A colon cleanse is a short-term supplementation protocol that’s designed to improve your gut health in three steps.
First, a colon cleanse flushes out your colon with laxatives and fiber.
Second, herbal extracts like aloe vera are used to soothe and protect the lining of your colon from further damage.
Third, probiotic bacteria and prebiotic nutrients are introduced to rebuild a healthy guy bacteria population for long-term gastrointestinal (GI) tract health.
Colon cleanses are a more specialized type of supplement than a simple fiber or psyllium husk mix for regular bowel movements, but when used correctly, many people report that a colon cleanse is helpful for clearing out cramps, bloating, and other GI tract issues.
Here are the key benefits of using a colon cleanse supplement, plus some side effects to watch out for.
1. A colon cleanse may help increase the health of your GI tract
A colon cleanse, when done with a natural supplement, involves a dose of an herbal extract with laxative abilities, plus typically other ingredients to soothe the inside of the colon, increase the frequency and quantity of your bowel movements, and repopulate your gastrointestinal tract with healthy probiotic bacteria.
Broadly, the goal is to flush out your system, then renew it with healthy bacteria. Colon cleanses are popular among people with constipation, poor diets, or gastrointestinal problems.
Research on their efficacy is limited, but there may be benefits associated with the specific goals of a colon cleanse; namely, increasing your bowel movement frequency, flushing out your system with more fiber, and repopulating your gut with healthy bacteria.
2. Supplemental colon cleanses appear to be safer than mechanical colon irrigation
The first benefit of a supplement based colon cleanse is simply that it is safer than mechanical colon cleanses. Several medical case reports caution against using mechanical colon cleanses, which involve enemas of herbal solutions to irrigate the colon.
A report by Dr. Ranit Mishouri and other medical doctors at the Georgetown University School of Medicine presented several cases of patients who had serious adverse health effects from mechanical colon cleansing (1).
In these cases, the injection of large volumes of herbal solutions into the colon via an enema bag upset the body’s natural balance and caused issues ranging from diarrhea to cramping and nausea.
Dr. Ruben Acosta and Dr. Brook Cash also caution against the use of mechanical colon cleansing in a 2009 review article in the American Journal of Gastroenterology. The benefits are minimal, and risks have been identified (2).
In contrast, using a supplement-based colon cleanse with natural remedies from herbal extracts may present a safer alternative. These don’t involve injecting large volumes of solution into the colon, and thus pose less of a health risk.
3. One key ingredient in any colon cleanse is a laxative
Ideally, this would come from an herbal or natural source, like senna leaf. Constipation is not just uncomfortable; it’s decidedly unhealthy.
A major epidemiological study published in 2003 examined constipation and laxative use in a large population in North Carolina (3).
In this study, “constipation” was defined as fewer than three bowel movements per week. Among people with constipation, there was a substantial increase in risk for colon cancer. Crucially, this risk dropped among the people who used laxatives to treat their constipation.
This lends credence to the theory that toxic waste products sitting around in your colon are actively harmful. This doesn’t necessarily mean they accumulate over time in healthy individuals, but it does mean that stuff your body wants to get out–solid waste in your colon–should not be sitting around for days at a time.
4. A colon cleanse with aloe vera can soothe the lining of your colon.
Other colon cleanse ingredients have the potential to soothe the lining of the inside of your colon. Aloe vera gel is one good example.
Research published in 2004 found that aloe vera gel acts as an anti-inflammatory in the kinds of cells that line the colon (4).
Additionally, a review published in 1999 in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology by T. Reynolds and A.C. Dweck even hypothesizes that the external healing properties of aloe vera gel (as used to treat sunburn, for example) may apply to internal use as well (5).
If this is true, aloe vera gel may be able to not just soothe the colon, but heal it too.
5. Fiber in a colon cleanse can improve your gut bacterial profile.
Fiber content is also helpful in a colon cleanse, because it’s well-known that increased fiber content in your diet helps improve gastrointestinal health.
According to Joanne Slavin at the University of Minnesota, fiber can also help probiotic bacteria grow and flourish (6).
6. Adding probiotic bacteria to your gut after a cleanse can kick-start a healthy GI tract
This brings us to the final point where a colon cleanse can help your gastrointestinal health, which is the reintroduction of probiotic bacteria.
These are the “good bacteria” that help your body digest food and regulate the health of your gastrointestinal system.
Probiotics are a front of active research, and we still don’t fully understand their potential, but one thing we do know is that supplementing with certain strains, like lactobacillus acidophilus, can treat gastrointestinal problems.
A review article published in the International Journal of Antimicrobacterial Agents described how probiotic supplements are known to treat gastrointestinal problems associated with contaminated water (traveler’s diarrhea) and antibiotic treatments, which wipe out the good bacteria in your body (7).
The specific effects of a colon cleanse that include probiotics hasn’t been studied yet, but from what we know so far, it seems reasonable to assume that it would add a substantial benefit to your colon health.
The use of probiotics also makes sense in the context of the overall goal of a colon cleanse. You are trying to flush out your system and remove the “bad stuff” in your colon, but what are you going to replace it with? Probiotic bacteria can help repopulate your colon during a cleanse.
7. A healthy probiotic bacterial population is essential for long-term colon health
One of the biggest things to consider when doing a colon cleanse routine is how you’ll ensure good gastrointestinal health going forward.
Even the world’s greatest colon cleanse isn’t’ going to be very helpful if you revert right back to the same lifestyle and diet that caused your gastrointestinal problems in the first place. One of the most exciting potential ways to achieve better colon health in the long term is to add probiotics to your colon cleanse.
Resetting your gastrointestinal tract is one thing, but scientific research indicates that you can substantially improve gastrointestinal symptoms like constipation by including probiotic bacteria as a part of your daily routine.
A systematic review of probiotic supplementation protocols published in 2010 indicated promising results (8), and high-quality research showing the advantages of probiotics for symptoms like constipation and other gastrointestinal problems. As probiotic research is one of the hottest areas in science right now, many of our top rated colon cleanse supplements include probiotic bacteria.
8. A colon cleanse supplement that uses an herbal laxative like senna cleanse your colon rapidly
The most common laxatives use the principle of osmolarity to induce a bowel movement, which can bring about a colon cleanse.
Solutions like magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt) draw water into your gastrointestinal tract, which can induce a bowel movement, but according to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine, these “osmotic laxatives” can take several days to actually work (9).
An herbal compound, in contrast, like senna, can work more rapidly, helping to flush out your gastrointestinal tract faster and potentially more effectively.
Using a colon cleanse, even an herbal supplement-based one, is not without its risks.
You may become reliant on laxatives for bowel movements. The biggest one is that you’ll become reliant on the laxative effects for your bowel movements, and will get constipation as soon as you stop using your colon cleanse supplement.
The best way to fight this risk is to only use the colon cleanse for a short period of time, then cycle off it. A “cleanse,” after all, is supposed to be a relatively short and intensive intervention, not a regular habit that you do every day.
Some herbal ingredients can cause adverse gastrointestinal reactions. Another risk is an adverse gastrointestinal reaction to the herbal supplements included in a colon cleanse. A lot of supplements use obscure, untested herbal remedies that you may not react to well, especially if you already have a sensitive gastrointestinal tract.
Unfortunately, this is going to be a highly individual topic, so you’ll have to test the supplement you are using and see how you react to it. If you have had problems with this in the past, look for a supplement without lots of obscure herbal supplements and stick to something simple.
Colon cleanses are less risky than colon irrigation. In this procedure, your colon is flushed with a liquid solution. However, according to the Mayo Clinic, such procedures are very risky, and have been associated with stomach pain, diarrhea, and damage to the rectum (10). They can also significantly alter your body’s electrolyte balance, which can spell trouble for people with heart or kidney disease.
While colon cleanse supplements are also not without potential side effects, the severity of these side effects is thought to be far lower and less frequent than the side effects associated with mechanical colon cleansing.
The primary dosing concern in colon cleansing is the quantity of the laxative ingredients. For senna-based colon cleanses, a typical dose is between 20 and 40 mg total per day (11).
Maximum dose should never exceed 70 mg per day. For other herbal ingredients, dosages are harder to establish because of a lack of research.
The good news is that the other beneficial ingredients in colon cleanse supplements, like aloe vera gel and fiber, aren’t harmful at high doses, so the laxative ingredient–plus any other herbal ingredients of unknown effect–are the only dosage related concerns for colon cleanse supplements.
Colon cleanse benefits FAQ
Q: Does a colon cleanse hurt?
A: A colon cleanse shouldn’t hurt, at least when it’s done with a supplement that is safe. Mechanical colon cleansing can be painful, both during the procedure and afterwards—case studies point to stomach pain and cramping, as well as damage to the tissue of the colon, as potential side effects of mechanical colon irrigation.
These kinds of side effects are why we included only supplemental colon cleanses in our rankings. Even with a supplement-based cleanse, there is a risk of dependency if you take colon cleanse supplements too often.
If your body becomes reliant on a laxative supplement in a colon cleanse to have bowel movements, you can have painful bowel movements if you get constipated. The best way to avoid this it to only take a colon cleanse supplement as it’s intended—for a relatively brief amount of time.
Q: Can you cleanse your colon with a drink?
A: Some people do juice cleanses as a way to cleanse out their colon, but a juice cleanse isn’t that helpful for cleaning out your colon and improving your gastrointestinal tract because juices have little to no fiber, and a lot of sugar. Both of those things spell bad news for constipation and colon health.
Adding a fiber source like psyllium to a drink can help with colon health, as can limiting high-sugar drinks like juices and soda. While natural juices or green superfood drinks can be useful for health in other ways, if you want to cleanse your colon, you’ll probably need a more integrated approach that includes things like fiber, probiotics, and possibly herbal compounds as well.
Q: How do laxatives help with a colon cleanse?
A: Laxative compounds like senna (and, to a lesser extent, various sources of fiber like psyllium or glucomannan) increase the mobility of your digestive tract, encouraging more regular bowel movements.
Often, people who have bloating and cramping are constipated, and the laxatives in a colon cleanse can mobilize the waste products in their GI tract, cleaning out your colon and easing your gastrointestinal symptoms.
Related: Our best colon cleanse picks
A colon cleanse can help you clear out constipation and get a fresh start on a healthy population of gut bacteria.
A good colon cleanse supplement combines fiber and laxatives to empty out your colon alongside herbal extracts for gut health plus a good amount of probiotic bacteria and prebiotic nutrients to help ensure that your gut health improves over the long-term.
Though a colon cleanse may only last for a few days, you want to engineer it so that your gut health continues to improve long-term after you finish the colon cleanse.