Colonics at a Philippines health retreat
At the health farm there was a woman who looked really sick, sicker than everyone else. She was Canadian, maybe in her 50s, gaunt like she was in the final stages of cancer. Her cheeks were sunken, her skin sallow and her eyes bulged, their whites bright.
The woman was either extremely unwell or too well. You know the sort – the disciplined faster who is actually anorexic, a person with the zero body fat of an exercise addict.
I’d see her drifting around the bright green grounds, holding a heat pack to her abdomen. “You have to try the colonics,” she’d tell me in a whisper. “I’ve lost inches from my waist. You feel so light. They are a-ma-zing.”
I suppressed a shudder. To paraphrase Meatloaf, “I will do anything for wellness, but I won’t do that.”
Colonics have a long history. They were used in Egyptian times, down by the river, where “clients” employed hollow reeds and river water to rinse their colons. In the time of Queen Victoria, they were regularly administered to the children of the upper classes. The Victorian enema, as it was known, was delivered weekly by a governess – and sometimes coincided with weekly whippings and punishments. The practice is said to have left a sexual legacy on a generation of children. According to one anonymous writer on a sexual fetish forum, “So many boys and girls so became sexually oriented to whipping and flagellation that it became known in Europe as the ‘English Vice’.”
During a colon cleanse, large amounts of water – sometimes up to 60 litres, some with added extras, such as herbs or coffee – are flushed through the colon. This is done using a tube inserted into the rectum. In some cases, smaller amounts of water are used and are left to sit in the colon before being removed.
I consult the websites of several colonic enthusiasts. They believe that our digestive organs become worn out or clogged over time – that our intestines are the body’s sewer systems, which need to be flushed out or scrubbed. They say old lumps of meat putrefy and become impacted on the internal wall of the colon. They say this matter stays there for years, rotting. The coating creates sluggish digestion and lack of blood flow, say proponents of colonics, and contains parasites or pathogenic gut flora that cause poor health.
But according to Christopher Wanjek, author of the books Bad Medicine and Food at Work: “Direct observations of the colon through surgery and autopsy find no hardening of fecal matter along the intestinal walls.”
This has not dissuaded the wellness industry – including Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop website – from promoting colonics as a way of detoxifying the body.
The health farm was in the Philippines – and was popular with international business travellers. One of the managers told me that people who go to the retreat are frequent flyers, circling the globe doing “deals” – but it is their bodies that pay the price, existing in a state of low-level distress, constantly moving through time zones, which disrupt their digestive and circadian rhythms.
In order to get back on track they fasted, rested, had spa treatments such as the luxurious Under the Stars massage, and underwent a program of colonics. They lay by the pool in the midday sun, glazed and still, sipping special clay shakes in lieu of food.
Twice a day their non-routine routine was broken up and they were escorted down the long grove of palms by a nurse for their colonics, their waste being pumped from them through clear plastic tubing and deposited god knows where.
The health farm has a quasi-medical air. There are a lot of people walking around the grounds in lab coats. I visit the medical clinic not long after I arrive and am given a blood test. The results are not good.
Have I by any chance been exposed to heavy metal? Second-hand smoke? Building sites?
I watch my cells drifting across the monitor.
“See that,” says the doctor. “You have sputniks in your platelets.”
My profile, she says, is that of a “lifelong meat eater”.
A colonic is recommended as the first step in cleaning out my body.
Yet I hold out. I won’t do that.
I am with my friends Justin and Nat at the health farm. One morning during our raw, vegan breakfast – tiny portions of granola with nut milk – Nat announces he is going to do the colonic program. I can feel the granola shift uneasily in my gut at the mention of the word “colonic”. He had seen a nurse who explained the two types of procedures: the colonic, which worked on the lower intestine and involved coffee being pumped into your butt; and another technique, known as a colema. The second type – the colema – she described as more intense. It cleansed both the upper and lower intestines with a “machine”.
The next day Nat was preparing for his second colonic – and skipping lunch.
“Your eyes look clearer,” Justin says to Nat. We look into Nat’s eye, bright and white – not cloudy like mine usually are.
“Mmm, I suppose they are,” said Nat, almost absently. He was spacing out before our eyes. “It was a very interesting experience.”
He explained the difference between the procedures. With the colonic, “they poured stuff into you and let it go out you, rubbing your tummy to loosen you up”.
With the colema, “they pump you full of water. There’s this machine that pumps water into you and you feel your stomach getting fuller and fuller until you can’t take it anymore and then Grace [the technician] pushes a button and then it comes out a tube.”
Over the next few days, he reported that his waste took on the texture and colour of whatever he’d just eaten. “Orange poos after eating those carrots for lunch,” he said, as we hung on every word, fascinated and disgusted.
Towards the end of my week at the health farm, I finally relent. I am worried about my negative blood work. Grace is “doing me” and the staff assure me she is very experienced at this sort of thing. They lead me down the path to where she is waiting – smiling in her starched white uniform, like a Victorian nanny. She stands outside the door of the colonics room. It is immaculately clean and divided in two, with a raised bed on one side and a divider, behind which the treatment takes place. It is sparkling and odourless.
I tell Grace I am frightened about the procedure, then get changed into a hospital gown. She tells me to lie on my back and then slide down this bench thing and raise my knees. By this stage I am perspiring and my breathing has become uneven. I’m not just kind of scared – I’m terrified, specifically of the thought of my bowel perforating and being reliant on a colostomy bag for the rest of my life. “Keep breathing,” Grace tells me. The urge to hold her hand is strong.
Here’s what happens. You lie down on a long bench with your legs either side of a sort of potty-shaped hole. The nurse gloves up and sticks a lubricated finger, then a tube, up your bum, which then runs coffee through your lower intestines. This is meant to act as a colon cleaner. The muck, as well as the coffee, ends up in the bowl that you are placed over.
The nurse massages your stomach while the water filters through and you push it out. Maybe it was because I was whimpering slightly and the nurse was so soothing – but I really did feel like a helpless baby.
To distract myself, I asked Grace all sorts of questions: “What sort of people do this? Can you do this if you have colon cancer? How many times should one have this procedure?”
She said people who have a lot of colonics are mainly business people who travel a lot for work and their internal systems are disrupted by all the different time zones. She says it’s recommended as a preventive measure for colon cancer but they don’t recommend it for people with colon cancer. She says “you should have this once a year” as a sort of maintenance exercise.
The treatment was in no way painful but the idea of it breached some pretty entrenched psychological barriers. Back in reception I nursed a heat pack against my stomach, took a big pill meant to replace any lost gut flora, and waited for the feeling of lightness to descend.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 5, 2017 as "Cleansing tale". Subscribe here.