Castor bean (Ricinus communis)
Other common names: Castor oil plant, castor oil bush, palma christi
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*Warning: Castor beans (particularly raw) contain the potent toxin ricin (primarily released when the bean is crushed), and should never be handled with bare hands or taken internally. We only use the food-grade oil medicinally.
Actions: Purgative (internal use), emetic (internal, NOT recommended for this purpose), penetrates tissues and delivers other remedies into the bloodstream (topical use), anti-inflammatory (topical), analgesic (topical), vulnerary (topical).
Harvest should not be attempted by a layperson. Not only are the beans highly toxic, but the entire plant is covered in an allergenic substance that can cause permanent nerve damage in humans. Commercial harvesting, as well as the processing of beans into oil, has been known to cause illnesses among South American and Asian workers who are not adequately protected; some human rights activists boycott castor oil entirely because of it.
Part used: Beans (when processed safely into oil)
Constituents: Palmitic, ricinoleic and other fatty acids, ricin, terpinoids, tocopherol-related compounds and others.
In the past, it has been used for constipation and even to induce labour (do NOT do the latter under ANY circumstances), however in recent years castor oil has fallen out of use medicinally, due to its tendency to cause painful cramping, vomiting, intense diarrhea and weakness due to dehydration. There are many other remedies that provide the same benefits internally, without the side-effects and risks.
NOTE: Be sure that you purchase castor oil that is meant for internal use (it is more expensive, but the cosmetic version can be toxic if taken internally.)
Topically, however, castor oil is irreplaceable. Its value in being able to penetrate tissues and carry another substance several inches into the body (from a topical application!!) make it the envy of all other plant oils. We use it to reduce inflammation, in organs, in muscles and in joints. The castor oil on its own has anti-inflammatory properties that assist in musculoskeletal pain relief, but if you like to kick it up a notch, feel free to add other herbs and use castor oil as a carrier to administer directly into the tissues and bloodstream without going through the digestive system.
It is also used on skin lesions, cuts, burns and other dermal irritations.
I do not recommend internal use of this oil. Historically it has been taken as a liquid supplement and capsule, but do so at your own risk, and with tremendous caution.
Topical applications most often take the form of a castor oil pack, which is generally applied with heat. It may be used alone or with other herbs or infused oils. In my practice, I do not use castor packs with essential oils, as essential oils are known to cause strain on organs when applied at high concentrations to the skin. Even though it would dilute the E.O.s, castor oil’s tissue-penetrating ability makes me think this is a logical precaution to take. Other practitioners may disagree.
Do not use (internally OR externally) if you are pregnant, nursing, suffering from compromised organ function, or have a history of (or suspected) appendicitis, blockages, hernias, gallstones, kidney stones, or bile duct obstruction. If you suffer from any major underlying condition, I would advise that you speak with a doctor before applying a castor oil pack (and would advise against internal use completely).
Internally, castor oil can cause cramping, explosive diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. In rare cases it may also cause irregular heartbeat, dizziness, confusion or decreased urination (in which case treatment should immediately cease, and a physician consulted). Use internally at your own risk, and do not combine with any medication unless you have discussed it with a physician.
In the case of an overdose, contact 911 or poison control in your area. In a healthy individual, a full recovery is likely, but the chance of you ever doing it again on purpose is not at all likely. You will need to stay hydrated, and near a washroom, for a couple days.
In the case of castor bean (not oil) ingestion: Again, call 911/poison control, and get to a hospital ASAP. In the meantime, you may be told to induce vomiting, and attempt to delay an attack on the kidneys by drinking a baking soda and water mixture. You may also be instructed to administer milk, to neutralize.
I suggest consulting a pharmacist or physician before starting any herbal supplement if you are taking a prescription medication or have serious underlying health concerns.
Energetic and traditional use:
I promised the castor bean spirits that I wouldn’t talk about their affair with Mussolini – they don’t like to discuss that chapter of their history…but you can Google it if you want 😉 In ayurvedic medicine, castor oil is associated with memory. In other cultures the plant was grown to keep away moles and voles in the garden. The beans were also carried as an amulet to protect against indigestion (and problematic individuals if they were so inclined). The plant was named after the Greek mythology figure Kastor, one of the divine twins that was revered as a healer.
Disclaimer: The information on this website is intended as general education on herbs and is not intended to take the place of medical care. Please consult a health care professional before embarking on any health regime.