The first time I heard about coffee enemas and “coffee enema benefits” was right after Jessica Ainscough, known as The Wellness Warrior, died of cancer in early 2015. Jessica had skipped part of conventional cancer treatment in favor of following the Gerson Therapy; an alternative medicine protocol that involved doing coffee enemas daily.
The bad news is that Jessica is only one of the few who have chosen to do coffee enemas for their touted “coffee enema benefits;” I’m not just referring to cancer patients; the coffee enema phenomenon goes far beyond that.
Sometimes desperate dieters feel a coffee enema is their last resort. Other times people feel they’re out of options and they need to try anything, just in case it works; even questionable, unproven enemas.
What do enemas do for you?
An enema is just that: the injection of a liquid or gas into the rectum.
There are several different types of enemas commonly performed. Most commonly, enemas are used to help relieve constipation by stimulating the evacuation of stool.
And yes, they are an actual medical procedure, not just something you find in a box at the pharmacy.
This started gaining popularity in recent years, advertising that enemas could help relieve just about anything, from bloating, constipation, and hemorrhoids to skin conditions and bad breath.
Naturopathic websites will be quick to assure you that a quick burst of lemon juice, apple cider vinegar, or burdock root will help you flush out 10 pounds of waste just sitting in your colon.
What does a coffee enema do for you?
Touted coffee enema benefits follow the same premise; they claim to detoxify the liver, boost energy levels, and heal chronic conditions.
There’s no science to back up coffee enema benefits. It’s all made up.
Most of the “evidence” used to back up coffee enemas come from personal anecdotes and unfounded claims. It’s lacking to say the least.
When researching the safety or benefits of coffee enemas, you’re likely to quickly run into mentions of The Gerson Therapy. This philosophy is based on the work of Dr. Max Gerson, a German doctor who treated cancer patients through unconventional methods and dietary therapies.
Gerson died in 1959, but his outdated and dangerous practices live on. The Gerson Institute actually recommends downing 13 cups of carrot-apple and green-leaf juices prepared hourly from 15 pounds of produce daily with three fully plant-based, organic meals, a whole host of supplements, and up to five coffee enemas daily. Totally realistic, right?
Despite the medical advances, the new research, and the wealth of knowledge that we have gained since Dr. Gerson’s time, people actually continue to willingly follow this regimen.
For a small fee of $5,500 a week, you can stay at the Gerson Clinic and participate as well! Just book the next plane ticket to Mexico or Hungary (the only places the radical therapy is actually allowed) and you’re all set!
There are no coffee enema benefits while there are risks.
Let’s look at some of the claims behind coffee enemas and why you might want to put the syringe down.
1. Coffee enemas can be dangerous.
As you can imagine, injecting fluid into your rectum without medical supervision can lead to some less-than-desirable consequences.
What are some of the dangers of coffee enemas?
- Anal tearing from inserting the enema into the rectum
- Bacterial infections from reusing enemas
- Burns from use of hot liquid
- Electrolyte imbalances or dehydration from overuse of enemas
- Constipation due to weakened bowel muscles from long-term enema use
There are several published case studies on some of the adverse effects of coffee enemas. One case study by Kim et. al details how a 27-year-old woman went to the hospital with lower abdominal and anal pain after administering a hot coffee enema to relieve constipation.
She was found to have a rectal perforation from a benign stricture caused by—you guessed it!—the coffee enema.
2. Coffee enemas don’t lead to a “healing” anti-inflammatory response.
In 1891, a scientist named William B. Coley injected a patient with sarcoma with bacterial streptococcal cultures. After undergoing a severe skin rash, the tumor became necrotic and the patient was free of disease for eight more years. The concoction used in the experiment became known as “Coley’s toxin” and it’s been illegal for use outside of clinical trials since 1963.
Proponents of Gerson therapy believe that once the body is detoxified by the coffee enema, the body will set off a generalized non-bacterial inflammatory reaction, which will kill off any cancer cells (but not any of the healthy cells, don’t worry).
A critique by Saul Green analyzing the rationale behind coffee enemas noted a few key points:
- The types of cells and mediators that are involved in inflammation have been shown to cause death and injury to normal cells, not just the harmful cancerous ones.
- Many metabolic changes also occur: muscle glycogen breakdown increases, fat metabolism is suppressed, and lactic acid production goes up.
- Septic shock, organ damage, hemorrhaging necrosis, and generalized tissue wasting can also occur in the process.
- Plus, as Green points out, many of those metabolic changes that are associated with the “nonbacterial inflammatory healing process” could also be attributed to the development of cancer in the first place.
Most importantly, there’s simply no evidence for the claims that coffee enemas (or other “detox’ regimens) will set off some sort of anti-inflammatory healing process that will selectively rid the body of harmful cells.
3. Coffee enema benefits don’t actually include detoxification.
The concept of needing to cleanse the body of toxins originated way back in ancient Egypt with a concept called “autointoxication.” They believed that the decaying process associated with feces could be circulated throughout the bloodstream, causing illness.
The ancient Greeks believed that the toxins from bile, phlegm, and blood could contribute to disease in the same way. A build-up of waste meant a humoral imbalance that would need to be flushed out with enemas or laxatives.
Somehow, this (literally) ancient way of thinking still exists. People drop some serious cash to “cleanse” their body with all kinds of things, not realizing that our body is perfectly equipped to do that on its own. Only detox diet plans are scams.
Our built-in detox system includes the kidneys, the liver, the skin, the intestines, and lungs. These organs work hard to filter and excrete waste to prevent build-up in the body. You don’t need either coffee enemas or any arbitrary clean eating rules to “detox.”
Coffee enemas are supposed to help stimulate the liver and the gall bladder to get bile flow going and remove all those toxins and poisons from the body. Except that this concept doesn’t quite pan out physiologically.
According to Green, about 95% of the bile in the small intestine is returned to portal circulation and the liver before even reaching the colon.
Getting rid of all those built-up toxins through the bile just doesn’t make sense, especially because any “poisons” would just end up getting absorbed into the bloodstream and circulated through the body.
4. Coffee enemas don’t treat cancer.
In 1958, Gerson published his rationale for his regimen along with the results from 50 of his cases. He claimed that following his radical diet plus administering frequent “detoxifying” coffee enemas would flush out toxins and cure cancer. This certainly helped give the coffee enema movement some traction.
The only problem is that his therapy wasn’t nearly as effective as he alluded.
A study conducted in 1983-1984 reviewed the outcomes of patients who underwent Gerson Therapy. 38 patients were in the study, but 20 were lost to follow-up. 17 of the 18 remaining patients had died after five years while one patient was alive but not disease-free. The mean survival rate was nine months from the beginning of the trial.
But what about the purported antioxidant effects of coffee? Some research indicates that coffee could have some beneficial effects, like increasing glutathione levels and protecting against DNA damage, which could potentially equate to an anti-cancer effect. It seems like the benefits of coffee might not apply when it’s coming from the other direction, however.
A randomized crossover study published in Human & Experimental Toxicology didn’t find any benefits of coffee, regardless of whether it was from a mug or a syringe. They looked at the antioxidant effects of coffee consumed orally compared to coffee administered through an enema.
For the oral coffee group, coffee was consumed twice daily over 11 days while the enema group was given coffee enemas three times weekly over six visits. Neither group showed any beneficial effects on glutathione (an antioxidant) or malondialdehyde (a marker of stress) levels throughout the study. Interestingly, serum levels of trolox equivalent antioxidant capacity, which measures antioxidant strength, was reduced in both groups.
5. Coffee enemas have no added benefits over saline enemas.
Despite the hype you’ll hear about apple cider vinegar, green tea, or other “cleansing” ingredients, there are no added benefits compared to a normal saline enema.
Don’t get me wrong…traditional enemas are incredibly useful in treating constipation and keeping you regular. But expecting a shot of coffee in a syringe to cure cancer is a little excessive.
Naturopaths may recommend enemas for pretty much anything.
I turned to Britt Hermes, a former student of naturopathic medicine, who’s now doing a Masters in science in biomedicine, about her experience in the classroom as an up and coming naturopath.
Here’s her response:
“When I attended Bastyr University, naturopathic medicine students started learning Hydrotherapy (water healing) in our first year of studies. In my first hydrotherapy course, students learned that, according to naturopathic philosophy, there are many clinical indications for enemas.
Some examples include using enemas to treat high fevers, even in children, enemas for fanciful detoxification, for allergies, for digestive complaints, autoimmune diseases, chronic illness, and so on. Essentially, an enema was always a good idea, unless the patient was suffering from a severe gastrointestinal disease, such as colon cancer. However, our professors provided us with caveats to the rules of giving enemas to patients, making the enema guidelines fluid.
Naturopaths believe our colons become saturated with toxins that make us sick as part of our bodies failing us, which is not based in science but is a fiscally savvy medical scam.
Enemas flush money down the drain, not toxins.”
Bottom Line: You’ll be better off without a coffee enema.
Seriously, stick to drinking rather than, hmm, inserting the coffee in your rectum. And if you were to do it, don’t do it “for health.”
Our body is equipped with the filtration system we need to “detox” and keep out contaminants. That means there’s no need to shell out tons of cash or inject yourself with questionable substances in the name of health. If you do need an enema, a saline one will work just fine.
Dr. Gerson was right about one thing: nutrition and our food choices absolutely make a difference when it comes to our health. However, food is not always medicine and coffee enemas can be dangerous.
What are your thoughts on coffee enemas? Have you heard about their ‘benefits’ before? Leave a comment below.
Kim S, Cha JM, Lee CH, et al. Rectal perforation due to benign stricture caused by rectal burns associated with hot coffee enemas. Endoscopy. 2012;44 Suppl 2 UCTN:E32-3.
Green S. A critique of the rationale for cancer treatment with coffee enemas and diet. JAMA. 1992;268(22):3224-7.
Teekachunhatean S, Tosri N, Sangdee C, et al. Antioxidant effects after coffee enema or oral coffee consumption in healthy Thai male volunteers. Hum Exp Toxicol. 2012;31(7):643-51.
Gerson M: A Cancer Therapy: Results of Fifty Cases and The Cure of Advanced Cancer by Diet Therapy. San Diego, Calif: The Gerson Institute, 2002.