Failure to regularly eliminate waste from the bowels can result in toxins accumulating in the body and lead to complications including hemorrhoids, anal fissures, rectal prolapse or fecal impaction. Constipation can be caused by a variety of factors, such as insufficient fiber and high amounts of fat in the diet, not drinking enough fluids, lack of exercise, or certain types of medication. Aging, pregnancy and changes in routine, such as traveling, can also affect regularity of bowel movements. Natural laxatives are helpful to relieve occasional constipation.
The simplest natural laxatives are oils that lubricate the bowels. Olive oil and castor oil have long been used as natural constipation remedies. Eating fruit such as prunes or drinking prune juice can also help to relieve constipation.
Herbal Bulk Laxatives
Bulk laxatives act by moistening the bowels to relieve dryness, and by increasing fiber. Always drink plenty of water when taking bulk laxatives. Common bulk laxative herbs include:
* Psyllium seed- The tiny seeds of the fleawort plant, Plantago psyllium, contain high amounts of mucilage that absorbs water and expands, lubricating the intestine and creating bulk that stimulates elimination. Psyllium seed is considered to be one of the safest laxatives.
* Flaxseed- The seeds of the flax plant (Linum usitatissimum) are about the size of sesame seeds. Finely ground flaxseed can be added to food to increase the amount of fiber in the diet. To use flaxseed, start with a small amount, and gradually increase up to about 2 tablespoons per day.
Purgatives are herbal laxatives that contain anthraquinone glycosides, compounds that soften stool and stimulate peristalsis in the intestines. These herbs are very potent laxatives and may cause cramping or griping, and should be combined with warming carminative herbs such as anise, fennel or ginger to balance their effect. Purgatives include:
* Rhubarb root- In addition to being an effective laxative, rhubarb root also has astringent properties that help to tone the intestines and improve digestive health. Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) known as Da huang, is a stronger laxative than its American counterpart (Rheum rhaponticum), but has less potent astringent properties.
* Cascara sagrada- A member of the buckthorn family, the dried, aged bark of cascara (Rhamnus purshiana) is used as a laxative. Cascara also stimulates the production of bile and helps to strengthen and tone the intestines. It should not be used for extended periods of time, and should be avoided by those with Crohn’s disease, IBS, or other intestinal disorders.
* Senna- The leaves of the senna plant (Cassia angustifolia) are widely used as a laxative. Senna is stronger than cascara; it should be used at low doses, and not longer than 2 weeks to avoid dependence. It should not be used by those with undiagnosed abdominal pain or inflammatory diseases if the GI tract. Senna can also interfere with absorption of medications.
* Aloe vera- Not to be confused with aloe gel, well-known for its healing properties when applied externally for burns or other skin ailments, the outer layer of the aloe vera leaf is a potent laxative. Known as aloe latex, aloe sap or aloe juice, this part of the aloe plant contains different constituents than aloe gel. Similar to senna, aloe is a strong purgative that should be used sparingly and with caution.
It is inadvisable to take these or any laxatives on a long-term basis, because they can become habit-forming, and worsen the problem. Purgatives should be avoided if you are pregnant or nursing. This information is for educational purposes only. If you have a health concern, consult a qualified medical practitioner.
Hoffman, David. Medical Herbalism. Healing Arts Press, 2003.
Duke, James A. The Green Pharmacy Herbal Handbook. St. Martin’s Press, 2000.