What Are the Medical Uses of Cascara?

Megan Shoop

Cascara sagrada, or sacred bark when translated from Spanish, is a tree native to northwestern North America. It features dark green, glossy, oval leaves and dark red bark. According to historians, Native Americans harvested and dried the bark, then steeped it in warm water. The resulting tea was drunk for a number of digestion disorders, especially constipation. The Spanish term for cascara was coined when Spanish explorers made their way into California. The native tribes shared this bark with these explorers and word of its medicinal benefits began to spread.

Proponents of cascara bark say that it helps relieve constipation.
Proponents of cascara bark say that it helps relieve constipation.

Generally, cascara cannot be used fresh. The glycosides, or digestive stimulants, in fresh bark are not very concentrated. For this reason, the bark is usually dried for at least a year before use. This is likely why the Native Americans harvested it each year, so that by the time each season’s supply was ready to be harvested, last year’s supply was ready to be used as medicine. Those harvesting their own cascara bark must make sure the trees in their area are not legally protected. Many online shops also sell dried bark that’s ready to be made into tea.

Cascara may help relieve feelings of abdominal discomfort.
Cascara may help relieve feelings of abdominal discomfort.

Proponents of cascara bark say that it helps relieve more than just constipation. The glycosides in the treatment are supposed to help tone and strengthen the bowel, soothing upsets due to a weakened digestive system. A stronger bowel often means the body is better able to break down and process food. This not only helps the patient experience less constipation, it also helps relieve excessive flatulence, bloating, and abdominal discomfort. It is so effective as a laxative that many pharmaceutical companies use cascara bark in their medicines.

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Those who choose to use this treatment as a tea, rather than in pharmaceutical medicine, should only do so under the direction of a doctor. A physician can provide guidelines for how much of the tea to take and how frequently one must take it. To make it, about a spoonful of shredded bark should be added to a cup of boiling hot water. The tea should steep for about 10 minutes, then be strained and sweetened as the patient likes. Honey is especially nice because it often has digestive benefits as well.

Pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding should not use cascara because it can cause diarrhea in infants. Children should generally be fed prunes or other laxative foods in place of cascara because this medicine can be hard on young bodies. Those who have frequent digestive upset should speak to their doctors before trying this treatment.

Pregnant women should not take cascara.
Pregnant women should not take cascara.

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