In my garden, it grows like a bully – scrambling for every bit of space and pushing the other herbs out of the way each spring. In my food, it adds brightness and a Mediterranean flare. It settles my stomach… and it freshens both my cocktails and my breath.
On top of all that, it also has a powerful effect on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). If you’ve got IBS – which affects as much as 15 per cent of the population – you’ve experienced the disabling spasms, abdominal pain, and either diarrhoea or constipation (frequently both).
And you know all too well that there’s no easy conventional remedy. But peppermint turns out to be an unconventional natural cure that provides miraculous relief for people suffering from IBS, whose only other options are prescription drugs with a litany of side effects.
Take back your quality of life
Dozens of studies have been performed on peppermint, or Mentha piperita (MP), and its positive effects on IBS. We’ve known for a long time that MP is a digestive enhancer and can calm your bowels down – and one recent review article stated that ‘the evidence for using MP and gastrointestinal disease is more than in any other medicine.’1
In one early randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 110 patients with IBS, enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules (ECPO) were given with each meal, 15 to 30 minutes before eating. After a month, the improvement was highly significant over the placebo group, the P value was less than 0.05 (for those of you not expert in statistics, this means that it is a highly significant result).2
In another randomised double blind placebo-controlled study of 90 patients with IBS, the treatment group who took one ECPO three times a day for two months had significantly less abdominal pain than the control group. In addition, their quality of life markers were significantly improved.
Highly significant positive results came out of another study that looked at IBS patients who took two ECPO capsules even less frequently and over a shorter period of time – just twice a day for only one month.3
These are just a few of the individual studies published in peer-reviewed journals. In a review of the literature (called a meta-analysis), nine studies using ECPO encompassing 726 patients showed peppermint to be effective in controlling abdominal pain associated with IBS. Another major review, this time looking at 16 trials using ECPO with children suffering from IBS, demonstrated overall success in eradicating symptoms in about half of the children, versus 29 per cent of placebo.
How does peppermint do it?
There are several theories as to why peppermint oil acts so well to control IBS. We know that peppermint oil contains menthol and other substances that can slow down muscle contraction, probably by interfering with the movement of calcium across the cell membrane and thus interfering with the action of the smooth muscles in the intestinal walls (a bit like a calcium-channel blocking drug).
However, a recent study of the microbiome (the multitude of organisms that line the intestinal tract) and its effects on the proper function of the digestive organs suggests that MP and other natural substances may improve digestive function by their antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory actions. In fact, peppermint oil has significant amounts of the antioxidant limonene and the antibiotic oil cineole (also a major component of eucalyptus), in addition to the menthol and other alcohols.
You can’t treat your IBS more safely than this
Just as important as its efficacy and means of action is the safety of using peppermint oil – and THIS is where conventional medicine has failed us so many times. It was only a few years ago that the prescription drug Zelnorm was being advertised as a new miracle drug for IBS, only to be taken off the market in 2007 for its cardiovascular risks.4
Newer drugs for IBS are advertised on television today, despite the risks they pose to those who use them… risks so serious that they could land you in the hospital, surgery, or an early grave.5
One of those prescription drugs could even expose you to the risk of developing a treacherous C. diff infection!6 And yet peppermint oil has been studied for decades and has clearly demonstrated a margin of safety. In the meta-analysis cited before, the only major side effect was heartburn, and this was short term.7
In many of the studies, the only side effects were transient gas, heartburn, or, occasionally, mild anal irritation. All of these side effects went away as soon as the supplement was stopped.
In other words, a medication can’t get much safer.
It gets even better!
Peppermint oil is great on its own, but why stop there? Because it also works in good combination with many other substances, including other essential oils.
Several good studies also show that combinations of peppermint oil and caraway oil work well for gastrointestinal problems, including IBS.8
Olive oil also seems to complement peppermint oil. A study published last year looked at almost 300 patients with IBS, divided into three groups. Both the peppermint oil group and the group with peppermint and olive oils mixed in a 3:7 ratio were significantly better than the control group in reducing the symptoms of IBS, including pain, gas, and abnormal bowel movements.9
However, the group getting the combination of peppermint oil and olive oil showed significantly more improvement. Recently, I have come across an even more unique peppermint combinations for IBS. For instance, in a study focusing on a type of IBS called IBS-C (socalled because constipation is a prime symptom of this illness),
Dr. Kenneth Brown and his associates tested a combination of three ingredients:
1. Red quebracho, a South American tree producing a substance containing a high amount of tannins. Tannins, used in the production of wine (amongother things), are known to absorb gaseous material. They’re also antibacterial.
2. Conker tree, or horse chestnut, contains high amounts of saponins, which shut off methane production and are also antimicrobial.
3. M. balsamea Willd, which is actually peppermint leaf. These three ingredients are combined in a patented supplement called Atrantil, which Dr. Brown has used for his patient suffering from IBS-C. He reported a response rate of 88 per cent with ‘significant reduction in abdominal pain, bloating, and constipation.’
Feel better while you get to the bottom of your IBS
The first and best course of action when dealing with a condition like IBS is to keep a food diary. Some of your worst IBS symptoms may be triggered by sensitivities to certain foods. So, by writing down what you’re eating every day… and keeping track of your IBS flare-ups… you can often find which foods are the culprits.
In the meantime, peppermint can help you feel better while you’re suffering. Obviously, more research will have to be done, but this is an example of a safe and creative way to use natural products to address the disabling problem of IBS.
Peppermint can also help tackle one of the most debilitating conditions associated with IBS – fatigue. It acts as a nerve stimulant and can give your energy levels a boost.
But you won’t get the quantity of it you need through more familiar sources of peppermint, like chewing gum or breath mints. You can drink peppermint tea or even try using peppermint oil in liquid form (which is also great for aromatherapy), but for best results, use the entericcoated peppermint oil capsules used in the studies I mentioned.
By coating the capsule, we can ensure that it gets down into the lower aspects of the intestinal tract, where the problems of irritable bowel syndrome occur. This also reduces any stomachrelated side effects from the peppermint, like heartburn. It’s best to take it about 30 minutes before you eat.Wishing you the best of health,
Dr. Glenn S. Rothfeld
Nutrition & Healing
Full references and citations for this article are available in the downloadable PDF version of the monthly Nutrition and Healing issue in which this article appears.