More than a third of American adults use some form of complementary or alternative medicine, according to a government report. Natural remedies have an obvious appeal, but how do you know which ones to choose and whether the claims are backed by science?
The Remedy: Peppermint oil.
The Claim: It relieves symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
The Science: The symptoms — abdominal pain, bloating and frequent trips to the bathroom — sound like a bad case of food poisoning. But for millions of Americans with irritable bowel syndrome, they are a daily reality.
By some estimates, the condition strikes as many as one in five adults, and it can be difficult to treat. Many patients cycle through prescription drugs, fiber supplements, laxatives and even cognitive behavioral therapy. But for those looking for a natural alternative, peppermint oil may be an option.
A cross between watermint and spearmint, the peppermint plant has been used for centuries as an herbal remedy. It is thought to have the ability to relieve some gastrointestinal problems by blocking the flow of calcium into muscle cells in the intestines, which in turn reduces muscle contractions.
In a report financed by the American College of Gastroenterology and published in the journal BMJ in 2008, scientists conducted an analysis of previous studies comparing peppermint oil with placebo in about 400 patients. Ultimately, they found that only 26 percent of patients treated with peppermint oil — typically administered twice daily in capsule form, for a period of one to three months — continued to show symptoms of I.B.S. after treatment, compared with 65 percent of those who were given placebo. The scientists concluded that the evidence was compelling enough that more studies should be conducted, and that in the interim, “current national guidelines for the management of the condition should be updated to include these data.”
Of course, not every study of peppermint oil has endorsed it as a treatment. Some have found little or no benefit at all. But experts say that for patients looking for another option, there is enough evidence to warrant giving peppermint oil a shot.
As a 2007 report in the journal American Family Physician indicated, “Although results of studies on the use of this herb for the treatment of I.B.S. symptoms have been mixed, there seems to be a trend indicating mild effectiveness in the reduction of some I.B.S. symptoms, especially flatulence and abdominal pain and distension.”
According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health, peppermint oil is best when consumed in coated-capsule form, which reduces the likelihood of heartburn. It’s considered safe when used in small doses, with common side effects generally limited to nausea and allergic reactions.