Go for Natural Laxative Relief, But Best If Not From Senna or Cascara

Q. Mynatural laxative contains the herbs senna and cascara sagrada. Are theyeffective and safe?

A.Effective, yes, as anyone who has ever taken them can attest. They are safe,however, only for occasional, limited use. Long-term use of either of these twopotent laxative herbs is not recommended for anyone.

Natural, But Not Gentle.Senna (Cassia senna or Cassia augustifolia) and cascara sagrada (Rhamnuspurshiana) are found in many laxative, digestive and “coloncleanser” products, such as Senokot, Ex-Lax, Naturalax, NaturalSwiss Kriss Herbal Laxative, Health Plus Super Colon Cleanser andSwedish Bitters. Classified as “stimulant” herbs, senna andcascara contain compounds called anthraquinones, which stimulate bowelcontractions’sometimes too fast or too intensely. Senna, in particular, cancause severe cramping.

Chronic use (more than seven days) of such powerfulstimulant herbs can cause fluid and electrolyte losses, especially if cardiacmedications, diuretics or corticosteroids are also taken. Moreover, chronic usecan destroy bowel tone, making you dependent on them for normal bowel function’similarto what can happen with pharmaceutical laxatives.

You should definitely avoid these herbs if you arepregnant or nursing (they also increase uterine contractions) or if you have anyinflammatory condition of the intestines, intestinal obstruction or undiagnosedstomach pain. Other stimulant herbs to use with care are aloe juice (not to beconfused with aloe gel, used externally), rhubarb root, buckthorn bark andcastor oil.

Better Natural Choices. Farsafer for chronic constipation relief are bulk-forming fiber supplements, suchas psyllium, flaxseed, pectin, agar, karaya and guar gum, which promote the body’sown natural mechanism for elimination. These plant fibers swell when consumedwith adequate fluids, softening stools for easier passage and stimulating bowelmovement with their large bulk. They also help support healthy intestinal flora.Psyllium’the ingredient in Metamucil?is particularly effective. Othernatural laxative ingredients to look for on labels include wheat bran, oats andfructooligosaccharides.

EN?s Bottom Line. ENrecommends first trying a bran cereal every morning before you resort to fancypowders and potions. The combination of bran, fluids and exercise usually provespotent enough for most people. For prolonged constipation, see a doctor.

Finding Natural Relief

  • Eata fiber-rich diet (25-35 grams a day) that includes bran, dried plums (see EN on Foods), dates and figs. Increase fiber gradually to avoid gas pains.
  • Drinkat least six to eight cups a day of fluids, especially water.
  • Exerciseregularly; walking does wonders for regularity.
  • Considera bulk-forming agent like psyllium. Follow fluid recommendations; anyone who hasproblems swallowing should use extra caution.
  • Avoid stimulantherbs like senna and cascara, except as a last resort, and then never for morethan one week.

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