A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.
Cassia senna syn. Senna alexandria
The senna plant is a small shrub belonging to the Caesalpiniaceae family. Incidentally, the senna belongs to two genus of Cassia - C. senna also known as Alexandrina senna, and C. angustifolia that is also called the Tinnevelly senna. While the first variety of senna is found along the Nile River in Egypt and Sudan, the second type is widely cultivated in southern and eastern parts of India. It may be noted here that some experts are of the opinion that both the varieties of senna belong to a single species - Senna Alexandrina. Despite such claims, it may be said that the two varieties of senna differ greatly both according to morphology (structure of the plants) and histology (tissue study). Hence, the theory that senna belongs to one single species is yet to get the pharmacognosists' sanction.
C. senna is imported from Egypt and sold in the market as Alexandrian senna. Basically, the senna is a small shrub that is native to North Africa and grows in abundance all over the region. The shrub normally grows up to a height of three feet and has light green stalks. The plant bears grayish-green colored leaves that are very delicate. In addition, the herb bears oblong shaped pods or fruit cases. The leaves as well as the pods of the plant have therapeutic use.
Basically, the senna leaves that are used for medication are dried leaflets belonging to these two species of Cassia. Initially, the Arabs are said to have introduced senna into European medicine during the 9th or 10th century. For ages, senna has been used as a potent cathartic or purgative. Several scientists and researchers are of the view that the senna possesses this property owing to the apparent presence of elements and compounds such as dianthrone glycosides (1.5 per cent to 2 per cent), main sennosides A and B along with minor quantities of sennosides C and D and other intimately associated amalgams.
Senna and its preparations are available in various forms over-the-counter. While taking senna capsules and tablets are considered safe, the herb may also be consumed in the form of tea prepared with one or two teaspoonfuls of the dried herb. However, it is advisable not to use the tea often as it is not easy to fix the dosage of such inconsistent preparations. As senna is known to be a potent laxative, an overdose of the herb may result to sudden and intense stomach and abdominal pains. Owing to such unwanted hazards, consumers usually prefer capsules, tablets and other standardized forms of senna available with directions to use. In addition, such products are often blended with aromatic herbs that help to diminish the sickening as well as irritating consequences of the herb.
Incidentally, a number of popular laxative products comprising phenolphthalein as a major ingredient have been taken off from the market following reports that the substance was found to have some link with cancer in mice. Ever since, the drug manufacturers have developed new laxative products with senna as their main ingredient. Unlike any other tea that helps in bowel movement, senna is a potent cathartic and hence cannot be taken in excess dosages. Even regular consumption of senna or for that matter any anthraquinone for more than 10 days at a stretch may lead to excessive exasperation. Insistent abuse of the herb may also lead to electrolyte disorders and discrepancy in fluid presence in the body owing to loss of potassium. At the same time, excessive use of senna may also obstruct or strengthen the activities of the cardiac glycosides. Hence, it is advised that one should carefully read and follow the instructions on the labels of this important and potent medicine.
Senna has a particular quality, perhaps possessed by no other herb. Hence it is important to bear in mind that if you are suffering from intense constipation and your bowels are awfully blocked and there is nothing that you may find that will work, use senna. Senna is a potent purgative and will clean the bowels soon. In a lighter vein, it may be said that senna is equivalent to the dynamite and has the potential to throw out even the most solidified and hard feces within a few hours of taking the herb adequately. However, while using senna one must keep in mind that the herb is a very potent purgative and any excessive use of it may lead to sudden and intense stomach as well as abdominal pains. Since, the herb may also result to abdominal cramping; it is advisable to take senna with cinnamon.
The best way to take the herb is to ingest four capsules prepared from the senna extracts along with three capsules of cinnamon with a glass full of canned milk, goat milk or even soybean milk. This is supposed to be the safest and most effective way for the elderly people to get rid of their insistent constipation and they may very well expect the desired results within a few hours of taking the herb. Alternatively, one may take a cold tea prepared with the senna leaves and fruits. To prepare the tea, add one teaspoonful of dried senna leaves and fruits along with one teaspoonful of cinnamon bark to one pint of boiling water. Seethe the substance for approximately five minutes in a covered vessel. Next allow the senna leaves and fruits to permeate in the liquid for another 20 minutes. Filter the liquid and drink two cups of the tea daily for effective results.
Going by the records, the Arabian physicians were the first to utilize the therapeutic properties of senna in the 9th century A.D. Primarily, the herb has been used to treat constipation and is best to use when you require a soft stool. The best use of senna is in anal fissure or a pathological division in the anus. The herb is also an effective laxative if taken for a limited period. Physicians advise that taking senna for more than 10 days at a stretch my lead to the deterioration of the large bowel muscles.
Here is another word of caution from the herbalists. If senna is taken as a cathartic or very strong purgative that empties the stomach, it may lead to sudden and intense stomach pains and colic or abdominal pains. Hence, it is advisable to always take senna combined with herbs that are aromatic and help in relieving flatulence or colic by expelling gas. This aids in calming the intestinal muscles.
The herb is known by several other names, including Alexandrian Senna and Rajavriksha. It may be mentioned here that while Cassia senna is indigenous to the tropical climatic zones in Africa and is commercially grown in Egypt as well as in Sudan, Cassia angustifolia is a natural herb in India and is commercially cultivated in India as well as neighboring Pakistan. Only the leaves and the pods of the herb are therapeutically useful. Although the leaves of the senna plant possess high laxative properties, regular use of the substance may lead to a binding effect or some kind of addiction.
The leaves as well as the pods of the senna plant form important ingredients of several laxative medicines that are sold over the counter in the drug stores. According to records, natives of northern parts of Africa as well as the southwestern regions of Asia have used senna as a laxative for hundreds of years. Owing to the herb's cathartic or heavy purgative effect, senna was also known as the ‘cleansing' herb. Besides these advantages, herbalists often prepared a paste with the senna leaves and applied it externally on skin to cure acne, ringworms as well as other skin problems. In addition, senna is said to be a very strong purgative and needs to be taken with utmost care and caution.
Senna is a potent cathartic or purgative that is mainly used to cure constipation. The herb works by invigorating muscle contractions in the intestines. Chemical analysis of senna has revealed that the herb contains anthraquinone glycosides such as sennosides, aloe-emodin and rhein, flavones, tartaric acid, beta-sitosterol, mucin, essential oils, resin and tannin. Sennosides present in senna aggravate the lining in the large intestines resulting to peristaltic action or the contraction of the intestinal muscles and eventually leading to exodus of the bowels. In addition, albeit for a short term, senna is also useful in preventing the fluid present along with the ingested food to be soaked up by the large intestine and this helps in keeping the stool soft and subsequently alleviating constipation.
Since senna is a very strong purgative that may lead to stomach and abdominal pains, it is generally used with herbs that are aromatic and carminative (something that relieves flatulence or colic by expelling gas). For instance, it is always advisable to take senna with herbs like cardamom, peppermint, ginger root and fennel to enhance the herb's delectableness. According to the history of the herb, it has also been used to treat provocative skin conditions, hypertension as well as to control weight.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
Senna is indigenous to the tropical climatic regions in Africa, but is now grown all over the continent. The herb is propagated from its seeds as well as cuttings. While the seeds are sown in spring, the best time to propagate the herbs from the cuttings is summer as it requires adequate sunlight. The leaves of the herb are picked either before or during the blossoming of the plants. The ripened pods of senna are harvested during autumn.
Several researches conducted on senna during the last five decades have led the scientists to have a clear understanding of the action of the herb. Studies have shown that the sennosides cause irritation in the lining of the large intestine. This leads to a strong contraction of the muscles and subsequent bowel movements approximately 10 hours after taking the medication. The sennosides also prevent the absorption of liquid from the large bowel and hence help the stool to remain soft.
The herb or its extracts may be taken in several forms - capsules, tablets, and decoction as well as tea. A number of people take capsules and tablets prepared from the senna extract to alleviate constipation. Normally, capsules and tablets containing 10 mg to 60 mg of sennosides are taken daily for a period of 10 days. However, it is not advisable to continue using the medication for more than 10 days. In case there is no relief from constipation even after taking the medication for 10 days, one should consult a physician for necessary actions. In addition to this, consuming a mint tea prepared with the herb is effective for curing cramps. While the dose for the adults is 10 mg to 60 mg of senna daily for 10 days, children above the age of six years may be administered half the adult dose. However, the herb should never be given to children below the age of six as it may prove to be detrimental. It is best to take senna after consulting a physician.
Side effects and cautions
Senna should never be used at a stretch for more than 10 days as it has a tendency to make the colon dependent on it for proper functioning. In fact, regular use of senna may also lead to loss of liquids, poor potassium intensity as well as diarrhea. These in turn may cause dehydration and negative consequences on the heart as well as the muscles. If used under the supervision of a physician, use of senna can be safe even during pregnancy and lactation. It may be mentioned here that use of senna is safe for children above the age of six, but should not be administered to children below that age.