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Senna

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Background and History

The senna plant, also known as the cassia plant, has had a long history of use dating back to ancient times. This plant, which thrives in the tropics and subtropics and semi-arid landscape, but may grow in slightly less temperate climates are characterized by its small shrub or tree-like appearance, and its vibrant yellow flowers. The production and use of senna in medicine and as a trade commodity has had a long standing history that dates back to before the monopolization of the trade industry, as its use can be traced back tyo ancient Egypt – where senna was a valuable 'cash crop'. To this day, the production of senna (or at least the Alexandrian variety) is still done along the parts of the middle Nile, although several parts of India, China, Celyon, and Morocco also produce their own varietals.

The senna plant, when wild, can usually be found betwixt other vegetation, as it uses them generally for support, although this feature is absent in cultivated species, and is usually just substituted with artificial means of support such as stylized poles. The senna plant also produces an un-edible fruit of the legume family, which, in ancient times has been used as a type of medicine along with its leaves and flowers. Nowadays, the medicinal use of senna continues to be practiced, although its use has been relegated to no more than just the leaves of the plant. Some Asiatic counties nevertheless continue to use senna flowers, although its usage has been relegated to the culinary, rather than the medicinal.



General Uses

The most common use for the senna plant is as a laxative tea. Its leaves, which are a well-known natural diuretic has been used since ancient times for just that purpose. Senna plants, when cultivated, are usually used as ornamental and landscaping plants, although it can also be grown for the general production of its leaves, which are dried and used as dieter's teas, or as constituents of 'all-natural' weight loss remedies. All species of senna can be used as purgatives, laxatives, and diuretics, and, in controlled amounts, it may even help to relieve the discomforts brought about by constipation. This medicinal action is made possible thanks to senna's ability to increase the peristaltic movements of the colon, in effect acting as an irritant to facilitate bowel functions. Because of this, senna leaves are usually sold as dietary or weight-loss teas, and is usually prepared as a light infusion of leaves drunk prior to meals. [1] This facilitates a two-way action broughtt about by the inherent active compounds found in senna (anthraquinone / related and derivative glucosides) – firstly, when drunk prior to meals, senna actively reduces a person's appetite, thereby coaxing the dieter to eat less. Secondly, the active compounds immediately act as a purgative that hastens the transit of the foodstuff, preventing the full absorption of calories from taking place as in normal, uninhibited digestion. While this action does facilitate in some degree of noticeable weight loss, it can be dangerous if pursued for long periods of time, as hampering the normal digestion time also stunts the body's ability to absorb and synthesize nutrients properly, which is why dietary teas containing senna, or that are made from senna should never be taken for more than a week without the permission and supervision of an experienced herbalist or medical expert.

Aside from its laxative purposes, the flowers of the senna plant are used in Southeastern Asian cuisine as a type of vegetable, which is pickled in brine and left to age. It is then used as a condiment for cooking, particularly as an ingredient in many of their spicy curry dishes. [2] The gum derived from the Chinese senna seeds are used as a thickening agent, and is often called cassia gum. [3] The bark of the senna plant is also used as a filler or alternative for cinnamon, as some species of senna / cassia emulate to varying degrees of exactness, the aroma and taste of cinnamon, although not its medicinal properties.



The senna plant is perhaps more known for its cosmetic uses as of late, especially with the growing revival in the interest in alternative or organic beauty products. One of its species, Senna italica better known in the natural cosmetic world as Cassia obovata is used as a natural hair conditioner and 'hair dye' in the same vein as the more popular henna (Lawsonia enermis). Senna differs from henna in one distinct way however, as, unlike it, it does not colour the hair, and is chiefly used as a conditioner and thickener, since the compounds in senna bind into the hair proteins (as is in henna), effectively strengthening the hair and preventing hair fall due to breakage. When used on dark hair, no significant changes in the intrinsic colouration may be noticed, although sometimes a slight lightening of the hue is possible, especially if used overmuch, thus making it an ideal conditioner for people with fairer hair. [4] Due to this attribute, it is often labeled as 'neutral' or 'colourless' henna, even if it isn't, technically speaking, a specie of Lawsonia enermis.

Senna has had a long-standing reputation as a prime choice for often spurious 'patent medicines' since well into the middle to latter parts of the Victorian Period, onwards to the Industrial Revolution. Today, while it is no longer a common ingredient in most 'wonder drugs' or supposed 'cure-alls' due to its now documented toxic side effects, especially when employed without proper knowledge as a vermifuge or purgative (antithelmintic), typically by making a very strong decoction of senna leaves to be drunk as a means to kill intestinal parasites – a move that can prove lethal not only for the little wriggly things, but for the partaker as well. [5] Because of its potential lethal nature, the use of senna for internal ailments, especially for the purpose of weight loss must always be moderated and supervised by those who are in the know.

Names of Senna, past and present

Arabic: sana
French: sene / sene d'Alexandrie / sene d'Egypte (other names exist, denoting place of origin)
English: senna / cassia / Indian senna / Alexandrian senna (other names exist denoting place of origin)
Chinese: fan xie ye
Latin (scientific nomenclature): Cassia obovata / Senna Alexandrina (other species exist, each with their own scientific nomenclature)

References & Further Reading

[1] http://www.allnatural.net/herbpages/senna.shtml
[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senna_(plant)
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cassia_gum
[4] http://www.hennaforhair.com/faq/cassiaobovata.html
[5] http://www.ihe.co.in/pg/products/senna/senna-benefits.htm

Main article researched and created by Alexander Leonhardt, © herbs-info.com 2013

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