What are Senna Laxatives?

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  • Written By: A. Gabrenas
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 19 February 2019
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Senna laxatives are medications derived from the leaves and seed pods of senna plants. They come in a variety of forms, including non-prescription preparations taken by mouth and dietary supplement teas. These laxatives help stimulate the intestines to produce a bowel movement and may be recommended for people who are constipated or undergoing certain medical procedures that require an empty colon. Due to their stimulating effects, these laxatives can have some side effects. In addition, they may not be recommended for use by certain people.

There are many different species of senna plants. Those used to make senna laxatives primarily include Cassia acutifolia and Cassia angustifolia. The laxative properties of these small, shrub-like plants come mainly from the leaves and seed pods. Depending on the preparation, the leaves and pods themselves may be used, or the active ingredients desired may be purified from them.

Use of senna laxatives dates back many hundreds of years to when healers in what is now the Middle East created laxative teas by steeping senna leaves in water. Today, these laxatives can still be found in this form, often touted as a dieter’s tea. They can also often be purchased as non-prescription powders and pills made from the purified plant. Like teas, non-prescription senna laxatives are also usually taken by mouth.


These laxatives are often recommended by health-care providers as a treatment for occasional, short-term constipation or to help evacuate the bowels before certain diagnostic procedures, such as a colonoscopy or sigmoidoscopy. They work by irritating the large colon, which stimulates smooth muscle contractions and the movement of fecal material in the intestines. In addition, they can help pull water into the intestines, which further facilitates the movement of fecal material. Together, these actions usually help produce a bowel movement within about six to 12 hours after ingestion of the senna.

Due to the fact that senna laxatives are a stimulant laxative, they can cause some side effects. The most common of these is stomach cramping, which is a result of the senna compound irritating the large colon. When used regularly over long periods of time, more serious side effects may occur, including an inability to have a bowel movement without taking a laxative and loss of muscle mass.

The use of senna laxatives may not be recommended in certain people. For example, they are generally contraindicated for use in people who are known to have a bowel obstruction. In addition, their use during pregnancy is often cautioned, and pregnant women are generally advised to consult with their personal health-care providers to determine whether the benefits outweigh the risks.


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