Peppermint Oil for Irritable Bowel Syndrome
Peppermint oil can relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), according to a report in Psychosomatics (2002;43:508–9). This new report, written by a psychiatrist, describes seven people being treated for mood disorders who also suffered from IBS. After treatment with peppermint oil, each of these individuals experienced an improvement in their intestinal symptoms, mainly a reduction in bloating, pain, and discomfort. The amount of peppermint oil that was found to be effective was 0.5 to 1 ml (1/10 to 1/5 of a teaspoon) in liquid, after breakfast and dinner.
IBS is a gastrointestinal disorder that affects millions of Americans. Typical symptoms include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, and diarrhea, sometimes alternating with constipation. Although the condition is not considered a serious health problem, it can cause substantial discomfort and lost time from work. People with IBS are usually advised to consume adequate amounts of fiber in their diet. Prescription medications designed to relieve specific symptoms may also be recommended. Although these treatments may be helpful, the results of conventional therapy are often less than satisfactory.
This is not the first report that peppermint oil is helpful for IBS; in fact, at least eight controlled trials have been published, most of which have shown the treatment to be effective. Despite this rather large body of evidence, the value of peppermint oil remains largely unknown to the medical profession. Perhaps this new report describing one doctor's experience will spur other doctors to try this simple, inexpensive herbal remedy.
Peppermint oil is known to relax the muscles of the intestinal tract, which might explain how it relieves spasms and cramping in people with IBS. One study suggested that peppermint oil also reduces the frequency of diarrhea, although the mechanism of that action is not known.
Peppermint oil tends to promote relaxation of the junction that separates the stomach from the esophagus (lower esophageal sphincter). Taking peppermint oil may, therefore, cause heartburn or allow food to reflux from the stomach back into the esophagus. For that reason, many commercially available peppermint oil products are “enteric coated” so that the contents of the tablet are not released until after the tablet has left the acid environment of the stomach and entered the small intestine. While enteric-coated peppermint oil is usually well tolerated, pure peppermint oil is more likely to cause gastrointestinal side effects. Even enteric-coated peppermint oil can cause side effects in people with low stomach acid (hypochlorhydria), because in those people the oil may be released before the tablet has left the stomach. Individuals with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) should consult a physician before using peppermint oil.
Alan R. Gaby, MD, an expert in nutritional therapies, testified to the White House Commission on CAM upon request in December 2001. Dr. Gaby served as a member of the Ad-Hoc Advisory Panel of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. He is the author of Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima, 1994), and co-author of The Natural Pharmacy, 2nd Edition (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), Clinical Essentials Volume 1 and 2 (Healthnotes, 2000), and The Patient’s Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999). A former professor at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, in Kenmore, WA, where he served as the Endowed Professor of Nutrition, Dr. Gaby is the Chief Medical Editor for Healthnotes, Inc.
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