Cascara sagrada (Spanish for “sacred bark”) is the bark of the California buckthorn, botanically known as Rhamnus purshiana. This 15 to 25 foot-high tree grows in the western United States, from Idaho west to California and north to Alaska. Its name came from the Spanish priests who acted as doctors to their parishioners in the days when the western territories still belonged to Spain. Originally used by the Native Americans, cascara sagrada was quickly adopted by these priests and other settlers who boiled it for several hours in order to use it as a tonic and laxative.
Cascara bark is collected in spring and early summer, when it is easily peeled from the wood. It is dried in the shade and aged for at least a year, and up to three years. Its effects improve with age. The uncured bark is a violent purgative and an emetic (induces vomiting). The aged bark mellows in action.
Cascara sagrada continues to be used today as a stimulant laxative. It contains anthraquinone glycosides, compounds that are not absorbed in the small intestine, but travel to the colon unabsorbed. In the colon, the action of intestinal bacteria removes the sugars from the glycosides, creating compounds that inhibit the absorption of water and electrolytes from the colon. This softens and bulks the stool.
Other compounds in cascara stimulate local prostaglandin production and contribute to the cathartic action. The laxative action takes place about six to ten hours after taking it, so the best time to take cascara is before bedtime. This promotes a normal bowel movement in the morning.
Starting in the late 19th century, cascara was marketed by a pharmaceutical firm as a laxative and eventually became one of the most popular herbal medicines in the world. Today, derivatives of cascara are ingredients in many over-the-counter laxatives. One article estimated that doctors write out over 2.5 million prescriptions each year for products that contain it.
Obviously, cascara is primarily used as a laxative, but it does have other effects. It stimulates bile flow from the gall bladder and digestive secretions from the pancreas, so it has been used, usually as part of a formula, for sluggish digestive, liver and gallbladder function. It is also used for expelling parasites.
Cascara is considered gentler, and less habit-forming, than other anthraquinone-bearing laxatives, such as senna and aloe. However, like other anthraquinone-bearing herbs, cascara can also cause intestinal cramping in some people, which is why it is often combined with antispasmodic herbs in laxative formulas.
Although some herbalists have taught that cascara is not habit-forming at all, experience shows that people can become dependent on cascara when it is taken habitually. In addition, long-term use of cascara can result in a depletion of electrolytes (since it inhibits their absorption) and increased dehydration of the body (because the body absorbs too much water from the stool because the person isn’t consuming enough water to stay properly hydrated).
Cascara can also stain the colon black when taken over long periods of time. This is because it contains a black dye. However, there are no harmful effects from this.
The bottom line is that cascara sagrada, like any other stimulant laxative, should not be taken for extended periods of time, as habitual use will end up weakening the colon. It should be reserved for cleansing programs and occasional constipation. People need to learn the underlying reasons for constipation and change them, rather than becoming dependant on laxatives for constipation in the same way that many people are dependent on painkillers for headaches.
Cascara is an important ingredient in NSP’s All Cell Detox, Bowel Detox, BP-X, CleanStart, Enviro-Detox, Herbal Pumpkin, LB Extract, LB-X, LBS II and SF.