As a bonus, natural alternatives frequently have fewer side effects than drugs and generally tend to be more affordable. However, because natural options aren't big money-makers for the pharmaceutical giants, research on them is still rather limited.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) has a time-honored history as a traditional medicinal. It has been valued as a remedy for dyspepsia since ancient Egyptian times. The ancient Greeks and Romans also used peppermint to soothe indigestion. In western Europe during the eighteenth century, peppermint held favor as a folk remedy for nausea and vomiting.
Peppermint is a relaxing as well as refreshing herb. The active compounds in peppermint oil have antispasmodic properties that have a soothing effect on the lining and smooth muscle of the colon, helping to relieve diarrhea, constipation, bloating, and gas. The cooling menthol in the oil eases nausea and relieves stomach pain. These effects have been demonstrated in numerous clinical studies in Europe and more recently in US studies as well.
Although peppermint tea is both calming and invigorating, it's a very diluted form of the herb and doesn't provide the same powerful healing properties and efficacy as the essential oil, which is highly concentrated and medicinally potent. In multiple clinical studies, peppermint oil, taken orally in the form of capsules, has been shown to provide relief from many IBS symptoms and to help to normalize the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients, as well as normalize intestinal transit time.
However, the challenge has been targeting the oil to the specific area of the colon (the small intestine) where IBS symptoms occur, rather than the stomach. Another challenge has been heartburn and anal burning, common side effects of taking peppermint oil. And because the oil has intensive relaxing effects, it not only relaxes the colon but also the esophageal sphincter, which can contribute to reflux and GERD, especially if the oil is taken on a full stomach.
One of the first breakthroughs in peppermint oil delivery was enteric-coated liquid-filled gel caps. The coating helps keep the oil from being released in the stomach and lessens heartburn and other side effects. A more recent breakthrough has been a product called IBGard, which is made with ultra-purified peppermint oil in solid, sustained-release microspheres that deliver the oil specifically to the small intestine, where it is most effective for managing the symptoms of IBS. Clinical research provides evidence that IBGard works for a statistically significant number of IBS patients, even in as quickly as twenty-four hours for some.
However, IBGard and most similar products aren't vegan because the oil is encased in gelatin capsules. One of the few exceptions is Deva Nutrition, which sells peppermint oil in veggie caps in the US and the UK. Although these capsules aren't enteric coated, the manufacturer claims that they are "delayed release."
There is no doubt that peppermint oil capsules may be beneficial to many people suffering from IBS, especially those with IBS-D (diarrhea-predominant IBS) and IBS-M (alternating diarrhea and constipation). Taking them -- in conjunction with following a low-FODMAP diet -- may help stabilize your symptoms and bring more normalcy to your life. While there are limited vegan options available at this time, if the vegan choices don't work for you, IBGard or other nonvegan peppermint oil products that are enteric coated may be worth exploring until better solutions become available. However, only you can decide whether your quality of life is worth making the compromise to take nonvegan medications. I encourage you to try the vegan brand of peppermint oil capsules and to also write to the manufacturers of other peppermint oil products to let them know we need more vegan alternatives.
Originally published 09.19.16. Updated 08.17.17.
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