Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRNReviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT
A morning cup of coffee is a must-have for those who rely on caffeine to get their day going. However, many people also find their morning cup of coffee literally causes them to “go” to the bathroom and have a bowel movement. The same principle is applied by those who use coffee enemas to empty their bowels.
Coffee enemas are an alternative medicine technique that does not have a significant amount of research to back it up. Additionally, there are potential side effects that can often outweigh the benefits.
While coffee enemas may be an option for some people wishing to relieve constipation or prepare for a procedure, doctors do not typically recommend them.
What is a coffee enema?
An enema is a practice that involves inserting liquid into the rectum to relieve constipation or to prepare for a procedure to look at the bowel.
Long-standing constipation can be very uncomfortable and harmful, leading to a possible small bowel blockage and even a hole in the bowel.
People have used a range of substances for an enema. Most commonly, a person will use water, mineral oil, or water with a small amount of soap added to it.
However, some people have tried enemas using other liquids, including coffee. Coffee enemas are reported to have unique health benefits, but can be quite dangerous if used incorrectly or too often.
There are also some components in coffee that are said to offer health benefits. A compound in coffee called cafestol palmitate is said to stimulate the activity of an enzyme called glutathione S-transferase, which opens up the bile duct in the liver. This helps to release more bile from the liver to break down food components and improve digestion.
Three other components of coffee – theobromine, theophylline, and caffeine – are said to widen blood vessels and the bile duct even more, which boosts the flow of bile.
Evidence for and against the use of coffee enemas
Several studies have been carried out to investigate the use of coffee enemas.
Researchers divided the study’s 34 participants into two groups. The first group received a coffee enema plus polyethylene glycol and the second group received just polyethylene glycol.
The researchers found there was no difference between the two groups in terms of visibility of the first portion of the small bowel. However, the doctors found that visibility of the middle and lower segments of the small intestine was better in the participants who had been given the coffee enema.
The 60-year-old woman had used a traditional preparation of 2 tablespoons of roasted, ground coffee mixed with 1 liter of water. She cooled the water and used the mixture as an enema. After about 24 hours, she began to experience rectal bleeding and pain.
The authors pointed out that coffee enemas had also caused reported cases of death due to electrolyte imbalances as well as bacterial infection after frequent coffee enemas. They concluded by saying “Coffee enema has no proven benefit and carries considerable risk of provoking unwanted complications.”
There is a lot of conflicting research regarding coffee enemas. As a result, doctors do not recommend them as an alternative method when preparing for a procedure. There are commercially prepared enemas that are available and much safer for bouts of occasional constipation.
Steps of a coffee enema
People should always speak to a doctor before undergoing a coffee enema to ensure they don’t have any health risks that could keep them from successfully performing it.
The number one rule to remember when preparing a coffee enema is that the liquid should never be hot. Liquids at room temperature will not burn, while hot coffee will and this can be especially devastating to delicate rectal tissue.
The following steps can be used to perform a coffee enema.
- Brew 2 tablespoons of coffee in a 1-liter mixture of distilled water. The coffee can be brewed in a traditional coffee maker that makes about 4 cups of 8-ounce coffee. There should be no grounds left in the coffee.
- Allow sufficient time for the coffee mixture to cool to room temperature. Never use hot or even warm water for the enema.
- Place towels down on a bed, couch, or other area where the person can lie on their left side to instill the water. Being close to the restroom will be helpful as the person may need to use the restroom urgently.
- Instill the coffee mixture into the rectum using an enema system. These can often be purchased at the drugstore. Most have a water bottle with tubing attached that is inserted into the rectum.
- A person may wish to use a water-based lubricant on the edge of the tip to ensure ease of insertion.
- Instill as much of the 1-liter coffee/water solution into the rectum as possible. The entire solution may not go in, and it should not be forced in.
- The solution should be held in the rectum for 10 to 15 minutes. Enemas are most effective when held for this amount of time. Afterwards, a person should try and go to the bathroom.
- A person may have to repeat the enema a few hours later if they did not experience significant results from the first one.
Risks and considerations
It is important not to repeat an enema procedure too often as repetitions can cause a person to lose a significant amount of electrolytes, which are important for maintaining fluid balance in the body.
Prolonged diarrhea from constant enemas can also lead to harmful electrolyte imbalances, and a person who experiences this should seek medical attention.
Because not a lot is known about the potential long-term benefits or risks related to a coffee enema, many doctors are unlikely to recommend it. Potential risks, such as irritation to the intestines, allergic reaction, injury, and electrolyte losses, can result in severe health issues.
The availability of other options in terms of enema components, such as plain water or soap-suds enemas, may make them the preferred option for occasional constipation.
However, relying on enemas instead of trying to have a bowel movement without assistance can affect the intestines and may make it harder to go without using enemas in the future.
If a person has difficulty going to the bathroom regularly, it’s important that they seek medical attention to determine if an underlying medical condition exists that could be treated.
What is Gerson therapy?
Gerson therapy is an approach to healing developed by German-American physician Max Gerson, who lived from the late 1880s to mid-1950s. Gerson advocated the use of coffee enemas along with a plant-based diet as a means to heal and detoxify the body.
Today, the Gerson Institute, which is dedicated to continuing his medical research, keeps his ideas alive. Dr. Gerson saw coffee enemas as a means of detoxifying the body of “poisons” living in the tissues and body.
According to a paper from the Gerson Institute, coffee enemas have the following benefits:
- Boosted energy cell production
- Better tissue health
- Boosted blood circulation
- Improved immunity
- Enhanced cell growth
In addition to coffee enemas, Gerson therapy also involves eating a diet high in potassium, yet low in sodium. Dr. Gerson believed this dietary approach could repair damaged cells and potentially even fight cancerous cells by correcting tissue damage.
Most doctors and naturopaths will discourage people from trying coffee enemas. Over-the-counter enemas are a safer option.
Coffee enemas are being studied for their alternative treatment uses for some types of cancer. People should always let their doctor know about any complementary or alternative therapies they are considering using. Some of these therapies can interact with a doctor’s treatment plans.
Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN, CCRN