machines to irrigate the intestines until advances in science and medicine disproved the theory.

Nevertheless, colon detoxification made yet another comeback in the 1980s and continues to this day. This time, the various powders, herbal supplements and the most ubiquitous one of them all, Acai berry, promise even more than just the removal of toxins. Now, the advertised benefits of colon cleansing include mood improvement, higher energy levels, clearer skin, strengthened immune systems and, of course, the Holy Grail of all wonder drugs: weight loss.

Colon detox has found eager support from talk show hosts (Oprah, Tyra Banks), reality show stars (Jillian Michaels of The Biggest Loser fame) and even movie stars (Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Affleck), even though members of the medical community remain unconvinced about the effectiveness of the various pills and powders peddled on TV, the Web and the back pages of lifestyle magazines.

"There's no good medical or biological evidence that these products work. They're probably not harmful, unless done in excess, but their greatest benefit may be the psychological feeling some people get that they feel better," said Mitchell S. Cappell, chief of gastroenterology at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich. "The placebo effect may be as strong as 30%. If we're convinced that we're going to get better from something, in the short run we might in fact get a little bit better."

Colon cleansing supplements aren't stringently regulated like drugs, and are thus far easier to popularize thanks to lax marketing requirements. Because they are governed by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, they can be marketed without approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Since the manufacturer is solely responsible for marketing a safe product, the burden of proof for any potential safety concerns falls on the FDA.

"We can't control the way that consumers use a product once it's on the market, but consumers should be aware that the FDA has not approved these products," said FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey. "If a product sounds too good to be true, people should think twice before buying it."

Even though the FDA's hands are tied, that hasn't stopped the Federal Trade Commission from targeting manufacturers of colon detox supplements. In 1998, the FTC forced Mega Systems to stop peddling its "Eden's Secret Nature's Purifying Product," which supposedly cleaned and purified the body of toxic waste, decontaminated the blood supply, cured PMS and resulted in weight loss. The claims, the FTC said, were false, which resulted in financial penalties for the company and infomercial king Kevin Trudeau who pitched the product on television.

Barring any change in FDA regulation of these supplements, however, you're not going to stop hearing about the wonders of colon detoxification anytime soon. "You're constantly getting bombarded on TV," said Scott Modena, a physician in the Philadelphia area, of commercials promoting the cleansers. "People are very susceptible to that."

Consumer Ally writer Jorgen Wouters contributed to this story.
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