Constipation is the difficulty in passing stools or the infrequent passage of hard, dry stools as a result of food moving slowly through the large intestine (Balch 2006). There are three different herbs that are used for constipation and they are Rhubarb Root - Rheum palmatum (Chinese Rhubarb), Senna - Senna alexandria and Flax - Linum usitatissimum.
Rheum palmatum has a purgative action that makes it very effective in the treatment of constipation (Hoffman 2003). This purgative effect is followed by an astringent effect and it means that the herb has a truly cleansing action upon the gut, as it first removes debris and then astringes the system with antiseptic properties (Hoffman 2003). Its constituents are anthraquinones (chrysophanol, emodin, aloe-emodin, rhein, sennosides A-E), tannins, stilbene derivatives; volatile oil; rutin, fatty acids, calcium oxalate (Hoffman 2003). The anthraquinones constituents stimulate peristalsis approximately 6-8 hours after ingestion (Tillotson, Tillotson & Abel 2001). Rhubarb Root has an advantage over other laxatives like the more powerful senna and its higher tannin levels tend to tighten the bowel after 14-18 hours (Tillotson, Tillotson & Abel 2001). It is important to have small doses of tannins from rhubarb root because large amounts of tannins can actually cause constipation (Tillotson, Tillotson & Abel 2001). Rhubarb Root has an effect that is rather mild and it takes a while to develop which can be taken for extended periods of time (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000).
Senna alexandria is powerful cathartic used in the treatment of constipation that works via stimulation of intestinal peristalsis (Hoffman 2003). Its constituents are anthraquinone glycosides (leaf: sennosides A-D, fruit; sennoside A and B and a closely related glycoside, sennoside A1); naphthalene glycosides (tinnevellin glycoside and 6-hydroxymusizin glycoside), miscellaneous: mucilage, flavonoids, volatile oil, sugars, resins (Hoffman 2003). Senna is recommended for treatment of temporary constipation (Hoffman 2003). The purgative principles in senna are anthraquinone glycosides (sennoside A and B) which act primarily in the colon (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). Senna leaflets and pods inhibit the re-absorption of electrolytes and water from the bowel (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). This increases the volume of intestinal contents and intestinal filling pressure which in turn induces propulsive contractions and stimulates intestinal motility (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). Higher doses of 2-4 grams work faster but often result in runny stools and abdominal pain (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000).
Linum usitatissimum which is flax a source of linseed is high in roughage materials such as hemicellulose, cellulose, lignin and fatty oils including 52-78% linolenic acid esters (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). It also contains protein as well as linustatin and linamarin (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). Linseed has both a lubricant and bulk-forming effects (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). Linseed gruel is a good bulk laxative that increases the volume of stool mass, causing a stretch reflex that stimulates intestinal peristalsis (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). The fatty oil provides additional lubrication for the larger stool mass (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). There is no danger of the side effects and it takes up to three days or more to achieve the laxative effect (Weiss & Fintelmann 2000). Linum usitatissimum is an excellent choice for long-term laxative administration.
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Balch, P. (2006). Constipation. In Prescription for Nutritional Healing (4th ed., p. 335-339). New York, NY: Penguin Group..
Hoffman, D. (2003). Materia Medica. In Medical Herbalism (p. 558, 577, 582-583). Rochester, Vermont: Healing Arts Press.
Tillotson, A., Tillotson, N., & Abel, R., Jr. (2001). Important Herbs From Around the World. In The One Earth Herbal Sourcebook (pp. 190-192). New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp.
Weiss, R., & Fintelmann, V. (2000). Chronic and Acute Constipation. In Herbal Medicine (2nd ed., pp. 89-99). Stuttgart, Germany: Georg Thieme Verlag.