Facts About Rhubarb

Stalks of fresh rhubarb
Rhubarb Health Info. Maximilian Stock Ltd. / Getty Images

What is Rhubarb?

Alternate Names: Rheum palmatum, Chinese rhubarb, turkey rhubarb

Rhubarb root is used in traditional Chinese medicine as a laxative. Rhubarb contains powerful laxative compounds called anthraquinones, which irritate the colon and stimulate bowel movements.

Rhubarb root also contains tannins, which are believed to reduce inflammation in the colon. Small amounts of rhubarb are used in traditional Chinese medicine for diarrhea due to the tannin content.

Uses for Rhubarb

In alternative medicine, rhubarb is sometimes recommended for constipation.

Rhubarb can be found as capsules, liquid extracts, and dried root.

Bowel movements usually occur 6 to 12 hours after taking rhubarb.

This type of rhubarb (Rheum palmatum) should not be confused with common rhubarb.

Caveats

Rhubarb should not be used long-term for constipation.

Pregnant or nursing women should not use rhubarb. Children should not use rhubarb.

Rhubarb or other anthraquinone-containing herbs should not be used by people diverticular disease, ulcerative colitis, Crohn's disease, severe hemorrhoids, blood vessel disease, congestive heart failure, heart disease, severe anemia, abdominal hernia, gastrointestinal cancer, recent colon surgery, or liver and kidney disease.

Rhubarb may interact with drugs called cardiac glycosides, such as digitalis and digoxin (Lanoxin).

Rhubarb may cause harmless discoloration of urine.



Side effects of rhubarb may include strong cramping in the abdomen (due to muscle contractions, electrolyte imbalance (loss of potassium) and loss of body fluids, and dark pigmentation in the colon, called melanosis coli with longer term use. Call your doctor if you experience bloody diarrhea or prolonged abdominal pain after using rhubarb.



Long-term use of anthraquinones has been linked to the development of colorectal growths (adenomas) and cancer.

Large doses of anthraquinones may cause bloody diarrhea or vomiting.

It's important to keep in mind that supplements haven't been tested for safety and dietary supplements are largely unregulated. In some cases, the product may deliver doses that differ from the specified amount for each herb. In other cases, the product may be contaminated with other substances such as metals. Also, the safety of supplements in pregnant women, nursing mothers, children, and those with medical conditions or who are taking medications has not been established. You can get further tips on using supplements here.

Using Rhubarb for Health

Due to the limited research, it's too soon to recommend rhubarb as a treatment for any condition. It's also important to note that self-treating a condition and avoiding or delaying standard care may have serious consequences. If you're considering using rhubarb for any health purpose, make sure to consult your physician first.

Sources

Feltrow, C.W. and J.R. Avila. The Complete Guide to Herbal Medicines. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

Lust, John. The Herb Book: The Complete and Authoritative Guide to More Than 500 Herbs. New York: Benedict Lust Publications, 2005.

Andrea Peirce. The American Pharmaceutical Association Practical Guide to Natural Medicines. New York: William Morrow, 1999.

Willems M, van Buuren HR, de Krijger R. Anthranoid self-medication causing rapid development of melanosis coli. Neth J Med. 2003 Jan;61(1):22-4.

Disclaimer: The information contained on this site is intended for educational purposes only and is not a substitute for advice, diagnosis or treatment by a licensed physician. It is not meant to cover all possible precautions, drug interactions, circumstances or adverse effects. You should seek prompt medical care for any health issues and consult your doctor before using alternative medicine or making a change to your regimen.

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