Castor oil has been used for centuries in traditional folk medicine practices but can it actually help relieve constipation?
What is castor oil?
Castor oil is simply a vegetable oil made from the castor bean (or technically the castor seed) and is a colourless, very pale yellow liquid with a mild, or with no odour or taste.
So how does castor oil help constipation?
Castor oil in the treatment of constipation can be used in one of two ways:
- A castor oil pack – created by soaking a cloth in castor oil and applying topically to the affected area
- Oral medication – 15ml a day, measured using a special measuring device/cup to ensure effective dosage is administered. It can also be taken with juice if preferred, to allow for easier consumption.
A castor oil pack, when placed on the skin, is thought to enhance circulation and promote healing to the affected area and therefore, when placed on the stomach, can improve digestion and may relieve constipation symptoms.
Castor oil, when taken orally, is broken down in your small intestine into something called ricinoleic acid that stimulates movement of the intestines, also known as peristalsis, and may help to move the stool along, preventing build-up or constipation.
But is it an effective remedy?
There has been one small study that looked at the effects of castor oil packs on elderly patients who suffered with constipation, some of whom had been affected for at least 10 years. They monitored the results over a period of seven days and found that, in short, castor oil packs may be used for controlling symptoms of constipation such as reducing the need to strain and the feeling of complete evacuation after a bowel movement.
There is currently no research against castor oil in the treatment of constipation, and any negatives appear to be either around its side effects, or that it can be toxic if used long-term or in too high a dose.
What are the side effects of castor oil?
Usually these side effects will fall into one of two camps: skin reactions or gastrointestinal upset. These tend to occur either because you are sensitive or allergic to castor oil or because the dose is too high.
Side effects include: skin rashes, shortness of breath, diarrhoea, cramping and nausea.
It is always best to speak to your GP before self-administering castor oil to ensure that it is right for you and doesn’t interact with any medications that you are currently taking.
Please note: DO NOT use castor oil if you are pregnant as it may induce early labour, or if you are breast-feeding.
Should I take castor oil for constipation?
If you did want to try castor oil to help relieve your constipation, it should only be used as a short-term remedy as, apart from the side effects listed above, it can also affect fluid loss from the body when used for more than a week (which is also a side effect of over-the-counter laxatives as well).
Personally I would advise that you speak to your GP before trying castor oil as all evidence, apart from the small study I mentioned above, is anecdotal and whilst it may be effective for some, it may also cause problems for others.
I would try other alternative natural remedies first, which you can read about here in ‘Natural Remedies for Constipation’, before trying castor oil as they may be more effective and carry less risk.
Images from WikiHow.com, Guardian.co.uk and WisdomHouseNY.com