I was first introduced to castor oil as my due date approached with my first child. Like any mom, I was eager to meet my little one so I turned to the expansive wisdom that is Google to find ways to speed up my body’s natural process of going into labor.
I found many folk remedies for inducing labor that I tried (walking, spicy food, bouncing on a medicine ball, pineapple, dancing, raspberry leaf tea and others). I also found a few I didn’t work up the courage to try…. especially castor oil (and I’m glad I didn’t).
What is Castor Oil?
Castor oil comes from the castor seed, native to India. It is extremely high in ricinoleic acid, which is thought to be responsible for its health promoting abilities. In fact, it was once called “palma christe” because its leaves resembled the hands of Christ. It is important to note that while Castor Oil is said to have health benefits, the castor seed itself can be deadly and internal use of even castor oil warrants caution.
It was used in ancient Japanese healing arts and other ancient cultures:
Castor oil (Ricinus Communis) has been around for a long time. The Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical textbooks in the world, describes the topical use of castor oil by the early Egyptians, as far back as 1550 B.C. Likewise, the oil of the castor bean has been used in India and China for thousands of years. In medieval Europe, the plant was given the name Palma Christa, since the leaves resemble the human hand. (source)
While it is considered “Generally Regarded As Safe” by the FDA and up to a tablespoon per day is considered approved for internal use, it can cause extreme digestive upset in some people. I am not a doctor and don’t play one on the internet, so talk to yours before using castor oil or anything else internally.
It is sometimes used internally for inducing labor, mostly by causing raging diarrhea in thoughts that this will also stimulate uterine contractions. I chose not to try this and wouldn’t suggest it since there is some evidence that it can increase the chance of baby passing meconium before birth. It is also sometimes used to reduce constipation (again with the raging diarrhea).
I much prefer it for external use and would not personally use it internally. It is one of the two oils I use in my daily oil cleansing routine, which has greatly improved my skin.
I’ve recently been researching and experimenting with another use of castor oil, castor oil packs, as I work to understand and support my body with my MTHFR mutation.
Castor Oil Packs
Castor oil packs harness the anti-inflammatory and lymph stimulating benefits of castor oil but use it externally. From a 1999 study:
With a minimal 2-hour therapy period, this study found that castor oil packs produced a “significant” temporary increase in the number of T-11 cells that increased over a 7 hour period following treatment and then returned to normal levels within 24 hours later.
“The T-11 cell increase represents a general boost in the body’s specific defense status. Lymphocytes actively defend the health of the body by forming antibodies against pathogens and their toxins. T-cell lymphocytes originate from bone marrow and the thymus gland as small lymphocytes that identify and kill viruses, fungi, bacteria, and cancer cells. T-11 cell lymphocytes supply a fundamental antibody capability to keep the specific defense system strong.” (source)
Castor oil packs have been said to help improve liver detoxification naturally, support uterine and ovarian health, improve lymphatic circulation and reduce inflammation.
The idea is to keep castor oil on a piece of cloth on the skin for at least an hour with a heat source to stimulate lymph and liver function. Unlike some “detox” methods, this is not said to have any negative side effects and the there are many accounts of people who noticed immediate better sleep, more energy and clearing of skin symptoms.
There aren’t any conclusive studies on the use of castor oil packs externally (though there are some preliminary ones), but a long history of traditional use in many cultures. There is some evidence that it can have a suppressive effect on tumors and a positive effect on arthritis when used externally. Castor oil packs also provide time of quiet relaxation, which also has health benefits, so I thought they were worth a try.
Castor oil packs have traditionally been used on various body parts:
- On the right side of the abdomen or the whole abdomen, which is thought to help support the liver and digestive system
- On strained joints or muscles (not as a substitute for medical care but to speed healing of minor injuries that don’t need medical attention)
- On the lower abdomen to help with menstrual pain and difficulties
Even for external use, I’d consult with a doctor or naturopath to make sure that this natural remedy is ok for you. It should not be used if pregnant or struggling with a medical condition. I also test any new oil (or any substance) on a small part of my arm before using on a larger area of the body.
How to Do a Castor Oil Pack
Castor oil packs are simple to do at home and I like them because they require me to be still and relax and read a book for at least an hour. They can be messy, but with proper preparation are not.
- High-quality castor oil (hexane free) – I’ve gotten from Radiant Life Catalog and Mountain Rose Herbs
- Unbleached and dye free wool or cotton flannel (like this)- can be reused up to 30 times
- A wrap around pack (plastic free) or plastic wrap (not optimal)
- Hot water bottle or heating pad
- Glass container with lid – I use a quart size mason jar (for storing the oil soaked flannel between uses)
- Old clothes, towels and sheets – castor oil does stain
- Patience (most difficult to find!)
The easiest and least messy option I’ve found is the Castor Oil Pack kit from here. It has the castor oil, cotton flannel and a non-messy wrap around pack that removes the need for plastic wrap and has kept mine from leaking at all.
How to Do A Castor Oil Pack
I highly recommend carefully prepping the are where you’ll be doing the castor oil pack to prevent mess. I like using an old shower curtain, covered with a sheet under me, just to make sure nothing stains. I don’t often have to wash the sheet, and I just fold and store in the bathroom cabinet for the next use.
- Cut a large piece of cotton flannel and fold into thirds to make three layers. My original piece was 20 inches by 10 inches and when folded it was roughly 7×10 but yours could be larger or smaller, depending on where you are planning to place it.
- Thoroughly soak (but not completely saturate) the flannel in castor oil. The easies way I found to do this was to carefully fold the flannel and place in a quart size mason jar. I then added castor oil about a tablespoon at a time (every 20 minutes or so) to give it time to saturate. I also gently shook the jar between adding more oil so that the oil could reach all parts of the cloth. Ideally, this should be done the day before to give it time to evenly soak. I save the jar since this is where I keep the flannel between uses (it can be used about 30 times).
Using a Castor Oil Pack:
- Carefully remove and unfold the castor oil soaked cloth.
- While lying on an old towel or sheet, place the cloth on the desired body part.
- Cover with plastic (like a plastic trash bag), or ideally with the wrap around pack, and place the heating pack on top of this. A hot water bottle, electric heating pad or rice heating pad can be used, but hot water bottles and rice packs may need to be reheated several times.
- Lie on back with feet elevated (I typically lie on the floor and rest my feet on the couch), and relax for 30-60 minutes.
- Use this time to practice deep breathing, read a book, meditate or pray (or whatever you find relaxing).
- After the desired time, remove the pack and return the flannel to the glass container. Store in fridge.
- Use a natural soap or a mix of baking soda and water to remove any castor oil left on the skin.
- Relax and rest. Make sure to drink enough water and stay hydrated after doing this.
Other ways to use castor oil:
From Japanese Healing Arts:
Castor oil is used externally in three ways. First, castor oil may be applied directly to the skin for dryness, rashes, hives, fungus, infections, boils, furuncles, liver spots (age spots), warts, benign skin cancers, etc. Also for infection or fungus in the finger or toe nails. Apply castor oil directly and gently rub into the area for a minute or two. Repeat this application 2 or 3 times a day for a few weeks or up to two months in the case of stubborn warts.
Second, the application of castor oil packs can bring significant relief for any kind of trauma, sprain or degenerative joint disorder. In the case of a painful joint, apply a pack and secure it with an ace bandage. Keep the pack on the body continuously and reapply castor oil every 24 hours. For back pain, lay on a castor oil pack for 90 minutes every day for 5 days. (See instructions below.) In severe cases, you may have to repeat this course 3 times over a period of 3 weeks.
Third, castor oil packs are used for cleansing and regulating the internal organs. For disorders relating to the digestion, intestines, liver, lungs or reproductive organs a series of castor oil packs on the abdomen for 90 minutes a day can have remarkable effects.
Have you ever used Castor oil? I’ll be sharing some of my other favorite uses soon, but please share yours below!