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What is Senna Leaf?

Karyn Maier
Updated Feb 18, 2024
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Senna is a genus of desert flowering plants formerly known as Cassia spp. that consists of approximately 250 individual species now collectively known as the sennas. Generally speaking, senna leaf refers to an herb remedy obtained from Senna alexandrina. While many other senna species have a long historical use in folk medicine, S. alexandrina is the variety best known for treating constipation.

The purgative action of senna leaf is primarily due to the presence of organic anthraquinones in the form of various glycosides, including hydroxyanthracene, dianthrone, and naphthalene glycosides. Senna also contains a group of glycosides referred to as simply sennosides. These compounds stimulate the smooth muscles that transport digested food through the intestines, thereby contributing to enhanced stool volume and an increase in peristaltic contractions to move it out of the colon. These actions stem from two events: An increased production of acetate, proprionate and butyric short chain fatty acids to promote fermentation, or digestion; and the successful conversion of glycosides into a powerful purgative agent known as rheinanthrone.

Although senna is quite effective at relieving constipation, caution should be observed when taking it. First of all, it is powerful and fast-acting, usually taking effect within 10 hours of consumption. However, the herb can be irritating to the intestinal lining and cause excessive gas and abdominal cramping. For this reason, the effects of senna leaf are often tempered by combining it with various carminative herbs, such as peppermint, fennel, or ginger. Very sensitive individuals may find using preparations made from senna pods a better option since they are less potent than the leaf.

In addition to the potential side effects already mentioned, there are other precautions to consider. Senna should never be taken in conjunction with other laxatives, and never for more than ten days in a row. Doing so may lead to the colon becoming “trained” or dependent on laxatives. It can also cause a depletion of potassium and adequate fluids needed to stay hydrated, which can negatively affect tissues and muscles of the body, including the heart. In fact, it’s recommended that fluid intake be increased while supplementing with senna.

Senna leaf is taken in capsule or tablet form standardized to contain 10 to 60 mg of sennosides. Children may be given half of this dose, but the herb is not recommended for children under the age of six at all. A tea may also be prepared from the dried leaf or pods.

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Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to WiseGeek is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon927647 — On Jan 25, 2014

I got extremely painful cramps and diarrhea the second day after drinking super slimming herbal tea which contained the senna herb as a main ingredient. Note: Use this powerful herb with caution.

By indemnifyme — On Sep 19, 2011

@Azuza - I agree with you. However, I think it's important for people to still read the label and follow directions. So many people assume just because something is a "natural" remedy it can't hurt you or you can't overdose on it! Obviously this isn't the case.

That being said, I've taken senna before and I prefer the capsule to the tea. I just didn't really care for the taste, which is sad because I normally love tea. So I'm glad senna comes in a few different forms.

By Azuza — On Sep 19, 2011

I think senna leaf is a great natural alternative to other laxatives, when taken properly. Most laxatives aren't meant to be used for a long period of time anyway! As the article mentioned, there is a high risk of becoming dependent on them.

I would also like to point out that other laxatives cause cramping and gas also. I think I would prefer a natural remedy as opposed to a pill or something that causes the same side effects!

By kylee07drg — On Sep 18, 2011

My friend’s wife became dehydrated from using senna leaf. She suffered from constipation almost continuously, and once she found that senna leaf worked for her, she didn’t want to stop taking it.

On top of her new addiction to the herb, she hated to drink water. She drank mostly tea and cola, and the caffeine in both of these beverages further dehydrated her. She wound up in the hospital with an IV to deliver potassium and fluids to her parched system.

By Oceana — On Sep 17, 2011

I got some senna leaf tea bags, because I’m always afraid I might use too much of the herb if I make it from scratch. With the pre-measured amount enclosed in a little bag, I can rest easy that I’m not getting an overdose.

I drink one cup daily, even though the package said it’s okay to drink two. I put one bag in a coffee cup and boil six ounces of water. I pour it over the tea bag and steep it for three minutes.

When the time is up, I mash the tea bag with a spoon to release all the flavor. I add just a touch of peppermint extract for a good flavor and to soothe my stomach.

By orangey03 — On Sep 17, 2011

I am sensitive to many medications, so when I started taking senna leaf, I took the dose recommended for children. I am glad that I did, because I experienced some mild cramping, and I imagine that if I had taken a whole dose, I would have been in agony.

This half dose relieved my constipation with only mild discomfort. I won’t give it to my daughter, though, because she is like me, and if half a dose caused me to have some cramps, it would probably give her extremely painful cramps.

By Sara007 — On Sep 16, 2011

If you have kids make sure you hide your senna leaf extract because as I have learned the hard way, little ones will put anything in their mouth. My youngest decided to swallow some senna leaf and had a terrible stomach ache and diarrhea for two days.

I took her to the doctor and luckily he said it would pass and that she should just drink lots of water to make sure she didn't get dehydrated.

Has anyone else ever had a really bad run in with senna leaf? I know that senna leaf benefits are numerous, but after my daughter's reaction I really worry about the rest of the side effects.

By lonelygod — On Sep 16, 2011

Herbal teas are a great way to naturally cure yourself of various ailments. Whenever I am constipated I use a senna leaf laxative and it helps me out right away. Actually, senna leaf is so good at what it does, make sure you don't make any plans for an hour or two after you take the laxative.

Some of the senna leaf side effects when it is used as a laxative can include some pretty bad stomach cramps. I found these to be painful, though they didn't last too long. A good idea is to try half a senna leaf tablet before going for a full one, just to see how your body reacts to the natural laxative.

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to WiseGeek is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill...
Learn more
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