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Taking a laxative "colon cleanser" seems like it should be an easy way to weight loss. It usually is not.

Improper Use of Laxatives Can Add Water Weight to Belly Fat

The way colon cleansers work, theoretically, is that they loosen up hardened stool so it is easy just to flush your extra pounds away. Before the advent of colonoscopy, the makers of herbal laxatives claimed that undigested food could accumulate on the walls of the colon for decades at a time, undigested hamburgers and apple pie from the teenage years accumulating to cause obesity at the age of 45. Colonoscopy has proven that undigested food (except in extremely rare cases) does not accumulate in the colon, but the makers of "colon cleansers" still claim that their products are ideal for weight loss.

Do Colon Cleansers Really Cleanse?

A typical colon cleanser is a two-part product. One of the pills in the colon cleansing kit is an herbal laxative. This may be Senna, rhubarb root, cascara sagrada bark, or aloe bitters (which are different from aloe juice or aloe gel, but derived from the same plant).

All of these laxative herbs work the same way. First, they have to be transformed into their active form by bacteria that live in the colon. If you have recently taken an antibiotic, or if you have an overgrowth of yeast in the small intestine, the herbal laxative will not work.

Once the laxative chemical in the herb has been transformed by bacteria, then it interacts with nerves in the muscles lining the lower digestive tract. These chemicals stimulate the muscles that push fecal matter downward, and they relax the sphincters that hold fecal matter inside until you can get to the toilet. The makers of colon cleaners are very careful not to put so much of the laxative herb in your daily dosage that you mess in your pants, but if you take more than the recommended dosage, that is exactly what will happen.

The other component of a typical colon cleanser is a pill or a capsule with a tiny amount of fiber. A healthy diet provides about 30 grams of fiber every day. The typical weight loss laxative program provides 1 to 3 grams of fiber every day.

That's just enough fiber to form a tiny amount of stool. And the makers of these products depend on your having just a tiny stool. The whole idea, from a marketing standpoint, is to give you just enough "production" to keep you using the product, month after month after month, as long as your credit card can be billed.

What About Upping the Dosage?

Of course, it is always possible to increase the dosage. Doctors prepping their patients for colonoscopy and emergency room physicians treating a condition called megacolon sometimes order an extra-high dose of the "brown bomb," cascara sagrada. Even the high dosage of this herbal laxative ordered in the ER or at the hospital will not work if colon bacteria are not active. However, if these bacteria are active, and the patient drinks the recommended amount of water, typically there is an overnight (or faster) loss of 4 to 10 pounds of feces and fluid. So why not take herbal laxatives all the time and never put that weight back on?

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Blumenthal, M., Rister, R., et al. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines (Boston: IntegrativMedicine, 1998).
  • Photo courtesy of stillmemory on Flickr: