Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Got your attention? Because one out of five people reading this probably has it. But peppermint and other cooling compounds may soothe some of the bowel hypersensitivity of IBS, according to research from Australia, led by Stuart Brierley. Publishing in the journal Pain (naturally), the authors describe how peppermint and other cooling chemicals might do it.
If you’ve spent your days feeling like you’ve inflated a blimp in your lower intestine, hiding from colleagues because of the terrifying sounds emanating from your colon, or hovering over a toilet in the wee hours, then you know of the malady of which I write. And you know that a feeling of inflammation is part of it.
Pain is complicated, especially pain that’s not supposed to be there. Your body perceives irritating or dangerous transgressions against it via pathways involving proteins that signal, “Hey, you’ve got something unfortunate going on here! You’d better do something!” Sometimes, though, these pain proteins “forget” to quit signaling. When that happens, the body gets these “help!” signals even when there’s not anything wrong.
In IBS, nerves may be permanently agitated, possibly set off originally by a bout of gasteroenteritis, or stomach flu. As if it weren’t enough to live through all that hurling, a permanent effect can be these permanently “on” signals that your intestines are inflamed. But cooling chemicals like peppermint or the appropriately named icilin may ease this overreaction and turn off those signals. According to Brierley and colleagues, these hyperactive pain proteins are present in the bowel and can respond to these chemicals, possibly explaining how peppermint helps cool the discomfort of IBS.
The role of those pain proteins is to cry out, “Hot! Hot!” when things feel hot. The cooling compounds literally give them a cooling sensation, shutting them down. The researchers also noted that mustard or chili tend to kick these same pain pathways into higher gear, so if you have IBS, you might want to slow down on the mustard.
Speaking of food, no one knows exactly what causes IBS, although many people report exacerbation when they eat fatty or spicy foods or drink coffee or alcohol. Stress can make it worse, and there is likely a genetic component. Women, who make up the bulk of IBS cases, also report worsening symptoms related to their hormone cycles.
IBS has no cure. Those of you who have it probably already know that. The best anyone can do right now is to focus on alleviating the symptoms, which can include diarrhea, constipation, or both.
One way to ease those symptoms may be by consuming peppermint, advice that naturopath sorts have been giving for years. I’ve tried it myself. Now, thanks to Stuart Brierley and his Australian research team, we know a little more about how peppermint may work in calming that irritable colon … and that maybe we need to put down that mustard.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."