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Just a Spoonful of Castor Oil

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Castor oil may have a bad rap among people who were force-fed spoonfuls as children, but it's no myth that the tonic has health effects. Now, scientists have elucidated the molecular mechanism of the active ingredient in castor oil, which has been used for thousands of years as a laxative and labor-inducer. Ricinoleic acid, the fatty acid that makes up about 90% of the oil, binds to one particular receptor in the intestines and uterus, the researchers discovered. The discovery explains how castor oil works and could lead to the development of less unpleasant drugs.

Although taking a daily spoonful of diluted castor oil as a general health aid is no longer in vogue, alternative health stores still sell the foul-tasting liquid as a laxative. The Food and Drug Administration has categorized castor oil as "generally recognized as safe and effective," but researchers don't understand its mechanism.

"When you study classic, old drugs, you almost always learn something from them," says first author of the new study Stefan Offermanns, a biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Germany. "The major surprise here was how specifically castor oil worked."

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