There has been anecdotal evidence regarding peppermint’s stomach-calming properties and now research from the University of Adelaide, Australia, has revealed the process behind its calming effects, pinpointing why it also helps to relieve the painful symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.
The Australian researchers found that an active ingredient in peppermint called icilin acts on a specific anti-pain channel called TRPM8, which in turn reduces pain-sensing fibres. “The pain-sensing fibres we studied were specifically located in the large intestine,” says lead study author Stuart M Brierley, of the Nerve-Gut Research Lab at the University of Adelaide. “The fibres have nerve endings in the wall of the large intestine, and we refer to them as pain-sensing fibres as they specifically detect pain. This is opposed to other types of nerve endings, which don’t necessarily detect pain.
“The pain-sensing fibres can also be activated by pungent ingredients such as mustard or chilli, and peppermint can reduce those effects,” he says. “The peppermint is ‘numbing’ pain-sensing fibres and therefore reducing the detection and feeling of pain.”
One in five people in the UK will develop IBS during their lifetime, and it is twice as common in women as in men. Much of how it’s caused remains a mystery. Symptoms include bloating, abdominal pain, as well as diarrhoea or constipation. For many people living with IBS this new research could eventually provide an effective treatment. “This is potentially the first step in determining a new type of mainstream clinical treatment for IBS,” says Brierley. “Such a treatment would look at more potent versions of peppermint and its active ingredient ‘icilin’.”
What to do if you have IBS
Do not overeat fibre. “The key is balance,” says registered nutritionist Dr Carina Norris. “High fibre was once recommended for IBS sufferers but for some individuals, it exacerbates the problem. Soluble fibre is ideal: oats and vegetables for example will help. Insoluble fibre such as that found in bran – and some supplements – could make symptoms worse.”
Don’t overeat or undereat. “Again, sticking to the middle ground will be best,” says Norris. “Eat little and often rather than letting yourself get stomach-growling hungry before you gorge yourself. Your digestive system is delicate so treat it gently!”
Avoid fizzy drinks, alcohol, and stop smoking. “These all exacerbate symptoms,” says Norris.
Drink plenty of fluids. “Aside from peppermint tea, drink plenty of water and non-caffeinated teas,” says Norris.
Useful website - www.theibsnetwork.org
First published on April 20, 2011.