From cold remedies and toothpaste to ice cream and lip balm, the uses of peppermint seem endless. And thanks to recent research, you can add one more to the list -- relieving symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Peppermint has been used for hundreds of years as an herbal remedy for various problems. It’s been touted as a salve for everything from colds and headaches to various digestive problems. With IBS, there’s actual science behind the claims. Several studies show that it can help with common IBS symptoms like pain, constipation, bloating, and gas. In fact, some research shows that it can be more effective than fiber and at least as good as antispasmodic drugs, also known as muscle relaxants.
That doesn’t mean that brushing your teeth or downing another bowl of mint chip will ease your symptoms. How you take it matters. Make sure to tell your doctor if you plan to try peppermint oil. Treating IBS can be complex, so they need a complete picture of what you’re doing and what helps.
Capsules or Tea?
The research to this point has focused on peppermint oil capsules, not on peppermint leaves like you find in tea. The oil comes from the stems, leaves, and flowers of the plant. There’s no harm in drinking peppermint tea, but only the capsules have been shown to be effective. Plus, with capsules, you know how much peppermint oil you’re getting with each dose.
Make sure to look for enteric-coated capsules. The coating keeps your stomach juices from breaking down the capsules. That way they won’t dissolve until they get to your intestines. Capsules without the coating are more likely to cause heartburn.
How Does It Work?
Researchers are still trying to understand exactly how peppermint oil relieves IBS symptoms. The signs so far point to menthol, one of the ingredients in peppermint. Menthol has cooling effects. That's why you can find it in many health care products that treat problems like chest congestion and muscle pain.
When you have IBS symptoms, the nerves in your colon get super sensitive. That’s what causes pain in your gut. The muscles in your colon also tend to overreact, causing even more symptoms. But it looks like menthol can dull those pain receptors and relax the muscles in your colon. That’s a perfect recipe for IBS relief.
How Much Do I Take?
It varies for kids and adults, and there hasn’t been any research for kids under 8:
- Adults: 0.2ml to 0.4ml of peppermint oil 3 times a day
- Children ages 8 and up: 0.1ml to 0.2ml of peppermint oil 3 times a day
If you use antacids, don’t take them at the same time as peppermint oil. They can break down the coating on the capsules and make your heartburn worse. And remember to swallow the capsules, not chew them.
You may think that if a little peppermint oil is good, then a lot is better. Not true. As with medicine, you need the right dose. Too much peppermint oil can mess with how your body digests vitamins, minerals, and medicines. Very high doses can be toxic, and even cause kidney failure.
What Are the Side Effects?
As with any herb or medicine, peppermint oil can cause side effects. Some people may have an allergic reaction. Other milder reactions are heartburn and a burning feeling around the anus. These symptoms tend to go away quickly.
Is It Safe for Everyone?
For most people, if they take the suggested dose, the oil is safe. But doctors suggest you avoid it if you have:
- Gallstones or a swollen gallbladder
- Hiatal hernia
- Severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Talk to your doctor if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. In typical doses, it’s likely safe. But there hasn’t been much research on it.