Herbs for Health: Gentle Natural Laxatives

Laxatives plants can offer gentle relief

| August/September 1996

  • Cascara sagrada
  • Psyllium
  • Senna
  • A harvest of garlic
  • Garlic (Allium sativum)
  • Cascara sagrada
  • Cascara sagrada
  • Lemon
  • Green tea

For centuries, people have turned to psyllium, cascara sagrada, and senna to provide relief from constipation. These plant-based laxatives, available in health food stores and pharmacies, can help during those times when even eating plenty of fiber, drinking plenty of liquid, and exercising regularly haven’t helped you avoid this annoying problem.

However, because constipation can be a sign of a more serious health condition, laxatives should be used only with a health-care provider’s guidance if you are taking prescription drugs or are allergic to medications, are pregnant or diabetic, have abdominal pain or have recently had abdominal surgery, or have noticed a dramatic change in your bowel habits.


Psyllium, including the seeds and husks, is derived from three annual species of Plantago (plantains). P. ovata, native to the Mediterranean, North Africa, and western Asia, is ­widely grown in India and Pakistan. P. psyllium and P. indica (both also known as P. arenaria) are native to the Mediterranean region and grown commercially in Spain and southern France.

In older references, psyllium is referred to as P. ispaghula. Use of psyllium seed comes to us in part from Persian traditions of a thousand years ago. In Persian, ispaghul means “ear of a horse”: the seeds, 1/8-inch long ovals with a distinct depression in the center, resemble horses’ ears.

Psyllium seeds are a common ingredient in bulk-forming laxatives, which have a mechanism of action similar to the body’s normal process of evacuating the bowels. Psyllium seeds and husks are high in mucilage and, when soaked in water, swell to many times their original volume. Psyllium thus increases the volume of the intestinal contents, stretching and lubricating the gut wall and encouraging wastes to move through the colon.

A typical daily dose is 2 teaspoons of powdered seeds or 1 teaspoon of husks stirred into a large glass of water and taken immediately (before it thickens) 30 minutes to an hour after a meal. Follow the label instructions on commercial bulk-forming laxatives.

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