by Annie Mascia
February 7, 2024
The History of Castor Oil
The castor bean (Ricinis communis) has an exotic and varied history. Originally native to tropical East Africa surrounding Ethiopia, today it grows abundantly in tropical and subtropical places such as India and Brazil. To extract the oil from the beans, the seeds must be extracted from the hull after first being washed, cooked and dried. The castor seeds are then ground and pressed to filter the oil from the seeds.
These seeds naturally contain a deadly poison called ricin that is removed from the oil during its cooking and refining process. What makes Castor oil so attractive as a natural product is that it contains a unique fatty acid compound called ricinoleic acid. Depending on the oil and the plant’s growing conditions, this component is generally reliable at a 75-90% content and is mainly responsible for the laxative and relaxing effect on smooth muscle. Other important fatty acids found in Castor oil include oleic acid and other fatty acids such as linoleic, stearic and palmitic.
The rich historical and medicinal use of Castor oil dates back to the discovery of its cultivation in Ancient Egypt from approximately 4000 B.C. The Egyptians used it for medicinal and skin care use as well as in lamp oil. From Egypt, the plant made its way through India where today it is still widely used as a natural purgative, remedy for constipation and skin issues in Ayurvedic medicine. From India, the plant also made headway into Ancient Greece and China. Today, the oil is used for many applications and as an ingredient including makeup, skincare, soaps and perfumes, for its apparent antimicrobial activity and as a lubricant. It’s also approved for use by the FDA as a stimulating laxative.
Regardless, a multitude of viral TikTok videos can be found touting Castor oil benefits using a technique called “navel pulling”. Navel pulling or navel oiling is the act of massaging Castor oil into the belly button and around the abdomen in a clockwise direction which benefits the movement of digestion. These videos suggest Ayurvedic medicine as its source of proof that the use of the oil improves sleep, skin problems, hair loss, relieves pain and menstrual discomforts, detoxifies the liver, calms the mind, and more.
Navel Pulling with Castor Oil
Similar to using a nighttime wrap (such as this brand) with a Castor oil pack, navel pulling has become a popular movement for its claims that it will bring health benefits such as relieving constipation, addressing digestive issues and being beneficial for painful menstrual cramps, cystic ovaries and endometriosis. TikTok videos demonstrate users gently rubbing or pouring a small amount of the oil into the belly button and massaging the oil onto the abdomen around the belly button. The argument for using this method is that it will benefit the many maladies listed above since according to Ayurveda, the belly button alone has approximately 72,000 nerve endings.
The gut, often referred to as the second brain, is part of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). The Enteric Nervous System falls within the ANS and houses over 100 million nerve endings that control the gastrointestinal tract from the esophagus to the rectum. The belly button, or rather the umbilicus, is supplied by the thoracic spinal nerve which innervates the skin and muscle around the waist.
The belly button is scar tissue that forms from the cutting of the umbilical cord after birth. During pregnancy, the umbilical cord is a bundle of arteries and veins that provide essential oxygen and nutrients to the growing fetus and remove waste. After birth, the distal end of the umbilical artery degenerates and transforms into structural ligaments such as the round ligament of the bladder.[9,10] Found within the abdominal cavity behind the belly button is a smooth lining called the parietal peritoneum which has sensory receptors that relay information via the nervous system. This area is innervated by the phrenic nerves which have sensitivity to pain, pressure, touch, friction, cutting and temperature.
Abdominal massage is not a new concept for improving constipation and digestive issues. Massage therapy, even without Castor oil, can stimulate nerve endings and relax muscle tissue which in turn assists digestion, offers constipation relief and reduces bloating and gas. If you have constipation issues or if you would just like to make use of this trend, it may be best to put yourself and your abdominal muscles into a relaxed state by lying on your back with a yoga mat or on the floor with your knees raised and your feet flat on the ground. After getting comfortable, follow these steps:
Before lying down be sure to have your Castor oil at hand.
If you would like to add some essential oils to Castor oil, try adding a drop of two oils that have a beneficial effect on the gut such as Ginger, Grapefruit* or Fennel Seed oil.
Place a quarter-sized amount of oil in the palm of your hand and rub your palms and fingertips together.
In a clockwise direction, starting with the belly button, begin to massage the oil gently with the fingertips and palms making the slightly larger circles until you have massaged your entire belly in circles. If you need more oil, feel free to use it. (Massage therapy hack: to improve absorption, use a heating pad after the massage for a few minutes.)
Relax for a few minutes if you have the time and breathe deeply and calmly which will facilitate activation of your Vagus nerve further relaxing your entire body.
Note: Castor oil is thick and dense and can stain clothing. To avoid stains, place a small towel between your belly and clothing when you have finished massaging the oil on your stomach until it has been absorbed by your skin.
*Grapefruit essential oil is phototoxic when skin is exposed to sunlight if used above a 1% dilution. For safer application when you know you will be in the sun, use instead Sweet Orange essential oil.
Beyond digestive benefits, research studies that back up the claims found on platforms like TikTok are sparse. Those that do exist, although promising, tend to be studies of very small groups. We hope to see more research studying the benefits of using Castor oil for gut health and detoxification, joint pain, sore muscles, inflammation, arthritis, skin & hair improvement, upset stomach, relief and a better night's sleep in the future. The question remains, does applying it to the belly button truly work for all these disorders? Considering its use throughout the millennia, Castor oil should not be discounted. As a natural product, Castor oil does seem to have many anecdotal benefits.
Some preliminary results from Castor oil research have shown promise for inflammation and pain reduction, better liver function, reduced cholesterol levels and immune system modulation of white blood cells. However, to truly get to the bottom of Castor oil's many benefits and use in modern medicine  and make valid many of the claims touted on TikTok, we recommend keeping up to date with research studies that can be found online to discern the advantages of applying this oil.
Whether Castor oil and navel pulling address the claims is to be determined mainly through more extensive scientific research but can also be attained on a personal level. Take this with a grain of sand and research claims about products before using them. That being said, there is minimal harm in topically applying Castor oil. We suggest taking this opportunity to keep daily journal entries on your use of Castor oil, such as with digestion, sleep patterns, pain and inflammation, and menstrual discomfort to discover how this product works for you.
Possible Side Effects
In the modern search for natural alternatives to prescription drugs, we want to bring to your attention that there are some risks associated with their use. While we may get excited with trendy products, always err on the side of caution. For example, while Castor oil can be safe if used correctly and carefully as a topical agent, its internal use may cause abdominal discomfort and pain, cramping, nausea and diarrhea which can lead to overall weakness. Always feel free to consult your medical doctor for advice.
For topical use, there are a few things to keep in mind. The first is to avoid using Castor oil directly on open lesions or irritated skin. Second, as with any new products and oils in your supply, we always recommend a skin patch test. Before applying it to a larger area, place a small amount of the product on the inner arm of the skin and wait 24 hours to rule out skin sensitivities such as swelling, itching and skin rash. If skin becomes red, itchy or irritated, it would be best to avoid using it.
There are circumstances where some people may be tempted to use Castor oil directly in the eyes. This can be dangerous and lead to bacterial infections, blocked tear ducts and vision problems. If you have eye issues, please see your ophthalmologist.
Concerning pregnancy and breastfeeding, after consulting a midwife on the use of Castor oil while pregnant, during labor or breastfeeding, she advised to avoid it during this time especially during labor since it may affect smooth muscle tissue. During labor, it has the potential to stimulate contractions and cause digestive and intestinal contraction which can make labor a little more messy than it normally is. With anything new and unfamiliar, it is best to use them in moderation.
Before/After Results & Personal Experience
Castor oil has widespread use in traditional Ayurvedic medicine to treat many issues including constipation, worms, rheumatism and arthritis as well as muscle tension and pain from lumbago. Taken internally, it is believed to balance the doshas of Vata and Kapha due to its affinity to be hot, potent and penetrating. However, when applied topically, It is considered to be cooling and rejuvenating with favorable anti-aging qualities. In traditional Chinese medicine, Castor oil's topical use is believed to move stagnation in the body which would aid inflammation and benefit pain relief.
Due to its thick nature, it may take time for it to be absorbed through the skin to assist digestion. If desired it can be blended with another less viscous carrier oil at a 1:1 ratio that has a high makeup of fatty acids such as Apricot Kernel or Grapeseed oil to make it easier to apply and be absorbed.
With Castor oil's load of essential fatty acids, it is easy to discern that it contains anti-inflammatory properties that are beneficial for the body topically and internally when absorbed through the skin. Therefore, applying Castor oil has plenty of potential to assist digestion, smooth and moisturize skin, and possibly reduce dandruff when used on the scalp. As for visible results, the application of Castor oil can benefit skin issues and offer softer and smoother skin.
As far as personal accounts, after using Castor oil on the abdomen whether with overnight wrap applications or navel pulling, some have stated that their sleep improved immediately and they have noticed improved gut health and reduced constipation followed soon after. Others have said that pain has decreased and that they feel more energetic. Another user who suffers from Type 1 diabetes, applies it topically on repeat insulin injection sites of their lower abdomen to reduce lipohypertrophy - instances where a build-up of fat, protein and scar tissue occurs.
Looking for a trustworthy brand of Castor oil? Try Ayurveda brand Banyan Botanicals.
Castor Bean, Ricinus communis https://hort.extension.wisc.edu/articles/castor-bean-ricinus-communis/
Castor Oil doesn't Belong Anywhere Near the Eyes https://www.ucihealth.org/news/2023/08/castor-oil
Know the Hidden Facts About Castor Oil from Ayurveda https://www.ambujasolvex.com/blog/know-the-hidden-facts-about-castor-oil-from-ayurveda/
How Your Brain and Your Emotions Control Your Gut https://www.loyolamedicine.org/about-us/blog/how-your-brain-and-emotions-control-your-gut
Chapter 7. Anterior Abdominal Wall https://accessanesthesiology.mhmedical.com/content.aspx?bookid=381§ionid=40140014#:~:text=Umbilicus.,for%20belly%20but%2Dten%E2%80%9D.
Umbilical Vein: Anatomy, Tributary, Drainage https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/umbilical-vein
The Development, Structure and Blood Flow within the Umbilical Cord with Particular Reference to the Venous System https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5025097/
Peritoneal innervation: embryology and functional anatomy https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6328075/
Evidence for the Topical Application of Castor Oil https://intjnm.com/evidence-for-the-topical-application-of-castor-oil/
Castor Oil: Myths and Facts https://healthmatters.nyp.org/castor-oil-myths-and-facts/
Ayurvedic Properties of Castor Oil https://www.auromere.com/blog/ayurvedic-properties-of-castor-oil/
7 Reasons Castor Oil Is the Secret of Ayurvedic Beauty https://www.banyanbotanicals.com/info/blog-the-banyan-insight/details/castor-oil-the-multi-use-beauty-product/
Castor Oil: Benefits, Use and Side Effects https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319844