Common Names

Cascara Sagrada , Buckthorn
Botanical Name
Rhamnus purshiana
RHAMNACEAE ~ Buckthorn Family

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What is it?

In herbal medicine, we use the reddish brown and distinctively bitter bark that comes from the shrubby, deciduous Cascara tree. The bark must always be aged at least a year before use as during this time chemical changes occur in the bark that reduce a kind of griping that would otherwise be certain and entirely unpleasant!




How has it been used?

Cascara has been extensively used as a laxative for millennia and it is thought to be the most widely used cathartic on earth. It was traditionally used by Native Americans and then the bark became known as the gentlest of the various stimulating laxatives that are available in herbal medicine.

Cascara has also been widely used when a soft stool needs to be guaranteed, such as when there are anal fissures or haemorrhoids.

Cascara may have great value when there has been a loss of tone in the rectum as can happen from certain types of diseases that affect the bowel or as a long-term consequence of an abdominal surgery.


Science on Cascara

~ No synthetic substance has been found to equal the speed and effectiveness of Cascara at emptying the bowel and it is marketed by many pharmaceutical companies in pills, powders and extracts. The basis for Cascara's action is the presence of a mixture of anthraquinones either free (e.g. aloe-emodin) or as sugar compounds (glycosides). The free anthraquinones remain in the intestines and cause catharsis by irritating the intestinal wall; the anthraquinones that are bound together with a sugar molecule are absorbed into the bloodstream and eventually stimulate a nerve centre in the lower part of the intestine that causes a laxative effect.

~ The chemical components of cascara also stimulate the organs of the digestive tract including the gallbladder, pancreas and stomach, which results in increased digestive fluids (de Witte, P. and Lemli, L. The metabolism of anthranoid laxatives. Hepatogastroenterology 1990;37(6):601-605)

~ Aloe-emodin, a constituent in cascara and aloe, has been reported to have antiviral activity in vitro (Sydiskis, R. J., Owen, D. G., Lohr, J. L., Rosler, K. H., and Blomster, R. N. Inactivation of enveloped viruses by anthraquinones extracted from plants. Antimicrob Agents Chemother  1991;35(12):2463-2466)

~ The authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of over 60 further studies and articles on Cascara are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Cascara

There is a definite concern with the overuse of Cascara that it can cause disturbances of electrolyte function that could lead to muscle weakness or a disorder of heart function. Some of the literature will talk about a staining of the bowel from its use but this has been determined to be harmless and soon reverses after discontinuing the herb.

The main worry with Cascara is that of developing a bowel dependency and many people who go on to use this herb on a regular basis do become dependent on it. The reason this in turn is a concern if if the bowel loses its own muscle tone and therefore becomes weakened.

The time the alarm bells should start ringing in this case is when, over time, more frequent or higher doses are required to get the same effect.

To balance this concern, it should be fairly stated that it would be far worse for a person to be exposed to the considerable toxicity (let alone the considerable discomfort!) of chronic constipation that it would be to have a dependency on a largely harmless herb.


Personal experiences

Few people are born with a faulty bowel but many go on to develop one. It is great to have this potent and effective herb on hand when it is needed and I have certainly had call to give Cascara many times over the years. For most people, the effects of Cascara will take about 8 hours to be felt but there are plenty of exceptions to this and it is very much a matter of personal experimentation to know when is the best time of day to take it. In any case, the herb should be completely eliminated from the system within 24 hours.

Dosage, as always, is the key to success with herbal medicine, too little and there won't be a satisfactory evacuation of the bowel, too much and there will be griping (uncomfortable spasms) and an over-stimulation of the bowel that leads to repeated needs to go to the toilet. To make things more complicated there is no one fixed dose of any therapeutic substance that is right for everyone! What is too much for one person may be too low for another.

From the tincture that we make in our own clinic, around 3-4 mls is usually ample to ensure a certain response without the danger of overdoing it however, some people need a substantially higher dose than this to get a certain effect and some people must take a much lower amount or they will suffer from some uncomfortable cramping in the bowel, one must be prepared to experiment. Plenty of Fennel seed is always added to the Cascara extract to reduce the chance of griping.

If a person is habitually constipated they need to 1) change their diet to reduce refined foods and eat more naturally, more about this here 2) move their bodies more and 3) use the important bowel herb Plantago, more here

Roy Upton's Parasite Treatment (copied here with his permission)

"When I was treating a lot of kids in the Virgin Islands my primary treatment was for 3 days:

~ Avoidance of high carb foods, milk, cheese, and sugars; lots of broth; chicken-vegetable soup
~ A handful of pumpkin seeds daily chewed very well.
~ 1 cup of fennel tea drunk throughout the day given at tablespoon doses at a time

~ On day 4 give a few drops of cascara fluid extract in warm water.

I seldom had to repeat this"

Roy Upton RH
Executive Director, American Herbal Pharmacopoeia


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Cascara is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Cascara can particularly offer its benefits when a cleansing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Excerpt; Historical notes on Cascara sagrada

Many of the 16th century Spanish explorers who first visited Northern California suffered terribly from constipation and the local Indians had a solution which was such a profound relief to those who were suffering that the Spanish named it Cascara sagrada -- Sacred bark.

The Spanish recognised Cascara as a relative of the powerful herb Buckthorn used in Europe since ancient times but when it was sent back to Europe it was seen that its effects were just as reliable but far gentler than that traditional remedy.

In 1877 a Detroit Eclectic Physician Dr J.H Bundy wrote in the popular press in praise of Cascara and as a result of his praises the pharmaceutical firm Parke & Davis made the first commercial preparation of Cascara for the general market. It has been one of the most popular herbal laxatives in the world since this time.


Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!



© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd