With the detox fad going strong, senna tea has been marketed as a cheap and effective way to “cleanse” your system. Proponents claim that it flushes “toxins” from your body with regular use and keeps your bowels clean, which is correct, in a way. But what exactly is senna tea and what does it do for you?
Short answer: it’s a laxative, and it makes you defecate, a lot. It doesn’t bind to toxins or promote a healthy gut; it just flushes it out. But, is that so bad? How can cleaner be worse? We’ll explore the answers to these questions and more as we look at the senna herb, what it does to you and how it can be dangerous.
What Is Senna?
“Senna” is actually and entire genus of plants in the legume family Fabaceae. There are hundreds of species of Senna, up to an estimated 350. They come in the form of herbs, shrubs and trees and are found in both tropical and temperate regions. The senna we are focusing on is the Egyptian Senna.
This species of senna, also known as Alexandrian Senna or Cassia Senna, is a shrubby plant that grows to over five feet in height. It has a branched, erect green stem and long outstretching branches that usually have four or five pairs of leaves. The flowers are yellow to brown, and the fruits are legume pods that are flat and contain six seeds.
Humans have used Egyptian Senna in herbalism for hundreds if not thousands of years. Brewing the pods into to a tea has a laxative effect on the body, as well as the plant’s extract. Doctors, apothecaries and shamans alike have used the senna plant to relieve constipation
How Does it Work?
The Egyptian Senna plant is a bowel stimulant. It affects the myenteric plexus of the colon to induce peristaltic contractions. In English, this means that the herb prevents the colon from absorbing water. That way, water flows more freely through the digestive tract and literally washes the contents out of you. It is this effect that has lent to its use as a reliever of constipation.
By drinking tea brewed with the pods of the senna plant or senna leaf, you can achieve this effect, but that isn’t the only way. Supplements are also sold over the counter as a nonprescription medication to alleviate constipation. It has been deemed safe by the FDA, but only if used correctly. Most detox diets and cleanses do not prescribe the use of senna in the correct way.
Is It Effective?
The efficacy of senna as a laxative is middling at best. When tested against other known constipation remedies, it was not found to be particularly effective when treating patients with chronic constipation. These studies were not extensive or exhaustive, but preliminary findings suggest that senna is not among the best laxatives or constipation cures.
So, why is it used so much? The herb is relatively inexpensive and comes from a plant. This gives it a more natural image, so practitioners of herbal and alternative medicine gravitate towards it. It does not interact seriously with other drugs, and taking senna also has milder side effects compared to prescription drugs. They include gas, bloating and diarrhea which are common side effects with other laxatives.
What Do Cleanses Claim that Senna Does?
Senna tea has become a staple of cleanses and detox in recent years because of its bowel flushing properties. Proponents claim that the tea helps to get rid of toxins that are lingering in your intestinal tract and give you a fresh and clean gut.
Additionally, these cleanses, along with the similar “skinny teas,” assert that a user must use the tea for several weeks to get the desired effect. Legions of social media influencers and celebrities hawk these wares on Instagram and other platforms, claiming that using these teas for extended periods of time will aid in weight loss, reduce bloating and increase overall health.
The claim that senna tea can help with weight loss or “clean your gut” is at best misleading. However, the assertion that one must use this herbal tea for weeks on end to get the results breaches into dangerous and irresponsible territory.
The Dangers of Senna Tea
Senna seems harmless enough, and in the correct doses, it is. Medical bodies and regulatory administrations such as the FDA deem the use of Egyptian Senna safe for short-term constipation relief. It is dangerous for patients to use senna if they suffer from ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease or hemorrhoids as the irritation could make the symptoms of these maladies worse. Also, pregnant women should not use senna unless prescribed by a doctor but short-term use while breastfeeding is considered safe.
However, the dangers of prolonged senna use are much worse than mere irritation. Even users without chronic digestive tract disorders can suffer serious side effects if they drink the tea in the amounts that cleanses and detox teas (also known as “teatoxes”) demand.
Gut Bacteria Depopulation
Your gut is an ecosystem. At this very moment, billions of bacteria of different species are rooting around in your digestive tract doing you a great service. It may seem unpleasant to think about bacteria inside you; after, don’t bacteria cause disease? Bacteria are like people, there’s good ones and bad ones, and thankfully there are more good and neutral ones than bad ones. The bacteria in your gut are the good kind.
These bacteria regulate your digestion and help break down the things your body can’t. They also help you fight off diseases and help you keep that metabolism up. A healthy gut can even reduce your risk of heart disease and make you feel better. A thriving and diverse gut bacteria ecosystem can boost your mood and reduce stress.
These bacteria are working overtime for you, and the last thing you want is to wash them out of your body. Regularly forced evacuations of your bowels will leave your gut a barren wasteland with no life at all. This sterilized gut will do you no favors and severely impact your overall health in a host of negative ways.
Ironically, with a “cleansed” gut you could experience bloating and weight gain as your metabolism falters. This weight gain often leads users to increase the use of laxatives in a misguided attempt to counter the weight loss. Vitamin deficiencies will follow soon after and cause countless health problems.
Dehydration and Electrolyte Deficiency
Since senna stops your colon from absorbing water, that water moves freely through your body and out the other end. This is great for ending constipation but as you know, humans kind of need water. If your body isn’t absorbing enough water every day, you’re going to get dehydrated. If you are exercising on top of the that, the dangers multiply.
Along with helpful bacteria and fecal matter, senna flushes electrolytes out of your system. You need those electrolytes for everything that requires a small electrical charge like thinking or moving muscles. So, just about everything. Chronic electrolyte deficiency can have serious effects on your heart and put your life at risk, especially if you are doing any kind of rigorous activity.
This disorder is exactly what it sounds like, and it isn’t pretty. The old saying “use it or lose it” applies here. The longer you regularly use a laxative, any laxative, the weaker your bowels get. If it lays dormant, it will atrophy and become nonfunctioning. After this happens, the only way you can have a bowel movement is to use a laxative.
Unfortunately, if a user tries to wean themselves off of laxatives like senna tea by stopping the use of it, constipation and bloating return worse than before, often driving the user back to laxatives. This vicious cycle of abuse often leads to long-term health problems associated with long-term laxative use mentioned above. Using a senna tea for several weeks straight drastically increases the risk of laxative dependency.
All Things in Moderation
Senna tea works; it does what it is supposed to do, and that’s the problem. It may not be as effective as prescription laxatives, but it is a relatively safe way to alleviate temporary constipation. It isn’t some snake oil that will solve all your problems, it does one thing and does it well enough. The danger lies in the dose.
“Teatox” cleanses and “skinny teas” irresponsibly instruct their customers to use senna teas for much longer periods of time and in greater amounts than is safe. Using senna tea long term can cause many more health problems than these cleanses and detoxes claim to fix. Overuse can even put your life at risk due to electrolyte loss. Let common sense rule here. Use as directed by a trained and licensed physician, not a reality TV star.