Senna (Senna alexandria)

Senna (Senna alexandria)

A Powerful Laxative

Fast facts: relieves constipation

During the ninth century, legend has it, the great caliph of Baghdad became dissatisfied with the medicines available in his court, particularly the laxatives. It seems they did more harm than good, causing severe abdominal distress. The caliph sent for a famous physician, Mesue the Elder, who brought new medicines to the court, including a “gentler” laxative, senna.

If senna was the gentler alternative, the caliph’s old laxatives must have been real gut-wrenchers. Senna is such a powerful laxative that it can cause cramping and abdominal distress if not used with caution.

“Like aloe, buckthorn and cascara sagrada, senna contains anthraquinone glycosides, chemicals that stimulate the colon,” says James A. Duke, Ph.D., a botanist retired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and author of The CRC Handbook of Medicinal Herbs.

It’s quite possible that you’ve taken small doses of senna without being aware of it. The herb is an ingredient in many over-the-counter laxatives, including Fletcher’s Castoria, Senokot, Perdiem and Innerclean Herbal Laxative.

Anthraquinone laxatives should be considered as treatment for constipation only as a last resort, says Anne Simons, M.D., assistant clinical professor of family and community medicine at the University of California’s San Francisco Medical Center. “First, eat a diet that’s higher in fiber, drink more fluids and get more exercise,” she recommends. “If that doesn’t provide relief, try a bulk-forming laxative.” One such laxative is psyllium (Metamucil). “If that doesn’t help,” advises Dr. Simons, “try ingesting the lubricant laxative mineral oil. And if that doesn’t provide relief, try an anthraquinone laxative in consultation with your physician.”

Senna is certainly effective, but most authorities consider two other anthraquinone laxatives to be gentler-buckthorn and cascara sagrada.

A Moving Experience Senna tastes awful. Herbalists generally discourage using the plant material and instead recommend over-the-counter products containing it. However, if you’re interested in trying the unprocessed herb, you can brew a medicinal tea from one to two teaspoons of dried leaves per cup of boiling water. Let steep for ten minutes. Add sugar, honey and lemon to taste. You can also mix it with pleasant-tasting herbs, such as anise, fennel, peppermint, chamomile, ginger, coriander or licorice. Drink up to one cup a day in the morning or before bed for no more than a few days. To take senna in capsule form, simply follow the package directions.

Senna should not be given to children under 2. For older children and people over 65, start with a low-strength preparation and increase strength if necessary.

Don’t, under any circumstances, be tempted to use more than these small amounts of senna. Larger doses can cause diarrhea, nausea and severe abdominal cramping, with possible dehydration. Senna’s powerful action means it should not be used by those with chronic gastrointestinal conditions, such as ulcers, colitis or hemorrhoids. Pregnant and nursing women should not take senna. And senna should never be used for more than two weeks, because over time, it can cause what’s known as lazy bowel syndrome — the inability to move stool without chemical stimulation.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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