Peppermint Oil and IBS: Why Experts Recommend It – Everyday Health

Experts dish on the science-backed benefits peppermint oil can offer for irritable bowel syndrome — and their recommendations for patients.
If you’re in search of a natural remedy to add to your irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) armory, you may not need to look any further than peppermint oil.
An herb that has stood the test of time, peppermint has been used for millennia to alleviate digestive troubles. Indeed, its use dates all the way back to the times of ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
What sets peppermint oil apart from the rest of the pack of possible natural remedies for IBS? For starters, you can rest assured that experts have given their nod of approval to peppermint oil for IBS. In its January 2021 treatment guideline, the American College of Gastroenterology suggested peppermint oil for relief of IBS symptoms such as abdominal pain.
The group based its verdict on a number of scientific studies, including a review article published in Clinical Gastroenterology. The authors of the review found that, in nine studies that included 726 patients, peppermint oil was “significantly superior” to placebo for short-term use when it came to improving overall IBS symptoms.
More recently, an analysis from the July 2019 BMC Complementary Medicine and Therapies indicated that, in 12 randomized trials that included 835 patients, peppermint oil was a safe and effective option for abdominal pain and overall symptoms (such as constipation and diarrhea) among adults with IBS.
So what is it about peppermint oil that makes it a potential IBS symptom reliever? “Peppermint oil is a muscle relaxant. As such, it produces an antispasmodic effect, targeting specific symptoms of IBS, in particular pain, cramps, and bloating,” says Scott McDougall, the director and a registered manager of the Independent Pharmacy in Bristol, United Kingdom.
When food is digested, a natural series of muscle contractions in the gut called peristalsis helps push food through your digestive system and urine to your bladder, McDougall explains. In people with IBS, the nerves that facilitate peristalsis are much more sensitive, and the inner wall of the digestive system reacts more strongly to certain foods that don’t typically cause issues in people without IBS, he says.
Common foods that can trigger IBS symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic, include milk and dairy products, wheat, beans, citrus fruits, and carbonated beverages, among others. In people with IBS, the gut’s reaction to these foods often causes pain, bloating, and other symptoms, says McDougall.
Certain components of peppermint oil may calm the digestive pains common in IBS. “The menthol in peppermint has a decompressing effect on the intestinal smooth muscle. This leads to pain relief for bloating and constipation,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, an adjunct assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine and a clinical instructor at Kingsbrook Jewish Medical Center in Brooklyn, New York.
Peppermint oil also has properties that can alleviate inflammation and ward off bacteria, Dr. Sonpal adds.
Peppermint comes in a variety of forms, including oral capsules, topical essential oils, and diluted extracts for food flavoring. Peppermint can also come in the form of teas, but according to McDougall, “Peppermint tea is not manufactured with medical use in mind, and it has no proven effect on IBS.”
For IBS symptoms in particular, oral capsules are the most recommended form of peppermint oil, because research has suggested they are the most effective for medical purposes, McDougall states.
If you choose to try a peppermint oil, it’s key to know what to look for in an oral supplement. “When it comes to swallowing peppermint oils, look for ones that are labeled ‘therapeutic grade,’ since these are safer to swallow,” Sonpal recommends.
You should also be aware that peppermint oil supplements can result in mild side effects. “It can cause acid reflux and heartburn, so it should be taken in moderation or under consultation with a doctor or pharmacist,” McDougall warns.
The NIH echoes this caution, noting that oral peppermint oil supplements can have side effects of nausea, dry mouth, abdominal pain, and, in rare cases, allergic reactions. Peppermint oil capsules that are enteric-coated are less likely to lead to heartburn, the NIH states.
IBGard is a specific peppermint oil supplement that Jill Deutsch, MD, recommends to many of her patients with IBS. “IBGard is marketed as a peppermint oil supplement that acts premeal to help reduce gastrointestinal spasm that can cause pain in relation to eating, which is a hallmark of IBS symptoms,” says Dr. Deutsch, who is a gastroenterologist and the director of the functional gastrointestinal disorders program at Yale New Haven Hospital in Connecticut.
It’s important to note that in the studies where peppermint oil was shown to improve IBS symptoms, participants took the supplement daily for four weeks, Deutsch says. In other words, it hasn’t been shown to work when it's taken only on an as-needed basis.
Be sure to consult with your doctor before adding a peppermint oil supplement to your IBS treatment regimen.
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