Dossier: Healthy eating

Gut cleansing – helpful or harmful?

If you suffer from bloating, stomach ache or other gut complaints, your thoughts automatically turn to gut health. And it’s true that bacteria in the gut influence many areas of health. but is gut cleansing beneficial?

Text: Abital Rauber; photo: iStock

It is often said that health starts in the gut. And it’s true that the gut has a strong influence on our health and well-being. So it seems to make sense that we should support our gut through gut cleansing, a gut reset or detox treatments. But perhaps these measures do our body more harm than good.

Gut cleansing and detox: what’s it all about?

There are three steps to gut cleansing: emptying the bowel using enemas or laxatives containing salts, herbs or medication; detoxification using healing earth or other mineral earths; and rebuilding the intestinal flora. There is no scientific evidence that people benefit from gut cleansing or detox treatments. In fact, they can cause toxins that the bowel has already bound in the faeces to be released again. In addition, gut cleansing is a massive intervention in the intestinal flora, at least temporarily. Gut cleansing is particularly inadvisable in the case of intestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease, intestinal cancer or a weakened immune system.

“Colonic irrigation, especially with water, can cause an imbalance in the regulatory mechanisms in the intestine,” confirms Dr Stefanie Siegfried, specialist in internal medicine. That’s why saline solutions are used if the bowel needs to be emptied before an examination or operation. Anyone who has experienced this will be familiar with the disgusting taste in the mouth, which can cause retching. “These salts have to be used in the right proportions to make sure they don’t upset the intestine’s regulatory mechanisms,” says Siegfried. The essential ingredients contained in such solutions prevent shifts of water and electrolytes in the body, which can have devastating consequences.

“Colonic irrigation, especially with water, can cause an imbalance in the intestine’s regulatory mechanisms.”
Dr Stefanie Siegfried, specialist in internal medicine

Detoxifying the body is a concept familiar from alternative medicine, but conventional medicine holds little of the idea. “A healthy body is naturally good at eliminating toxins itself,” says Siegfried. In other words, the liver, kidneys and intestines are perfectly capable of cleansing themselves.

And analysing stool to determine the intestinal flora doesn’t do much good either – except for research purposes. At present, there is too little scientific evidence to offer specific recommendations for action. After all, a stool analysis is just a snapshot influenced by many factors, such as sex, age, medication or diet. The intestinal flora changes constantly.

The gut – our abdominal brain and the breeding ground for innumerable microorganisms

Each one of us carries an impressive 1.5 kg of bacteria around with us – mostly in our gut. The interplay between useful and harmful bacteria is as individual as our fingerprints. For optimum gastrointestinal health, we need a good balance – a peaceful coexistence – between the more than 450 different types of bacteria that live there. They produce important vitamins and protect the body against harmful substances and pathogens.

What’s more, the gut is an important part of our immune system – and the site of our abdominal brain. This vast network of nerves monitors the entire digestive tract from the oesophagus to the anus. It works closely with the central nervous system in the brain, which controls most of our bodily functions.

Reset the gut – but make it gentle

But we also need to look after our gut. In other countries, like Brazil, gentle gut resets are available on prescription once or twice a year. “Gentle” is the keyword here, without the use of enemas or similar products to completely empty the bowel. As the gut isn’t dirty, it doesn’t need to be cleaned. What’s more, emptying the bowel in this way can damage the intestinal wall, cause ulcers and, as “good” bacteria are lost in the process, open the door to infectious pathogens.

“If you want to do something good for your gut, try a gut reset instead of colonic irrigation,” says Siegfried. For example, intestinal rehabilitation involves giving up sugar and sweeteners for a certain amount of time. Temporarily giving up alcohol or meat can also help reduce inflammation in the gut. “Whatever you give up, we recommend doing the rehab for at least a month, with the ultimate goal of adjusting your diet in the long term,” says Siegfried. While acknowledging that patients want to take action to help their gut and see fast results, she emphasises that “adjusting your diet isn’t a quick fix and it takes time before you really see the effects.”

“If you want to do something good for your gut, try a gut reset instead of colonic irrigation.”
Dr Stefanie Siegfried, specialist in internal medicine

Taking the right vital substances or eating a targeted diet can also help the gut if the digestive microbiota, i.e. the healthy intestinal flora, are out of balance. This can be caused, for example, by a poor diet, medication such as antibiotics, or stress and lead to bloating, stomach ache, heartburn, constipation, general fatigue or skin problems such as acne or neurodermatitis. A weak intestinal mucous membrane also makes us more susceptible to infections, allergies and complications such as irritable bowel syndrome.

Probiotics and prebiotics

Probiotics and prebiotics play an important role in gently resetting the gut. Ensuring healthy intestinal flora requires a lot of bacteria, which are contained in probiotics. Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain live microorganisms intended to maintain or improve the body’s “good” bacteria (normal microflora). They can be found in organic natural yoghurt, cloudy apple cider vinegar, soured milk, pure buttermilk, skyr or sauerkraut. Probiotics also lower the pH value in the gut to create an optimal environment in the intestinal flora. This helps the immune system and boosts the barrier function of the intestinal wall to protect the body against pathogenic germs. If you stop taking the probiotics, the body’s own flora has to continue the work. Probiotics are also available as higher-dose capsules, drops, tablets and powders. Get advice from an expert.

In practice, probiotics are prescribed as standard alongside drug therapy such as antibiotics. We recommend taking probiotics until one week after the end of treatment,” says Dr Siegfried.

In contrast to probiotics, prebiotics are inanimate substrates, such as dietary fibre. Prebiotics are a source of food for the gut’s healthy bacteria, thus helping the bacteria to grow.

Home remedies for a healthy gut

If you get enough exercise, eat a fibre-rich diet, get a good night’s sleep and drink plenty of fluids, you’re on the right track to keeping your gut healthy and definitely don’t need to do a gut cleanse. If you want to give your gut a helping hand, adjusting your diet along the lines below could improve the health of your intestinal flora:

  • Insoluble fibre helps to transport food through the digestive tract and is excreted again. These include wholegrain products, pulses and mushrooms.
  • Soluble fibre is the “food” for healthy intestinal bacteria. Sources include chicory, leek, asparagus, oats, nuts and psyllium husks.
  • Probiotics regulate gut microbiota. They can be found in yoghurt, kefir and sauerkraut.

It is also important to drink plenty of fluids, because the gut needs a sufficient intake to stay healthy. It’s best to drink water, unsweetened herbal tea or vegetable broth. Drinking helps the intestines to detoxify and digest.

You have to be careful with sugar, artificial sweeteners and meat. We all know that sugar and sweeteners aren’t good for our body, but they also upset the intestinal flora. It is now known that artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, saccharine and sucralose convert healthy gut bacteria into pathogenic microbes. And unhealthy amounts of meat can cause inflammation in the gut. In recent years, research has also discovered links between increased meat consumption and the occurrence of bowel cancer.

Weight loss through a gut cleanse?

Lifestyle platforms and glossy magazines often claim that gut cleansing can help you lose weight. It is true that you lose several kilogrammes in a short time after a gut cleanse. The weight loss is not due to the loss of unwanted fat, but simply due to the reduction or removal of stool. Nevertheless, researchers do suspect that certain bacteria could help with weight loss.

About the expert

Dr Stefanie Siegfried is a specialist in internal medicine. She runs her own practice in Bern. She also works as an affiliated doctor at the Hirslanden Salem hospital.

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