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Astringent, tonic, stomachic, aperient. In large doses, Rhubarb powder acts as a simple and safe purgative, being regarded as one of the most valuable remedies we possess, effecting a brisk, healthy purge, without clogging the bowels and producing constipation, too often consequent upon the use of the more active purgatives.
It is especially useful in cases of diarrhoea, caused by an irritating body in the intestines: the cause of irritation is removed and the after-astringent action checks the diarrhoea.
The following note from The Chemist and Druggist of March 31, 1923, supports this:
'Rhubarb in Bacillary Dysentery. - An investigation was undertaken to determine the way in which rhubarb acts in this disease and which constituent was responsible for its action, one writer having stated in regard to the treatment of bacillary dysentery that no remedy in medicine has such a magical effect. (Lancet, I, 1923, 382.) A solution containing all the purgative constituents of rhubarb soluble in water (1 gr. of B.P. rhubarb extract) was allowed to act on B. dysenterial Shiga and Flexner of the bacillus No. 1 of Morgan without affecting growth in the broth tubes. Fresh undiluted ox bile has not distinct action on the bacilli, thus indicating that the therapeutic effect of rhubarb is not due to its cholagogue action. Neither does the serum of a rabbit treated with rhubarb have any germicidal action. The nature of the therapeutic effect of rhubarb in bacillary dysentery therefore still remains obscure.'
And again, September 3, 1921, in the Lancet, by Dr. R. W. Burkitt:
'In the former journal, Dr. R. W. Burkitt, of Nairobi, British East Africa, states that acute bacillary dysentery has been treated in that colony almost exclusively with powdered rhubarb for the past three years. The dose given has been 30 grains every two or three hours until the rhubarb appears in the stools. After a few doses the stools become less frequent, haemorrhage ceases, and straining and the other symptoms of acute general poisoning, which characterize the disease, rapidly disappear. In children 5 grains is given every two hours for three doses only, as, if the administration is continued longer, the drug will cure the dysentery, but produce an obstinate simple diarrhoea. In both adults and children the thirst is combated by small, frequent doses of bicarbonate of soda and citrate of potash. Dr. Burkitt concludes: "I know of no remedy in medicine which has such a magical effect. No one who has ever used rhubarb would dream of using anything else. I hope others will try it in this dreadful tropical scourge." ' (http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html)
Dioscorides described what was formerly supposed to be the officinal Rhubarb; it is now, however, generally understood that the plant described by the ancient physicians is the Rheum Rhaponticum, the common Rhubarb of the gardens. Paulus Aegineta, describes the same species, but which Mattniolus and Dononaeus considered was the purgative Rhubarb. Sprengel states that Isodorus is the first author who applied the name Rheum barbarum to the True Rhubarb. It seems that the Arabian physicians were the first that were acquainted with the True Rhubarb; and Mesne describes three species, viz., India num, Barbarum, and Turcicum, and he recommends it in dropsy, obstructions of the spleen, and jaundice. He appears not to have been acquainted with the Rhaponticum; and Avicenna and Serapion seem not to have been acquainted with the others. Ebn Baithar, the famous Arabian physician, has written the most copious and instructive dissertation on the subject. He gives an account of four distinct species, and remarks that the older physicians knew nothing of the purgative kinds of Rhubarb, until they were discovered near to his time. He recommends it in jaundice, dropsy, marasmus connected with obstructions, and remarks that it is most useful in diarrhoea, with Indian spikenard. (Hamilton's Flora)
Rhubarb in small doses exhibits stomachic and tonic properties, and is employed in atonic dyspepsia, assisting digestion and creating a healthy action of the digestive organs, when in a condition of torpor and debility.
The tincture is chiefly used, but the powder is equally effective and reliable.
Rhubarb when chewed increases the flow of saliva. (http://www.botanical.com/botanical/mgmh/mgmh.html)
Pharmacopea:In the form of Compound Rhubarb Powder (Pul. Rhei. Co. Gregory's powder) along with Magnesia and Ginger, most of us can remember it as one of the terrors of the nursery.
In its homeopathic form it has no terrors, but it remains a great remedy of sucklings and children, especially during dentition, to whom as well as to pregnant and nursing women it is particularly suited.
Milne well summarizes its action from the traditional point of view: "Tonic, cathartic, and a feeble astringent, the latter property being overborne by the cathartic and only coming into play afterwards' [i.e., the constipation which follows Rhubarb purgation].
"In small doses, it improves digestion and appetite, and renders the renal secretions more healthy.
In larger doses it is an excellent cathartic, acting on the whole bowel and especially the duodenum, and increasing the peristaltic action.
It is well suited for the early stages of diarrhoea, as a laxative in constipation from debility of the digestive organs, and in disorders of children, such as flatulence and irritation of the alimentary canal.
It renders the serum of the blood yellow, the urine is almost of a blood-red color.
' In connection with the last observation it must be remembered that Rheum contains a large amount of Chrysophanic acid (named from its brilliant yellow crystals).
In the thousand years since this root was introduced into medicine first of all by the Arabians-it has been misused, sometimes (and indeed very frequently) for senseless scouring out of the intestinal canal, sometimes for allaying certain diarrhoeas, but even for the latter purpose seldom with good results.