Identification: The cascara tree is usually from 15 to 20 feet in height. The rather thin leaves are from 2 to 6 inches long and about 1 to 3 inches wide, somewhat hairy on the lower surface and rather prominently veined. The small, insignificant greenish flowers are produced in clusters and are followed by black, 3-seeded berries of a somewhat insipid taste. The bark has a somewhat aromatic odor and an extremely bitter taste.
Habitat: Sides and bottoms of canyons from the
Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, extending north into British America.
Family: Rhamnaceae (Buckthorn family)
Other Names: Cascara sagrada, sacred bark, Purshiana bark, persian bark, chittem bark, California buchthorn, cascara, bearberry-tree, bearwood.
Parts Used: The bark collected during the summer. The collecting season opens about the end of May and closes before the rainy season sets in, as bark collected after exposure to wet weather is difficult to cure properly. The strips of bark after removal from the trees are dried in such a way that the inner surface is not exposed to the sunlight, in order to retain its yellow color. Cascara bark must be aged at least one year before it is used.
History: Cascara sagrada is a natural laxative made from the reddish-brown bark of a tree (Rhamnus purshiana) native to the Pacific Northwest. It was used by various Native American tribes, who also passed their “sacred bark” on to Spanish explorers (cascara sagrada means sacred bark in Spanish).
Other European settlers were also quick to adopt this traditional remedy for constipation and other discomforts. But it was not formally used in western medicine until 1877, when the pharmaceutical producer Eli Lilly & Company introduced “Elixir Purgans,” a popular product containing cascara as well as several other laxative herbs.
Today, numerous over-the-counter laxatives feature cascara sagrada as a key ingredient. Because it’s so mild, the herb is frequently combined with stronger laxatives, such as aloe vera latex. To work properly, the bark must be carefully prepared–cured for at least one year or heated and dried to speed up the aging process. Aging is essential because the fresh bark is very irritating to the gastrointestinal system, causing vomiting and intestinal spasms.
Constituents: Cascara bark is high in hydroxyanthraquinone glycosides called cascarosides. Resins, tannins, and lipids make up the bulk of the other bark ingredients. Cascarosides have a cathartic action, inducing the large intestine to increase its muscular contraction (peristalsis), resulting in bowel movement.
The basis of Cascara’s laxative effect is the presence of a mixture of anthraquinones, either free (aloe-emodin) or as sugar derivatives (glycosides). The free anthraquinones remain in the intestines and cause catharsis by irritating the intestinal wall. Those anthraquinones present in the plant as sugar derivatives are largely absorbed from the intestine, circulate through the blood stream, and eventually stimulate the nerve center in the lower part of the intestine, which causes a laxative effect.
Properties: Purgative, bitter tonic.
Main Uses: Cascara Sagrada is a mild laxative, acting principally on the large intestine. It is considered suitable for delicate and elderly persons, and may with advantage be given in chronic constipation, being generally administered in the form of the fluid extract.
It acts also as a stomachic tonic and bitter, in small doses, promoting gastric digestion and appetite.
Treat hemorrhoids and anal fissures -. Combined with conventional measures to soften the stool (plenty of dietary fiber, water, and exercise), occasional use of cascara sagrada preparations may prevent the pressure and pain associated with hemorrhoids and anal fissures (cracks in the skin near the anus). In fact, by speeding up bowel movements, hemorrhoids are also less likely to develop.
Preparation & Dosages:
Cold Infusion: 2 to 6 ounces.
Tincture: [1:5, 50% alcohol], 1 to 2 teaspoons.
Fluid Extract: [1:1, 50% alcohol] 1/2 to 1 teaspoon.
Liquid extract: 1 teaspoon three times a day or 1 or 2 teaspoons at bedtime; or 1 or 2 capsules of dried bark at bedtime.
Because long-term use of any laxative can make your body lose critical fluids and salts (especially potassium) and lead to chronic diarrhea or weakness, limit your use of cascara sagrada to one or two weeks. Habitual use of cascara sagrada can cause dependence on laxatives.
Some people develop crampy gastrointestinal discomforts with cascara sagrada; lower your dose if this happens and stop taking it altogether if the uncomfortable sensation persists.
Don’t use cascara sagrada continuously for more than two weeks.
See your doctor if constipation lasts for more than one week.
Never ingest fresh cascara bark, which is extremely irritating and can cause severe vomiting. The bark must be stored for a year or more and be specially treated before it’s safe to use. Instead, stick with standardized commercial cascara products (capsules, tablets, powders).
Avoid cascara sagrada if you have an inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, or if your doctor has diagnosed an intestinal obstruction of any kind.
Unless your doctor recommends it, don’t take cascara sagrada if you are pregnant or breast-feeding; its effects on the fetus and infant are unclear.