How to Help People Stay Regular Without Laxatives

Many years ago, I remember Ed Bashaw telling people that if they went to several “experts” for nutritional advice each “expert” would tell them different things. He was right, of course, and his solution to this “problem” is the same as mine—“Learn all you can but trust yourself. Learn what works best for you. It may not be right for anyone else, but if it works for you, that's great!”

It's very good advice. Don't take anyone's opinion as gospel truth, even mine. Nothing makes me more nervous than people who act like Steven Horne can do no wrong. The fact is, that I've been wrong plenty of times, and from time to time, I've had to “unlearn” things I thought I knew.

One of the things I had to “unlearn” was about stimulant laxatives like cascara sagrada. I first learned about cascara sagrada from Ed Millet, who had worked with Dr. John Christopher. Both of these men believed that cascara acted as a tonic to the colon and was not habituating. So, I actually taught this myself for a while, until I started to observe people who couldn't “go” without taking stimulant laxatives.

Cascara is one of several herbs that contains anthraquinone glycosides.  These compounds are yellow-brown dyes found in herbs like cascara, buckthorn, turkey rhubarb, the green part of the aloe vera leaf, butternut bark and senna.  Plants which contain anthraquinone glycosides are helpful for occasional constipation.  Acted upon by intestinal bacteria they increase peristalsis and inhibit water and electrolyte absorption in the intestines. This results in a laxative or purgative action.

Anthraquinone-bearing herbs are great for doing colon cleanses when combined with fiber and other herbs to tone the bowel, clean out the liver and lymphatics and aid kidney function.  They are also important to use as part of parasite cleansing.  They stimulate bile flow to help digest fats and can be helpful for relieving fevers and acute congestion.

Contraindications of Laxative Herbs

However, anthraquinone laxatives do have some contraindications.  First, they should be used with caution with people with inflammatory bowel disorders as they can cause diarrhea.  They should also be used with caution during pregnancy and while nursing.  The pregnancy warning is erring on the side of caution, as I have used these herbs safely during pregnancy and so have many herbalists and midwives.  However, there is some concern that the “downward” energy of these herbs might interfere with pregnancy.  The caution with nursing is real, however, as the anthraquinones are passed into the breast milk and can cause diarrhea in infants.

Stimulant laxative are also not a good choice for extremely weak and depleted people.  Like anything which works by stimulation, they actually can exhaust the bowel to a certain degree, causing the colon muscle to become weaker.

My favorite herbalist, Samuel Thomson, didn't seem to rely on laxatives for cleansing. In fact, he didn't think it was a good idea. He said, “Physic [laxatives] I would by no means choose, to have you first or last to use; for if you use it much in course, it will disorder reinforce.” Also, we just had this discussion on Herbal Hall, the professional herbalist news group, and all the professional herbalists in the group felt the same way about laxative herbs that I do.

Another contraindication for stimulant laxatives is spastic bowel conditions.  People with a tendency to spastic bowel can experience severe gripping (intestinal cramps) and pain with the use of anthraquinone laxatives.  I have a spastic colon and I had never taken cascara or any other laxative for anything but the occasional cleanse because I absolutely hated the taste of the herb, and not just because it's bitter. I don't mind goldenseal, which is also bitter. I assumed that if I hated the taste that much, it was my body's way of telling me it wasn't good for me. It's not that I haven't taken formulas containing laxative herbs (I have), but I've tended to use enemas or other approaches when I got constipated, and leave the laxatives alone except when I've been doing a cleanse.

Fortunately, the tendency these remedies have to cause cramping can be counteracted by the use of antispasmodic herbs.  Lobelia is a good choice, but kava kava works, too.  Another help for spastic bowel is magnesium.

There's one more caution I have about using stimulant laxatives on a regular basis.  I did mention that anthraquinones are a dye, didn't I.  Well, taken over the long term they dye your colon—black.  While there is no known harm in this, it does alarm many doctors when they do a colonoscopy. 

Now don't go misquoting me and saying that Steven Horne says Cascara Sagrada, Senna or other laxative herbs are bad. I don't think that at all. I don't think they are “dangerous” either. It's just that they are “band-aids” for the problem of constipation. So, just like I don't think that taking pain-killers is going to be a permanent solution to anyone's headaches, I don't think laxatives are a permanent solution to anyone's bowel problems. Both work, they just don't get to the cause. Remember that my favorite quote from Samuel Thomson is, “Remove the cause and the effect will cease.” If we want to really correct constipation permanently, we need to first find the cause.