Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a chronic, episodic intestinal disorder characterized by abdominal pain and altered bowel habits. It affects 1 in 7 Americans, although most go undiagnosed. IBS can have a substantial impact on well-being and health, but doctors underestimate the impact the disease can have, particularly the pain and discomfort. Using some measures, the health-related quality of life of irritable bowel sufferers can rival that of sufferers of much more serious disorders, such as diabetes, kidney failure, and inflammatory bowel diseases. The first step toward successful treatment is for doctors to acknowledge the condition and not just dismiss the patient as just hysterical or something.
Another reason sufferers often don’t seek medical care may be the lack of effectiveness of the available treatments. There is a huge unmet therapeutic need. Since IBS has no cure, treatment is targeted to alleviate the symptoms. Typical antispasmodic drugs can cause side effects, including dry mouth, dizziness, blurred vision, confusion, and fall risk. New drugs now on the market, like Lubiprostone and Linaclotide, can cost up to $3,000 a year and can cause as side effects many of symptoms we’re trying to treat.
Antidepressants are commonly given but may take weeks or even months to start helping. Prozac or Celexa take 4 to 6 weeks to help, and Paxil can take up to 12 weeks. They also have their own array of side effects, including sexual dysfunction in over 70% of the people who take these drugs.
There’s got to be a better way.
Acupuncture works, but not better than placebo. Placebo acupuncture? That’s where you poke people with a fake needle away from any known acupuncture points. Yet that worked just as well as real acupuncture, showing the power of the placebo effect.
I’ve talked about the ethics of so many doctors who effectively pass off sugar pills as effective drugs, arguing that the ends justify their means. There’s actually a way to harness the placebo effect without lying to patients, though. We tell them it’s a sugar pill. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome were randomized to either get nothing or a prescription medicine bottle of placebo pills with a label clearly marked “placebo pills” “take 2 pills twice daily.” I kid you not.
Lo and behold, it worked! That’s how powerful the placebo effect can be for irritable bowel. They conclude that for some disorders it may be appropriate for clinicians to recommend that patients try an inexpensive and safe placebo. Indeed, sugar pills probably won’t cost $3,000 a year. But is there a safe alternative that actually works?
As you can see in my video, Peppermint Oil for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, nine randomized placebo-controlled studies have indeed found peppermint oil to be a safe and effective treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. A few adverse events were reported, but were mild and transient in nature, such as a peppermint taste, peppermint smell, and a cooling sensation around one’s bottom on the way out. In contrast, in some of the head-to-head peppermint versus drug studies, some of the drug side effects were so unbearable that patients had to drop out of the study. This suggests it might be a reasonable approach for clinicians to treat IBS patients with peppermint oil as a first-line therapy, before trying anything else.
The longest trial only lasted 12 weeks, so we don’t yet know about long-term efficacy. The benefits may last at least a month after stopping, though, perhaps due to lasting changes in our gut flora.
The studies used peppermint oil capsules so researchers could match them with placebo pills. What about peppermint tea? It’s never been tested, but one might assume it wouldn’t be concentrated enough. However, a quarter cup of fresh peppermint leaves has as much peppermint oil as some of the capsule doses used in the studies. One could easily blend it into a smoothie or with frozen berries to make something like my pink juice recipe. You can grow mint right on your window sill.
We doctors need effective treatments that “are cheap, safe, and readily available. This is particularly relevant at the present time as newer and more expensive drugs have either failed to show efficacy or been withdrawn from the market owing to concerns about serious adverse events.” Just like it may be a good idea to only eat foods with ingredients you can pronounce, it may be better to try some mint before novel pharmacological approaches, such the new dual mu-opioid agonist delta-antagonist drug with a name like JNJ-27018966.
I have some other mint videos: Enhancing Athletic Performance With Peppermint and Peppermint Aromatherapy for Nausea. Lemon balm is also in the mint family, so check out Reducing Radiation Damage With Ginger & Lemon Balm and Best Aromatherapy Herb for Alzheimer’s.
You can also sprinkle dried mint on various dishes. See Antioxidants in a Pinch.
What else might work for IBS? See Kiwifruit for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion.
Irritable bowel symptoms can overlap with problems with gluten, so make sure your physician rules out celiac disease. These may be helpful:
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: