There are over 400 Cassia, or Senna, varieties, but the most common medicinal varieties (Senna angustifolia, Senna alexandrina, Senna acutifolia) are from Northern tropical Africa, India, Egypt, and parts of the Middle East. Alexandrian Senna is a north African shrub in the Fabaceae family that grows between two and five feet tall. It has pale green stems with alternate, evenly pinnate lanceolate leaves that are often brittle and grayish green in color. It bears small yellow flowers with spreading claw-like petals, which mature into oblong legume pods. An american variety is found in the richer soils of the Eastern United States and is sometimes known as American senna or locust plant. It has round, sometimes glaborous stems with evenly pinnate leaves on long petioles. It bears a raceme of yellow flowers that mature into a legume pod. The leaves are collected in spring and summer while the pods are harvested in the autumn. Senna typically grows as a small perennial tree or large shrub, preferring well watered soils with good drainage in partially sunny to sunny areas.
Leaves and seedpods, leaves being the most potent.
Senna is a cathartic (a very strong laxative), diuretic, and vermifuge. It’s chemical constituents, sennosides, irritate the lining of the large intestine, causing the smooth muscles to contract. This causes a bowel movement 10-12 hours after ingesting. Sennosides also prevent fluid from being reabsorbed back into the intestines, keeping the stool soft and passable. It’s most often used to treat constipation, and is sometimes used in treating obesity and hypertension. It can also be used as a mouthwash for halitosis and bad breath. It is a strong purgative, and can cause bowel griping and pain if not used in combination with stomachic herbs such as ginger or fennel seeds, or if taken in too high a dose. It is stronger than turkey rhubarb but can cause more irritating side effects.
Often used for fasting and cleansing, several varieties of senna leaves and pods have been used historically to cleanse and stimulate the lower digestive tract and to expel intestinal worms. The herb was first recorded medicinally by Arabic physicians in the 9th century AD. In Indian medicine, it is known as Rajavriksha, the king of the trees, and is sometimes used for inflammatory skin conditions and bronchitis as well as constipation.
Flavor Profile and Energetics
Bitter, cooling, sweet, pungent, decreases Pitta and Kapha, increases Vata
As an infusion for American Senna, 1 tsp of dried leaves to one cup of hot water, steeped for half an hour before bed. If individual is very sensitive to herbs, steep for fifteen minutes. For African Senna (most commonly available),1 tsp of leaves or ground pods per cup of hot water before bed. Another variety, Tinnevelly Senna, is less potent and dosages should be slightly increased, depending on severity of the constipation. A good recipe is 1 senna pod, 1 gram of ginger, 1-2 cloves infused for 15 minutes in 1 cup of hot water. Sip 1/4 cup at a time. As a tincture, 1-2 dropper-fulls should be taken 3 times a day. Drink plenty of water while taking senna. Do not take straight for more than ten days.
Senna should be combined with other soothing carminative herbs to lessen it’s griping effects on the digestive system and lower bowels. Some helpful herbs are ginger, licorice, mint, cardamom, and fennel.
Senna should not be used by individuals with hemorrhoids or bowel inflammations due to irritation. Pregnant women and children under 12 should avoid. Regular or excessive use of purgatives such as senna can cause laxative dependency, weakening the tone of the bowels and the colon.
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