Cascara sagrada, also called California buckthorn, bitter bark, or sacred bark, has been used since the 16th-century by Native American tribes and later by settlers, as a natural laxative. This unique ingredient is still known today for this potential health benefit. So where does cascara sagrada come from? Could it make a difference to your health? Read on to learn more! (1)
What is Cascara Sagrada?
Cascara sagrada (Rhamnus purshiana) is a species of buckthorn tree native to northwestern America along the Pacific coast from California north to British Columbia. The Rhamnus purshiana evergreen tree is part of the Rhamnaceae family. It can grow 19-32 feet tall. Its flowers are hermaphroditic (having both male and female organs) and are pollinated by insects. The tree grows best in moist sandy, loamy, or clay soils, either in a semi-shady area or in full sun. (2)
The dried bark of cascara sagrada is used medicinally in capsule, powder, or extract form to naturally stimulate the gastrointestinal tract for a gentle laxative effect. It is available as a dietary supplement in natural health food stores for short-term treatment of constipation. It is also believed to help support overall digestive health, colon health, and liver health. In addition, its dried bark extract (with the bitterness removed) is a common flavoring for soft drinks, baked goods, and ice cream. (3)
Cascara sagrada shouldn’t be confused with cascara (or qishr, as it’s called in Ethiopia), the dried coffee cherry skin often used in cascara tea.
How it Works
Cascara sagrada is used for its bark, which contains several important compounds including resins, tannins, and lipids. Tree resin contains a mixture of organic compounds, specifically terpenes. It tends to be viscous or extremely tacky, gummy, or glue-like. (4) Tannins, also called tannic acids, refers to astringent compounds used chiefly in tanning leather, dyeing fabric, making ink, and in various medical applications. They are normally found in tree bark. (5) Lipids are organic compounds such as fatty acids or oils that provide energy storage capabilities for living organisms and contribute to the structure of cell membranes. (6) Lipids also help protect plants against dehydration and pathogens. They carry electrons, and help with the absorption of light. Plant lipids are especially important to the food, medical, and manufacturing industries. (7)
However, the main active ingredients in cascara sagrada are anthraquinones, which are chemicals that react with intestinal bacteria to stimulate the bowels. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, anthraquinone derivatives and their glucosides, referred to as cascarosides, are the active components in cascara sagrada that give it its color and stimulate the large intestine to contract, resulting in bowel movement. (Similarly, the active ingredients found in senna plants are also anthraquinone glycosides.) These chemicals inhibit reabsorption of electrolytes and water from the colon and may cause abdominal cramping. (8) That’s why it’s important to drink lots of water to stay hydrated during a cascara cleanse. Fresh cascara sagrada bark may trigger vomiting, so it is not typically used in herbal formulations unless it is dried for one year prior to use. (9)
Cascara sagrada bark is typically removed, diced, and dried for up to one year to reduce its potency for easier digestion and use by the body. The dried bark is boiled and strained for use in herbal remedies to stimulate bowel muscle contractions for elimination support. (10)
Brief History of Cascara Sagrada
Cascara sagrada has been used as a natural laxative by Native American tribes since the 16th-century and later by Spanish explorers and Mexican priests. (11) West Coast Indians used cascara sagrada as a medicine by making a tea out of the tree bark and using it as a remedy for gonorrhea. (12) In 1890, cascara sagrada was recognized by Western Medicine when the U.S. Pharmacopoeia approved it as a natural stimulant laxative. (13) It is now widely accepted as a mild and effective treatment for constipation.
Cascara sagrada was formerly approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a safe and effective ingredient in over-the-counter laxatives, but this designation was removed in 2002 because of a lack of supporting evidence. That means it is no longer regulated as a drug and is instead considered a natural dietary supplement. The FDA regulates dietary supplements as foods, rather than pharmaceutical drugs, since they include natural products that are combined in a supplement. (14, 15) However, cascara sagrada is not deemed harmful under most circumstances.
Potential Health Benefits of Cascara Sagrada
Cascara sagrada has a purgative, cleansing, and tonic effect. It is most commonly used as an anthraquinone stimulant laxative for bowel cleansing. It comes in oral tablets, capsules, powders, and syrup. It can also be prepared as a tea or an aromatic fluid extract. (16)
How Do Bowel Movements Work?
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, digestion begins in your mouth when you eat or drink something. The food travels to the stomach, where it is broken down into smaller compounds such as nutrients, fluids, and fats, some of which the body uses, stores, or eliminates. The last stop in the movement of food through your digestive tract is in the bowels, also called the large intestine. Whatever is left over after your digestive system (stomach, small intestine, and colon) absorbs nutrients and fluids from what you eat and drink ends with you going to the bathroom. When you defecate, your stool (also known as feces or poop) passes out of your body through the rectum and anus. (17)
However, sometimes bowel movements aren’t normal. “Diarrhea happens when stool passes through the large intestine too quickly. Constipation occurs when stool passes through the large intestine too slowly. Bowel incontinence is a problem controlling your bowel movements. Other abnormalities with bowel movements may be a sign of a digestive problem.” (17)
Constipation (functional bowel disorder) is defined as “straining; hard or lumpy stools; a sense of incomplete evacuation; a sense of anorectal obstruction; the need for manual manoeuvres; or fewer than three defecations per week in the previous three months with an onset of symptoms longer than six months.” (18)
Constipation (uncomfortable or infrequent bowel movements) is one of the most common gastrointestinal complaints all over the world, resulting in over two million reported cases annually. (19) Chronic constipation has been reported in 15% to 25% of the general population, affecting people of all genders, ages, cultures, and ethnicities. (20) A natural laxative such as Cascara sagrada may temporarily relieve the bowels during constipation. (21)
Common Herbal Laxatives
“The most frequently used laxative herb is cascara sagrada. Senna, the second most frequently used one, is actually a purgative; it is stronger and harsher (only 1 cup of the tea daily). Other laxatives include aloe vera, licorice root, psyllium seed, wahoo bark, and dandelion root (when there is liver involvement). They can be combined or taken individually. Some herbal laxatives like cascara and senna, operate by purging the bowels; others (such as psyllium seed, flaxseed, and agar agar) provide a soft gel-like bulk that slides it out. During fevers, these laxative herbs help cool the system by eliminating heat from the intestines.” (22)
Other natural, healthy ways to relieve constipation and encourage normal bowel movements include regular physical activity, lowering your exposure to stress, staying properly hydrated, eating naturally fibrous fruits and vegetables, and taking digestive enzymes or probiotics to support digestive health.
The Ayurvedic Perspective
The Journal of International Medical Sciences Academy (JIMSA) reports on the symptoms and remedies of constipation from an Ayurvedic point of view (see below). (23) Ayurveda is a holistic “whole body” healing system developed more than 3,000 years ago in India that focuses on a balance between the mind, body, and spirit. (24)
Constipation - Symptoms from an Ayurvedic Point of View
- Vata dosha symptoms - Browning of the tongue, flatulence, tough stools, and digestive issues
- Pitta dosha symptoms - Yellowish stools, followed by a burning sensation in the anus during defecation
- Kapha dosha symptoms - Heavy colon, white stools, bad breath, flatulence, lethargy, and poor digestion
Types of Constipation
- Casual or temporary: caused by indigestion, overeating, contaminated food or bacterial infection
- Chronic or habitual: caused by loss of tonality in sphincter muscles; common in the elderly or people suffering with piles or hemorrhoidal tissues
Ayurveda Diet to Relieve Constipation Naturally
- Eat fresh and organic fruits, leafy and green vegetables, whole grain bread
- Avoid fried foods, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, nuts and dry fruits
A daily dosage of 20–30 mg capsules or a liquid tincture of 1/4–1 teaspoon (1–5 ml) per day of cascara sagrada may be taken to maintain soft stool and regular bowel movements. However, follow the instructions on the package for the correct dose. To avoid dehydration, it’s also important to drink eight 6-ounce (180 ml) glasses of water a day. (25)
Disclaimer About Cascara Sagrada
Do not take Cascara sagrada supplements longer than one week. Long-term use may result in a loss of vital electrolytes such as potassium and could lead to heart abnormalities. Other side effects of long-term use may include diarrhea, cramps, dark stool, or liver injury. (26)
“Use of cascara with a diuretic such as uva ursi or caffeine can cause dehydration and a loss of electrolytes (potassium, magnesium, and calcium). If this mineral imbalance is not corrected, it can cause muscle weakness and dangerous disturbances of heart rhythm.” (27)
Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and children under the age of 12 should not use cascara sagrada. It is important to discuss possible cascara supplementation with your healthcare practitioner prior to use, because certain medications may interact with the supplement.
Laxatives and Weight Loss
Cascara sagrada is a laxative (for soft, loose stool) and a cathartic herb (to induce bowel movement and make defecation easier). It should not be used for weight loss. Unfortunately, “stimulant and cathartic laxatives are the most commonly abused laxatives and have the potential for causing long-term damage.” (28)
It’s important to understand that taking laxatives is not a normal or healthy way to lose weight. There are much safer, proven, and healthier ways to maintain a healthy weight through diet, exercise, and dietary supplementation. Download and read the free 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (8th Edition), published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture, to learn how to improve your overall eating patterns. (29) Then track what you eat and your level of physical activity using the USDA’s SuperTracker online tool. (30) Taking Cascara sagrada for digestive and bowel movement support is just fine, but not for weight loss.
Should You Try Cascara Sagrada?
Whatever way you decide to incorporate Cascara sagrada into your health routine, you’ll find a number of options at Natural Healthy Concepts. We’d love to help you choose which Cascara sagrada supplement is right for you! Start your shopping experience at NaturalHealthyConcepts.com. (31)