By Maureen Williams, ND
Healthnotes Newswire (May 24, 2007)—Chronic digestive problems are often a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), but sometimes other undiagnosed conditions are the real cause. New research suggests that people with an accurate diagnosis of IBS could benefit from taking peppermint oil.
IBS is a common digestive disorder marked by abdominal bloating and discomfort, gas, and loose stools or constipation, or episodes of each. Its cause remains unknown, but stress appears to be an important contributing factor.
The typical treatment recommendation for people with IBS is a fiber supplement, but sometimes other medications such as antispasmodics and antidepressants are prescribed. Some people benefit from these therapies, but many IBS sufferers continue to have chronic digestive discomfort in spite of such interventions.
Because symptoms of other digestive problems are so similar, the IBS diagnosis is overused. A person seeking medical care for a long history of vague digestive problems is likely to receive a diagnosis of IBS, but studies have found that anywhere from 5 to 50% of people diagnosed with IBS actually have another condition that could be responsible for the same symptoms.
Lactose intolerance (the inability to digest the sugar found in dairy foods), small bowel bacterial overgrowth (the presence of bacteria colonies in the small intestine where none should be), and celiac disease (an immune reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat and some other grains) have all been identified in people diagnosed with IBS. Unlike IBS, there is a clear treatment path for each of these conditions.
Peppermint oil has been studied for its ability to relieve IBS symptoms, and results have been mixed. The latest study, published in Digestive and Liver Disease, included only people with IBS in whom lactose intolerance, small bowel bacterial overgrowth, and celiac disease had clearly been ruled out.
The 50 study participants took either 450 mg of peppermint oil, prepared in enteric-coated capsules (designed to dissolve in the intestine rather than the stomach), or placebo two times per day for four weeks. Seventy-five percent of the people in the peppermint group reported a 50% or greater reduction in IBS symptoms at the end of the trial, and four weeks after finishing treatment almost half of them were still feeling better. By contrast, only 38% of those in the placebo group reported a 50% symptom reduction at the end of the trial.
The volatile oils that give peppermint its distinctive aroma have antispasmodic and antibacterial properties that could account for some of its benefits in people with IBS. It has been used historically to treat colic, indigestion, and gas. Peppermint can aggravate heartburn, but for most people the enteric-coated form is safe in this regard.
“This study shows that patients with IBS may benefit from a four-week treatment with enteric-coated peppermint oil,” the researchers concluded. “The improvement in symptoms lasts longer than the therapeutic period in almost half of the treated patients.”
(Digestive and Liver Disease 2007;online publication)
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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