Cascara sagrada is an herb with laxative effects that has a long history of use in Native American medicine. It is made from the bark of the Rhamnus purshiana, a type of buckthorn shrub native to western North America, spanning parts of British Columbia and the northwestern United States. While cascara sagrada has been a popular ingredient in over-the-counter medications for over 10 years, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned its use in over-the-counter products in 2002 because of inadequate data concerning its toxicity.
The name cascara sagrada is Spanish for "sacred bark," and the herb is also commonly called chitticum bark. The bark of the Rhamnus purshiana is gray or brown and splotched. The plant can grow up to 50 feet (15 meters), but is usually 16 to 33 feet (5-10 meters). It has shiny green leaves, tiny yellow-green flowers, and berries that mature from bright red to purple or black.
Cascara sagrada must be dried and aged for at least a year before it can be used medicinally. Ingesting fresh bark can cause vomiting or bloody diarrhea. The herb's active ingredient is anthroquinones, which induce peristalsis, or muscular contractions, in the colon. It may be taken in capsule or liquid extract form, or the dried bark can be used to make tea. 300 mg is a standard dosage of cascara sagrada, and it is usually taken at night to induce a bowel movement in the morning, as it takes six to 12 hours to have an effect.
If you live in an area where cascara sagrada is available, be aware that its safety has not been confirmed by the FDA and that it should be taken with caution. Cascara sagrada is not intended to be taken long term and can in fact cause dependence; do not take it for more than seven days in a row. Children and pregnant women should not take cascara sagrada, and it is also dangerous for people suffering from Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, diverticular disease, severe hemorrhoids, blood vessel disease, heart disease, severe aenemia, liver or kidney disease, congestive heart failure, abdominal hernia, appendicitis, gastrointestinal cancer, or recent colon surgery.
Some side effects of cascara sagrada include abdominal cramps, electrolyte imbalance, and melanosis coli, a dark discoloration of the colon. Excessive use can cause bloody diarrhea or vomiting. If you experience such symptoms after taking cascara sagrada, discontinue use and contact your doctor. Long term use of cascara sagrada has been linked to abnormal growths in the colon called adenomas and cancer.