Peppermint Oil Soothes Irritable Bowel Syndrome in Kids

From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 13, 2001 -- Over the past 4,000 years, many claims have been made about the medicinal benefits of peppermint oil. But a new study shows that its curative powers may not just be folklore after all. Researchers have found that using peppermint oil helps relieve pain in children suffering from a stomach and intestinal disorder called irritable bowel syndrome.

Both adults and children can get irritable bowel syndrome. It is a fairly common condition that can cause crampy pain, excessive gas, bloating, and changes in bowel habits. Some people with irritable bowel syndrome are constipated, some have diarrhea, and still others alternate between the two. The cause is unknown, although symptoms may be triggered by emotional stress or certain foods. Right now there is no cure, and doctors gear treatment toward relieving symptoms.

Treating childhood irritable bowel syndrome usually involves more than one type of therapy, says Tracie L. Miller, MD. This includes changes in diet, medications, and often psychotherapy. Miller is chief of pediatric gastroenterology and nutrition at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York.

"The frustrations in treating children with irritable bowel syndrome include the refusal to eat the recommended foods, resistance of both child and family to seek psychiatric treatment," she says, as well as the side effects and lack of effectiveness of the various medications used to treat irritable bowel syndrome.

Previous studies have shown that peppermint oil may be helpful for adults dealing with irritable bowel syndrome, and a team of researchers, led by Robert Kline, PhD, from the department of child health at the University of Missouri in Columbia, decided to see if it might help reduce pain in children.

In their study, which appears in the January issue of the Journal of Pediatrics, Kline and colleagues divided 42 children, aged 8-17, with irritable bowel syndrome into two groups. One group received capsules of peppermint oil and the other a dummy pill, or placebo.

After two weeks, the children taking peppermint oil had a significant improvement in their symptoms. Three-quarters of them had changes in the severity of their symptoms, and almost half reported that they were feeling "much better."

In contrast, less than one-fifth of the children who had been given the placebo had changes in the severity of their symptoms, and none of them said that they were "much better." A number of the children taking the placebo, in fact, said that their pain had gotten worse during the two-week study period.

However, the peppermint oil only seemed to help pain. Other common symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, such as excess gas, belching, bloating, and heartburn, remained the same for both groups.

The peppermint oil was found to be very safe, and none of the children had any side effects from it.

The researchers feel that larger, more comprehensive studies are needed. In the meantime, they write that "peppermint oil should be considered for the treatment of moderate levels of pain in children with irritable bowel syndrome."

Miller, who provided WebMD with an objective opinion about the research, says that the study has made "a significant start in piloting alternate therapies that are well tolerated, safe, and effective in treating irritable bowel syndrome of childhood."

David Gremse, MD, director of the division of pediatric GI/nutrition at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, points out that even though no side effects were reported, peppermint oil has caused heartburn and allergic reactions in adults who have used it. The two-week study period, he feels, wasn't long enough to conclude that it won't cause any side effects in children.

Gremse, who also reviewed the study for WebMD, feels that the "results are intriguing" but says that further studies are needed to confirm both the safety and effectiveness of peppermint oil before it can be widely recommended to relieve symptoms in children with irritable bowel syndrome.

The research was supported in part by a grant from Tillotts Pharma AG.