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Photography @_pelillosalamar_ for Bloody Mary Lingerie

Colonic irrigation: beauty’s best-kept secret or a load of old crap?

We spoke to a professional about the ins and outs of colonic irrigation

From the individuals extracting earwax from your eardrum to the quiet crusaders shaving skin off your feet, in our regular series The Professionals we meet the people taking pride in the nitty gritty side of beauty.

Humans have been cleaning each other's pipes so to speak for centuries. As documented in the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts in the world, ancient Egyptian physicians would routinely perform enemas - a method used to flush waste out of the colon thereby inducing bowel movement - as a way of curing diseases and cleansing the body’s systems. Yup, 4000 years before the Gillian McKeith came to be and the eat clean movement really took off, the hygiene-obsessed Egyptians had already come to the sage conclusion that you are what you eat. Meanwhile, over in Mesoamerica, enemas were being performed as part of sacred healing rituals, as a way of preparing the body before consuming psychoactive substances, cleansing it of impurity and enabling the user to reach a higher trance-like state. 

Fast-forward today and, although we’re no longer cobbling together syringes out of vegetable skin or animal bladders, colonic irrigation, as it is more commonly known, is being practised all over the world as part of our global quest for wellness. That said, opinion over the procedure’s effectiveness is divided. While some experts cite health benefits such as the removal of toxins from your digestive system, weight loss, increased energy, headache alleviation, breath freshening, clearer thinking, emotional release and a reduction in abdominal bloating, skin outbreaks, and IBS-like symptoms, others remain sceptical. There’s also been growing concern over the procedure’s reported destruction of gut flora, a myth colon hydrotherapists are keen to debunk. To find out more, we spoke to EF Medispa Chelsea’s leading colon hydrotherapist, Victoria Cooper.

Can you tell us a bit about colonic irrigation?
Victoria Cooper: It is a gentle treatment designed to enable the body to release trapped wastes from the colon. Disposable tubing is inserted a short way into the rectum, via which filtered water is inlet into the colon. The tubing allows for inlet of water and release of wastes, so a "flush/release" process continues throughout the session, after which the client is transferred to the loo to allow any remaining wastes to be expelled.

Who is it for?
Victoria Cooper: Generally, people come along if they want to improve their body's ability to eliminate and/or if they wish to undertake a detoxification programme. It is also very useful in tackling issues of abdominal bloating, skin outbreaks, freshening breath, alleviating headaches, IBS-like symptoms; there are some contra-indications (for example, severe kidney or heart issues) and therefore your therapist will ascertain safety prior to embarking upon treatment.

When did people first start doing it?
Victoria Cooper: The date is lost in the mists of time, but it was known to have been practised (in a more primitive form than we use today) in ancient Egypt. It isn't the sort of thing that gets put into historical records, so it gets hazy from thereon, but enemas were often performed for the family by grandmothers in the era prior to modern medicine. For a while in the 20th century, it was referred to variously as "Nature Cure", "Colon Irrigation", "Colonic Lavage" etc., but the term today is "Colon Hydrotherapy". Much of this would have been undertaken using equipment termed "open system" e.g. enemas, high enemas, gravity feed, etc. Sophisticated equipment has been further developed and today, the popular systems are gravity feed (aka 'open system') and pressure gauge ('closed system'). 

Why do you think it has grown in popularity over the years?
Victoria Cooper: Figures at one time showed that the UK had one of the highest sales of laxatives. Also, abdominal issues comprise a high proportion of visits to the doctor. Whether or not that relates to dietary shortcomings or other factors remains to be seen but it is clear that a lot of people need assistance in achieving a successful elimination function.

How has the practice developed over time?
Victoria Cooper: From using a vegetable gourd and water from untreated sources in ancient times, we now have disposable tubing, highly sophisticated pressure gauge machines which control temperature, internal pressure, and excellent water filtration.

How did you get into it professionally?
Victoria Cooper: I came across it whilst undertaking a course in Natural Medicine. Prior to that point, I had already undertaken quite a lot of other training in various therapies, but this was the area in which I decided to specialise. I qualified in 2001, and began in a small way at that point, with my practice growing to a more professional level since 2004.

What qualifications does one need to become a colonic hydrotherapist?
Victoria Cooper: Worryingly, people can set up with no training. However, to become part of a professional association (something I recommend) which gives the client more confidence in standards, things have changed over the last couple of years with the introduction of the National Occupational Standards ("NOS") developed with Skills for Health, ARCH (Association of Registered Colon Hydrotherapists), CNHC (Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council) and other UK colonic associations, e.g. RICTAT. Since that point, there is a defined standard of attainment in the association-approved training schools which is then expected to be implemented in clinical practice. Some associations also have pre-qualification requirements, e.g. a professional standard qualification in Anatomy & Physiology. It is always wise for any prospective client to ascertain that their intended therapist is a member of a suitable association, and this can be checked on the relevant websites.

Where did you learn your technique? Do you have a signature technique?
Victoria Cooper: With Dr. Milo Siewert in Dorset, and with further training from a mentor. I do have a signature technique but I am not giving away my professional secrets..! I do keep it very gentle. This is a must.

What is the most popular type of colonic irrigation? Is there a type that you personally enjoy doing? 
Victoria Cooper: There are plain colonics (using water only) and additive colonics (e..g using coffee, herbs, wheatgrass). I prefer to do whatever achieves the best outcome for the client's current need. It is worth mentioning here that there are some people offering "colonic hydrotherapy" which is really a high enema. These establishments do not offer therapist-conducted/attended sessions, in other words, you are shown a cubicle and get on with the treatment on your own. This is not a practice I recommend. Prior to booking, check that you will be with a qualified therapist all through your session.

It’s an incredibly intimate treatment, how do you cope with that? Do you feel desensitized looking this kind of thing now?
Victoria Cooper: Not at all. My job is to remain highly sensitive to the client on every level at all times. It comes naturally, so no need to "cope".

What’s been some of the most memorable experiences you’ve had in your clinic?
Victoria Cooper: Often where a client has an emotional release from a deep level (perhaps crying and talking about things which they may never have discussed with anybody else), which can then trigger the body into following suit on a physical level, leading to feelings of tremendous liberation. Also, stubborn cases of acne totally clearing up after a major release. People going from a 3-week release cycle to a daily release cycle.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learnt from doing it?
Victoria Cooper: Quite how much the emotional world dictates the physical, and vice-versa. It's profound. Examples of the emotional world relate to what I mentioned above and emotional releases; examples of the physical dictating the emotional world would be along the lines of a client being hostile and defensive with me at the beginning of the session and then totally changing to the polar opposite once the wastes are shifted - often with a few minutes from one state to another.

What are the biggest misconceptions about colonic irrigation? Are there any dangers?
Victoria Cooper: Mostly about the gut flora. People happily take medications and quaff alcohol with nary a thought about long-lasting gut flora destruction arising directly from that, but panic about a colonic which reduces gut flora levels for a couple of days (and which re-proliferates to pre-colonic level within a couple of days) but which also clears out the less-than-helpful micro-organisms. When people make claims about gut flora damage in relation to colonics, they should be aware that there has never, ever been a full-scale clinical study on colonics, so statements like that are in the realm of the fanciful. In terms of dangers, if the client has disclosed all relevant information, then the therapist’s decision to proceed should be safe. If a client is ever in discomfort during a session in any way, they should communicate that to the therapist.

What are the most challenging parts of your profession?
Victoria Cooper: Keeping to time. The body has its own schedule for releasing but as therapists, we have to adhere to a professional timetable.

What are the most rewarding parts? 
Victoria Cooper: Finding answers for the client as to why their elimination pattern is as it is, so they can work with that for the benefit of their long-term health outcomes, as well as seeing the visibly happier client post-session. For me, the bedrock achievement is helping a client to achieve peace with their body.

Some people find the idea of colonic irrigation quite squeamish and embarrassing, is this stigma something you want to challenge?
Victoria Cooper: The beliefs you mention derive from false imaginary notions of what is involved. People believe it will be painful; embarrassing; filthy. It is none of these. The only way they will change their belief structure is by experience and that is the client's own choice-making, not mine.

Why do you think people are embarrassed of getting colonic irrigation in the first place?
Victoria Cooper: We are culturally conditioned to expel in private. Typically, the last time someone attended our loo-time was when we were on the potty and our parents were there. Since that point, it becomes a source of shame, jokes, confusion and perhaps, discomfort and frustration. This emotional picture underlies the fear/embarrassment that people have to overcome before they seek treatment.

Where do you see this trend for colonic irrigation going in the future? What technical innovations are you most excited about in your field
Victoria Cooper: I am very pleased about the National Occupational Standards that were introduced over the last couple of years. This provides more assurance for the general public. In terms of the technical, we have a wealth of research going on relating to the importance of the microbiome and the role played by the gut flora, how to improve and maintain it, etc. Also, the availability and breadth of lab testing of diverse sorts. Together, these are hugely important in developing sure-footed strategies to enable clients to resolve their health issues. I also suspect that preventive medicine will become increasingly important, and all medicine will become increasingly integrated. I doubt whether robots will ever be able to perform a colonic for a client.