Colon cleansing is not a typical dinner-party topic. Most people don't like talking about what's in their large intestine while enjoying chips and dip. But by now you'd think we'd be comfortable with the subject of keeping our bodies clean, both inside and out; it's nothing new. Ancient Egyptian papyri mentioned basic forms of colon hydrotherapies, and the third-century Essene Gospel noted, "And he who cleanses himself without, but within remains unclean, is like a tomb that outward is painted fair, but is within full of all manner of horrible uncleannesses and abominations."

Today, many health experts recommend colon cleansing not just as a remedy for illness but also as a safe and comfortable way to keep your healthy body in tip-top shape. "I think just about everybody can benefit from a colon cleanse," says Evan Fleischmann, ND, a naturopathic physician in northern New Jersey and in New York.

The colon's job
The colon, part of the large intestine, is probably best understood as the body's trash can. This is where the body removes liquid from digested food, called chyme, and stores the resultant waste until it passes. But just as your kitchen trash can needs rinsing out every now and then, many believe our internal wastebaskets need regular cleaning.

Consider this: The colon can store up to 25 pounds of food waste, says Fleischmann. "To properly break down the nutrients that we need and move them through the gastrointestinal tract in an orderly fashion, the lining of the gastrointestinal tract needs to be healthy and clean," says Fleischmann. "When chyme sits in the large intestine for a long period of time, bacteria start to grow." If not cleared out, this residual food refuse and bacteria in the colon can lead to digestive disturbances, a weakened immune system, and excessive toxins in the body, according to Fleischmann. Constipation, gas, irritable bowel syndrome, heartburn, food sensitivities and allergies, persistent colds and flu, arthritis, acne, chronic fatigue, and memory lapses are common conditions associated with a clogged-up colon.

Although colon cleanses have been used for centuries to help prevent these problems, the conventional medical community has yet to fully embrace such treatments. The Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research in Rochester, Minnesota, maintains that the colon efficiently eliminates waste without additional help. Even cleansing advocates such as Fleishmann caution that people with bowel obstructions or gallstones or those recovering from intestinal surgery should not undergo colon cleanses. Also, people should undertake all treatments under the supervision of their health care practitioner.

For the vast majority of his patients, however, Fleishmann says colon cleansing remains a safe way to treat or prevent illness or is a key component of a regular detoxification program. "It's always best to check in with a naturopathic physician to determine which cleanse is best for you and to ensure you will get the results you want," he adds. To get started, read on for a breakdown of the most effective ways to clean out your, ahem, trash can.

Lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and olive oil
How to do it. Sure, these three foods may not be your preferred breakfast of champions, but they help stimulate your digestive tract as well as your immune system. Add the juice of a whole fresh lemon, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and a healthy amount of cayenne pepper to 8 to 10 ounces of water, and drink the mixture in the morning for one to four weeks.

Why it works. As well as spicing up chili, cayenne pepper heats your body internally, increasing circulation and helping the immune system attack bacteria stored in the colon. Olive oil stimulates the gall bladder and liver, causing them to work double-time to eliminate toxins in your body. And lemon juice may draw more water into the colon, creating a laxative effect. As your body removes additional waste, you can expect increased stool volume.

Best for. This mild treatment is perfect for someone new to colon cleanses or who already eats healthy, balanced meals. You also can use this drink as a regular tune-up program if you've gone through a more comprehensive cleanse. Increased bowel movements are usually not as dramatic as those associated with other treatments; the detox process is often more gradual.

Fiber shakes
How to do it. Drink a mixture of 1 tablespoon of bentonite clay, 1 teaspoon of psyllium seed husks, 2 ounces of your favorite juice, and 14 ounces of water. Wash down the shake with another 16 to 32 ounces of water and possibly an additional mild herbal laxative (see "Herbs and Supplements for Colon Health" below), to ensure the bentonite and psyllium seed husks flow freely through your system. Perform the regimen once a day for a week. If you want a more intense cleanse, Fleischmann says you can slowly increase your intake to two or three shakes a day and up to 2 tablespoons of bentonite and 2 teaspoons of psyllium seed husks per shake.

Why it works. The bentonite absorbs waste and toxins in the colon, and the psyllium seed husks act like a broom, gently scraping the large intestine clean. You'll likely start experiencing more bowel movements and increased stool volume.

Best for. A good choice if you're looking for a more complete cleanse. If you're embarking on a weight-loss program, the bentonite and psyllium seed husks help eliminate toxins released from body fat as you take off unwanted pounds. Consider taking the shakes a few hours after dinner; otherwise the fiber can bind with recently eaten food and supplements, increasing flatulence and reducing nutrient absorption. Even better: Drink the shake right before bed. It will do its work while you sleep, and you'll be ready for a healthy elimination in the morning. While on this cleanse, be sure to drink adequate amounts of water to keep the fiber flowing through your system. Also, this regimen can aggravate gallbladder problems, especially gallstones.

Herbs and supplements
How to do it. Herbal laxatives, such as cascara sagrada (Californian buckthorn, Rhamnus purshiana), rhubarb, and magnesium hydroxide, also help move things along in your body. Depending on the supplement, take these laxatives either as pills or as teas one to three times a day (see "Herbs and Supplements for Colon Health", below).

Why it works. These herbs stimulate and draw water into the gastrointestinal tract, which in turn helps to flush out your colon.

Best for. Herbal laxatives work best as relief for short-term constipation, as opposed to a treatment for long-term constipation or as the central component of a comprehensive colon cleanse. Although these supplements are usually less concentrated and powerful than prescription or over-the-counter laxatives, and therefore less debilitating, they can still lead to cramps, embarrassingly frequent bowel movements, and, if taken for too long, dependency. Take these herbs for short periods of time, such as once a day for a week, and start out with low dosages to see how your body reacts.

Colon hydrotherapy
How to do it. This popular approach involves introducing warm, sterile water to the colon via a rectal tube, all under the supervision of a qualified health care provider. After a typical 40-minute treatment session, Jennifer Vitaro, ND, who does colon hydrotherapy at her Denver-based practice, recommends patients take a probiotic supplement to replenish any beneficial bacteria that might have been flushed out of the body. She suggests a minimum of two sessions to help clean out the colon, but many patients opt for a more comprehensive program that involves five or so sessions over a 21-day period.

Why it works. The water softens intestinal waste, which is then expelled via the rectal tube or through normal bowel movements.

Best for. Hydrotherapy cleanses only the colon; fiber shakes and other like treatments clean out both the large and small intestines. Still, some people prefer hydrotherapy to fiber shakes or other oral treatments, because they eliminate immediately and so do not have frequent bowel movements at inopportune times. Because colon hydrotherapy is an unregulated profession, Vitaro recommends finding a therapist accredited through the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy (www.i-act.org) and who uses disposable rectal tubes and equipment registered through the Food and Drug Administration.

Moving on
These treatments alone don't promise a healthy colon, Fleischmann notes. While undergoing cleanses, eat simple meals of fresh vegetables, fruits, and fish, drink plenty of liquids, and get lots of rest to "let the whole system reset," he says. After cleansing, he advises sticking to a diet that includes a variety of vegetables and fruits, fiber-rich whole-grain products, and 2 to 3 liters of water a day. That way, not only will you be taking out the trash, you'll also keep less trash from coming in.

Boulder, Colorado-based freelance writer Joel Warner is a fan of lemon juice, cayenne pepper, and olive oil, but prefers them on pasta.