Castor Oil: The Good, the Bad, and the Ayurvedic Perspective

Castor Oil: The Good, the Bad, and the Ayurvedic Perspective

During my Ayurvedic training in India, I saw firsthand how castor oil was used in many ways for many health concerns. One Ayurvedic doctor told me that to prevent and treat arthritis, add 1 teaspoon of castor oil in a chipati (flat bread) everyday with the main meal for 6 months. Another doctor told me a teaspoon or two taken every couple of weeks will keep your family healthy, even the kids. So, when I came back to the States and started a family, I used castor with my kids every couple of weeks to help keep the digestive ama (toxins) moving down and out of the body. I would put the castor oil in a dropper and feed the kids a few drops like a momma bird would feed their babies. There was a period of time when my two oldest daughters would beg for more castor oil drops because it was so fun for them to pretend they were baby birds. It worked well for a while until they caught on to the awful taste of castor oil and I had to think up new “keep the kids healthy” strategies. I wrote about many of those strategies in my book Perfect Health for Kids.

In India, castor oil is commonly used during cleanses and panchakarma to purge and flush the intestines because of its powerful laxative effect. I administered in-residence panchakarma for 26 years and used castor oil in this way. When I started offering our Colorado Ayurvedic Cleanse (where folks can cleanse on their own at home), I was unable to individually adjust dosages of castor oil to ensure a comfortable end-of-cleanse laxative effect. For some folks, 2 teaspoons was the perfect amount, while for others it was way too much. Because the dosing was unreliable, I stopped using it in our LifeSpa Ayurvedic Cleanses. However, there is research that suggests castor oil has quite a few uses.

See also 10 Ayurvedic Solutions for Occasional Constipation

In This Article

The Mean Castor Bean

One of the other primary reasons I stopped using castor oil was for the safety of castor bean farm workers. Before they started using mechanical harvesting, there was an ethical issue for those who picked the beans. One of the main active constituents of the castor bean is a toxin called ricin.  The beneficial fatty acid is called ricinoleic acid. According to the USDA, the ricin in the castor bean is seven times more poisonous than cobra venom. Benito Mussolini used ricin to torture and sometimes kill his political enemies. While castor oil is a powerful medicine, it needs to be handled with care. In 2001, the USDA reported that “the shiny, beetle-shaped seeds contain powerful allergens. People who work with the off-white meal ground from castor beans may develop allergic reactions, such as hives or asthma. In severe cases, they may go into anaphylactic shock, which can be fatal.” The rise in mechanical harvesting techniques has helped to expose fewer castor farm workers to the poison. Most cold-pressed castor oil products have removed the ricin. It is approved for internal use as a laxative by the FDA, but it is important to know safe usage is a matter of dose. Always start with the smallest dose possible. 

It’s important to choose a castor oil that is responsibly sourced. You can find the brand of castor oil I recommend here.

Using Castor Oil in Topical Packs 

The application of castor packs topically is a well-known practice. It was used in Ayurveda for thousands of years and was made popular in the natural medicine world by healer and clairvoyant Edgar Cayce in the early 1900s. His technique of soaking castor oil on a pad of cotton flannel was applied to any area with pain, over the liver for better detoxification, the lower abdomen for better elimination, the stomach for indigestion, and much more. It was suggested to do it in the evening after prayer, meditation, or rest and it can be done with or without heat from a heating pad. Keep the pad on for 1-1/2 hours for best results.

The Science on Topical Castor Oil 

While the internal use of castor oil is FDA-approved, surprisingly, the popular topical application is not. In Ayurveda and alternative medicine, topical castor oil was used for wound healing, arthritis, headache, menstrual cramps, and labor induction. Although these uses have been common in alternative medicine for hundreds of years, there is not enough scientific evidence to support all these claims. In a review of nine studies on the topical application of castor oil, here is what researchers determined.

Castor Oil for Pain

Topical castor oil has been shown to help in the treatment of post-herpetic neuralgia, diabetic neuropathy, and other neuropathic disorders. In another study, topical castor oil was compared to capsaicin for neurogenic pain and inflammation. They both were found to be effective, but the castor oil helped without irritation of the skin that came with capsaicin. 

In a study with 60 patients with various forms of tendonitis, researchers used castor oil, ultrasound gel, or petroleum jelly as a coupling agent during extracorporeal shock wave physical therapy treatment. Each patient blindly received 30 treatments of each. In all cases, the castor oil application resulted in the greatest pain reduction.

Topical Castor Oil for Liver Function and Immune Support

Early studies found that castor oil packs were able to boost white blood cells. This was confirmed in a 1998 double-blind study that compared the effect of a castor oil pack to a paraffin oil pack with 36 healthy adults. The packs were placed over the liver for two hours with heat. In the castor oil group, lymphocytes (white blood cells) were significantly increased during the castor oil pack treatment, suggesting it supported the immune system. In a follow-up study, lymphocytes were again increased during a castor oil pack treatment. Two participants with elevated liver enzymes and high cholesterol showed normalized levels by the end of the treatment.

Topical Castor Oil for Constipation

Let’s look at a study with 35 nursing home patients who had chronic constipation for more than seven years. A castor oil pack was applied to their abdomens for three consecutive days for 60 minutes. They found that the castor oil pack improved fecal consistency, reduced straining, and improved bowel movements… However, there was no change in the frequency of the bowel movements or the amount of matter eliminated.

Dry Eye Care with Castor Oil-Based Eye Drops

Using a 2% eye drop solution of castor oil, researchers performed a double-blind placebo-controlled study with 20 patients with dry eyes due to meibomian gland obstruction. Participants were given either the low-dose castor oil drops or artificial tears. They received the drops twice a day for two weeks. These researchers found that eye drops containing castor oil produced a more stable tear film and a significant decrease in ocular dry eye symptoms.

Topical Castor Oil for Hair Growth, Luster, and Quality

A review of 22 studies compared the effectiveness of coconut oil, castor oil, and argan oil for hair care. Coconut oil was shown to treat brittle hair with little effect on hair growth. Castor oil showed even fewer benefits for improving hair luster with no strong evidence that it supported hair growth. With argan oil, there was also little evidence supporting its use for hair growth or hair quality. Of all the topics considered here, it seems the research on topical castor oil for hair improvements is the least supported.

Castor Oil Cookies

Yes, castor oil cookies! Actually, they are quite good. While we still need more research on the benefits of castor oil, we know the small-dose internal use which is FDA-approved aligns with the Ayurvedic wisdom on it. Delivering castor oil with food is a great Ayurvedic way to deliver castor oil internally while avoiding unnecessary bowel irritation and managing the strong taste. Years ago, I would give the recipe to my patients to help detoxify them and support better joint function mobility. Sadly, I lost that original recipe in a 1998 fire and haven’t used it since. For this article, I looked online and found this more than 70-year-old family castor oil cookie recipe that looks similar to what we used. The recipe comes from Mrs. B.B. Ekstrum from Kansas City and was written in 1960 by her daughter. 

Ingredients:

1 cup sugar

1 cup molasses

1 cup milk

 ½ cup castor oil

½ tsp. salt

1 tsp. baking soda

2 tsp. ginger 

Flour

Mix ingredients with enough sifted flour to make a dough that can be rolled out as cookies, and bake.  

See also Learn Stomach Pulling for Better Digestion

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Gratefully,
Dr. John

1 thought on “Castor Oil: The Good, the Bad, and the Ayurvedic Perspective”

  1. Fascinating research history discussed above. I can add to this from my own usage. Vaidya Suhas, who I use regularly, several years ago, advised that I rub Castor oil on my legs when my vericose vein areas flare up. These flare ups occur about once a year, usually on just one leg at a time. The flare ups can be extremely painful, even to the light touch. The western doctor I have used would prescribe very strong antibiotics, which would upset my entire system. Since the Castor oil topical rub recommendation, I have had almost no lingering issues. As soon as a slight infection and swelling begins, I just start rubbing the Castor oil onto the area, usually twice a day, AM and PM. Quite amazing how the recovery occurs in a few days.

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