Ask the (Science-Based) Pharmacist: What are the benefits of coffee enemas?

How do you take your coffee? Rectally.

How do you take your coffee? Rectally.

It might not occur to you, sipping your morning coffee, that you could derive tremendous health benefits by simply shooting that coffee directly into your rectum. Yet many people believe this. Suzy Cohen, who calls herself, “America’s Pharmacist™” and also “America’s Most Trusted Pharmacist®” is a proponent. Her syndicated column Ask the Pharmacist recently contained this question and response:

Question: I see a naturopathic doctor for chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. She recommended coffee enemas. Suzy, I’m a faithful reader, do you think this is safe? V.A., Seattle, Washington

Answer: Yes. Coffee enemas are used by holistic physicians for all sorts of conditions including cancer. Lots of people find help with constipation, fatigue and liver detoxification concerns. I know this sounds bizarre because you prefer to taste your coffee, not insert it rectally! Agreed. You may be hearing about coffee enemas today, but they are nothing new and complications from coffee enemas are highly unusual. Hey, I just thought of a new franchise concept called Starbutts … entrance in the rear.

Seriously, coffee enemas may help relieve constipation, insomnia and cognitive problems; they may eliminate (or control) parasites, candida and other pathogens (without disrupting intestinal flora). Coffee enemas are frequently used in natural cancer protocols such as the Gerson Therapy (www.gerson.org). Coffee enemas were outlined as a treatment in the revered “Merck Manual,” a thick book that physicians used as their primary reference for decades, until the mid 1970s.

It’s not the enema as much as it is the coffee that helps. You are exposed to a barrage of toxic compounds in your life, you can easily become overloaded. Some of you cannot detoxify properly. Coffee enemas help you make glutathione, an antioxidant and that sends poisons packing. More on that momentarily.

Coffee enemas can be done at home inexpensively. You just need a comfortable spot on the floor of your bathroom, or bathtub. As the coffee is retained in your bowel, the fluid goes through your intestinal wall, through the portal vein to your liver. The stimulating effects and healing compounds of coffee jumpstart your liver and gallbladder. Bile flows. There are compounds in coffee like kahweol and cafestol which spark production of glutathione, and that is a strong cleansing compound in your body, one that consumers pay good money for when they buy glutathione as a dietary supplement, or get IV injections of it. To make more glutathione naturally (by using a coffee enema) is awesome.

These enemas may allow for relaxation, a better mood, more energy, refreshing sleep and greater mental clarity. If you do too many enemas per week, you may experience electrolyte imbalances. Restoring your electrolytes is crucial, as coffee is a potent drug mugger of minerals. While the controversial cancer specialist Dr. Max Gerson suggested up to six per day, I think that is way too much for the average person. Doing a coffee enema weekly (even daily for awhile) is probably okay for most, but always follow your doctor’s recommendation. The recipe for a coffee enema is different than the beverage.

I was pretty stunned to see this response, particularly from a health professional. Here’s how I’d answer the same question:

The Science-Based Response

Question: I see a naturopathic doctor for chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. She recommended coffee enemas. Scott, I’m a faithful reader of Science-Based Pharmacy, do you think this is safe?

Answer: No. Coffee enemas are considered unsafe and should be avoided. Rare but serious adverse events like septicemia (bacteria in the bloodstream), rectal perforation, and electrolyte abnormalities have been caused by coffee enemas. Deaths from the administration of coffee enemas have been reported.

Coffee enemas are based on a pre-scientific idea called “autointoxication”, the belief we are being poisoned by toxins because we are not digesting and eliminating waste products from our colons. This concept is not new, and has roots as far back as our records of medicine. Autointoxication as a concept was discarded over time, as the scientific basis for disease was discovered. It’s perhaps not surprising that your naturopath recommends coffee enemas, as naturopathy is an alternative medicine practice that is based on prescientific and unscientific concepts of health and disease, such as autointoxication. “Humoral medicine” emerged from ancient Egyptian and Roman ideas that the body was composed of four liquids: black bile, yellow bile, phlegm, and blood. “Balance’ in the humors was the goal, and an accumulation of waste in the colon was though to lead to humoral imbalances. The remedy was flushing colon through enemas and purgatives. This philosophy, now discarded from science-based medicine, is still embedded in naturopathy practice.

There is no credible evidence to suggest that coffee enemas can help with insomnia and cognitive problems. In fact, caffeine is absorbed by the colon when coffee is administered as an enema, so it is a poor option for insomnia. The idea that you are are contaminated with parasites or candida are just that – ideas. While alternative practitioners believe these conditions are widespread in the population, there is no scientific evidence to suggest this. There is no reason to treat conditions which do not exist.

Coffee enemas have their roots as part of the “Gerson Treatment” for cancer, developed by physician Max Gerson in the 1940′s. His regimen included coffee enemas, supplements, juice, and injections of calves’ liver. The approach has been investigated and been shown to be useless for the treatment of cancer.

Some proponents of coffee enemas believe that the chemical components of coffee stimulate liver and gall bladder function. There is no credible evidence to suggest this occurs, or that it is necessary. Your liver and gallblader don’t need an enema in order to work effectively. There is no evidence to suggest that you need to boost your liver’s production of glutathione with enemas. You may in fact be boosting your glutathione already, if you’re a coffee drinker.

I’m very sorry to hear about your chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Science-based medicine lacks a good understanding of this illness, and there is a lack of effective treatments. Unfortunately, that can make patients with these illnesses targets to those that profess certainty and offer dubious and unproven treatments, like coffee enemas. A decision to undergo any treatment needs to consider the risk and benefits. And treatments need to be investigated to determine if the benefits outweigh the risks. With coffee enemas, the evidence is clear. Given the lack of benefit and potential harms, there is no plausible justification to undergo these treatments. You should ignore any medical advice from anyone that recommends coffee enemas to you.

Discussion

Autointoxication is a belief that has persisted for hundreds of years, and survives today as the rationale for an array of alternative medicine practices, including coffee enemas, ear candles, “detox” diets, and “cleansing” kits. (For some, the idea that we are being poisoned internally can become downright pathological. A Florida couple admitted to administering coffee enemas four to ten times per day.) These ideas seem almost a part of human nature: Purification rituals are common features of different cultures worldwide. In modern society, and with today’s alternative medicine providers, detoxification is wrapped with a scientific banner, in an attempt to give the treatments (and their purveyors) a veneer of credibility. Autointoxication beliefs are not only wrong, but they are demonstrably dangerous. Practices like coffee enemas have no plausible benefit and a real risk of harm. More broadly, and perhaps most importantly, the continued promotion of these practices distracts from science-based advice that can support better health decision-making.

Update: Coffee enemas for dogs – an even more dangerous idea.

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4 thoughts on “Ask the (Science-Based) Pharmacist: What are the benefits of coffee enemas?

  1. Now, here’s an idea, on how to make PILES of money

    from coffee in your colon, and I think it’s much safer too.

    So, you’ll have a fat wallet and not be placing yourself at risk.

    Take your coffee orally, as whole berries.

    In fact, civet cats are deliberately fed the berries,

    so the beans pass through them partially digested,

    and “Kopi luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world,
    selling for between US$100 and $600 per pound”

    (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kopi_Luwak ).

    Now, you won’t have a piles of money yet,

    but you will have piles and piles,

    and you just have to figure out how to package it as

    “integrative, complementary, alternative, or natural”

    and you’ll have your market beating down

    your bathroom door.

    -r.c.

    • Stick with the but and use a custom blend. Call it Kopu Liwak for confusion and pocket the difference in markup. After all with it going up the butt, who cares what it tastes like. It should be able to flush out imaginary plaques just as well.

  2. Thank you for the review and the links. It is discouraging that it is rare for the alternative practitioners to be held responsible when their treatment fails.

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