Castor Oil Packs: A Useful Natural Remedy

The ancient folk remedy is gathering some research to support its traditional uses

Castor Oil Packs: A Useful Natural Remedy
Our skin is a porous membrane, which means the topical application of therapeutic substances like castor oil can have widespread effects.(Alexander Ruiz Acevedo/Shutterstock)
Ashley Turner

For centuries, folk medicine has recommended the internal or topical use of castor oil to address various health complaints. Naturopaths and other holistic practitioners utilize this therapy to foster health in individuals under their care. An age-old holistic remedy, therapeutic castor oil packs, also known as poultices, can provide relief from symptoms, promote healing, and even affect various blood markers.

Castor oil is a vegetable oil made from Ricinus communis, the castor bean. This plant is native to India, with 90 percent of the world’s oil production being in Brazil and India. Records show that castor oil was used in ancient Egypt for laxative properties and to stimulate labor in pregnant mothers. While people often think of castor oil as a laxative, various holistic practitioners tout other benefits from the internal use of castor oil, such as promoting lipid metabolism, uterine contractions, and antimicrobial activity.

The exact biochemical pathways aren't clearly understood, but there's still ample research documenting their efficacy. After several weeks of using this modality, the ricinoleic acid found within castor oil works to: Castor oil packs have been used for hundreds of years with great success. While more research in this field is needed, there are some intriguing studies to help validate this ancient remedy as a simple, inexpensive, and low-risk remedy. Castor oil packs can be applied to various parts of the body for a multitude of therapeutic uses that can easily be performed at home. Let’s discuss a few particularly helpful applications of castor oil packs.

Immune Support and Liver Function

A 1998 double-blind study published in the Journal of Naturopathic Medicine looks at the effects of castor oil packs among 36 individuals. During the study, castor oil packs were applied over the liver and abdomen with heat for two hours. Blood markers were run before the castor oil pack, at the two-hour mark, seven-hour mark, and 24-hour mark. Researchers evaluated serum total lymphocytes, T11 cells, T4 cells, T8 cells, liver function markers, and cholesterol levels. The results show an increase in total lymphocytes and T11 at seven hours. At 24 hours, lymphocytes came back to normal. This indicates a potential short-term increase in immune function as a result of a castor oil pack.
Another study published in the International Journal of Naturopathic Medicine looks at the long-term use of castor oil packs by following 17 participants that complained of fatigue. These participants applied castor oil packs over their livers for 90 minutes per day, five days per week, for two weeks. Blood work was performed on days zero, eight, 15, and 22, and it assessed total lymphocytes, T11 cells, T4 cells, T8 cells, liver function markers, and cholesterol levels. The study found that participants that had elevated liver enzymes and cholesterol levels normalized by the end of the study. Additionally, those with out-of-range lymphocytes were brought back into range.

Castor Oil Packs for Constipation

Castor oil packs can offer relief for those suffering from constipation. A study published in Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice followed 35 nursing home residents aged 65 and older for 14 days. Eighty percent of study subjects had been constipated for 10 years or longer. The castor oil packs were applied to the abdomen for 60 minutes on days eight, nine, and 10, of the study. The study shows that the administration of castor oil packs decreased straining and promoted the feeling of complete evacuation after a bowel movement, thus decreasing the symptoms of constipation.

Castor Oil Packs for Reproductive Health

One of the traditional uses of castor oil packs is to support fertility. Castor oil packs have been used for hundreds of years to promote fertility. Some evidence suggests that castor oil directly interacts with the uterine muscle along with its anti-inflammatory properties and its ability to promote detoxification.

Castor Oil Packs and Vagal Tone

The vagus nerve runs from the cranium, through the length of our torso to our intestines, branching throughout the abdominal organs. The activity of this nerve is described as tone, and the application of castor oil packs may improve vagal tone by improving proper signaling between the gut and the nervous system, particularly the parasympathetic nervous system.

Are There Any Drawbacks to Castor Oil Packs?

Castor oil packs are recognized as a gentle therapy that's safe to do at home. In fact, anecdotally, I've seen castor oil packs only be beneficial for clients. Although very rare, a skin rash or allergic reaction can occur while using a castor oil pack. While not the focus of this article, castor oil can be ingested in other therapies, which can cause abdominal cramping, nausea, diarrhea, and electrolyte imbalance. Castor oil packs are not advised for open wounds, high fevers, or during menstruation or pregnancy.

How to Prepare a Castor Oil Pack

Tools needed:
  • Cold-pressed hexane-free castor oil
  • Hot water bottle or heating pad (optional)
  • Two pieces of organic wool flannel, roughly 12 by 24 inches
  • Baking soda or arrowroot powder
  • An old sheet or towel
How to use a castor oil pack:
  • Lay down in a comfortable spot and relax
  • Bear in mind that the castor oil can drip from the pack, so you may want to lay on top of an old sheet or towel
  • Use the time to breathe deeply, meditate, pray, listen to music, or read
  • Pour about 3 tablespoons of castor oil on one piece of wool flannel and evenly distribute; it should be saturated but not dripping
  • Place the castor oil pack on the area of concern
  • Place the other piece of dry flannel in a single layer over the other to protect the hot water bottle or heating pad from the oil
  • Place the hot water bottle or heating pad set to a comfortable setting on top of the pack
  • Rest in this position for up to 90 minutes
  • Remove the castor oil pack and discard or wash for another use
  • Use baking soda or arrowroot and a splash of water to gently remove the castor oil from the skin
Some notes on the application of castor oil packs:
  • Aim to perform castor oil packs three to four times per week for 30 to 40 minutes
  • If you are sensitive to EMF, avoid using a heating pad
  • If using castor oil packs for overall detoxification, rotate sessions between the liver, kidneys, and colon
  • To decongest the liver, place the castor oil pack on the right side of the lower rib cage and upper abdomen
  • Use a castor oil pack on the shoulders or back of the neck to relieve tension headaches
  • Castor oil packs placed over the lower abdomen may help relieve menstrual cramps as well as symptoms of endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)
  • Use castor oil packs over the abdomen for constipation relief
  • Castor oil packs can be used postpartum for stretch marks and to heal scarring from a cesarean section once the incision is fully closed
  • Use castor oil packs over the breast to provide relief from fibrocystic breast tissue
Dr. Ashley Turner is a traditionally trained naturopath and board-certified doctor of holistic health for Restorative Wellness Center. As an expert in functional medicine, Dr. Ashley is the author of the gut-healing guide “Restorative Kitchen” and “Restorative Traditions,” a cookbook comprised of non-inflammatory holiday recipes.
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