Doctor’s Tip: Peppermint for irritable bowel syndrome and more
Last week’s column talked about studies finally being done on some traditional folk medicines to determine if they are effective. One such remedy is ginger, the subject of last week’s column. Another is peppermint.
IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), which affects one out of seven Americans, is a chronic, episodic condition characterized by low abdominal cramping, and often either diarrhea or constipation. No-one dies from IBS, but it definitely adversely affects quality of life. Diagnosis is based on symptoms — there is no test for IBS, but more serious diseases need to be ruled out when patients present with IBS symptoms.
Pharmaceuticals have never been very successful in treating IBS. Anti-spasmodic drugs and antidepressants were used in the past, but weren’t very effective, and had a high rate of side effects. The newer medications can cost up to $3,000 a year and have side effects, and their effectiveness isn’t impressive.
Peppermint has been used for thousands of years to treat GI symptoms. After-dinner mints not only act as a breath freshener, but also relieve flatus and abdominal cramping associated with the gastro-colic reflex — when the stomach is full, the colon contracts to allow room in the stomach for more food. Peppermint tea does the same thing. In at least one study, peppermint oil capsules were as effective in treating symptoms of IBS, and had no side effects. According to Dr. Greger (nutritionfacts.org), 1/4 cup of fresh mint leaves contains the same amount of peppermint oil as the capsules in this study, and he maintains that peppermint should be the first line treatment for IBS.
Because peppermint relaxes the colon, taking it prior to colonoscopy makes the procedure easier and safer. Perforation of the colon is a rare but serious complication of colonoscopy, and it is less apt to occur if the colon is relaxed.
Following are some other medicinal effects of peppermint:
• It can improve athletic performance, thought to be due to opening up the airways.
• It can relieve nausea. Just the smell of essential oil of spearmint (very similar to peppermint) can do this, although it’s unclear whether it’s the smell of spearmint, the smell of alcohol which is part of the essential oil, or whether it’s just taking deep breaths.
• Peppermint has an anti-testosterone effect when taken in large doses, which can lower libido in men — so men should beware. This effect can be useful in treating women with unwanted hair and with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome, both of which are associated with higher-than-normal testosterone levels.
Although intuitively you’d think that peppermint would work for colic, it should not be given to infants or young children because of potential serious side effects (just because something is natural doesn’t necessarily mean it’s safe).
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and other medical issues, and to help people with hospital or other medical bills they don’t understand or think are too high. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at email@example.com.