What it is
Nearly everyone loves the crisp taste of peppermint—especially during the holidays, when candy canes decorate trees and baristas stir mint-flavored syrup into steamy mochas. But this natural hybrid of spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint (Mentha aquatica) is much more than just a refreshing flavoring. Herbalists recommend peppermint to relieve indigestion and gas, and some research indicates that peppermint oil in capsules may be helpful for treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

For centuries and in cultures around the world, mint has been used in similar ways: Ancient Egyptians prescribed mint to ease upset stomachs, and it was served as an after-meal digestive aid in ancient Greece and Rome. Both Chinese and Ayurvedic medical traditions also have relied on mint to relieve digestive distress.

How it works
Peppermint leaves contain menthol, a compound that gives the plant both its recognizable flavor and its healing properties. Menthol helps relieve intestinal cramps by relaxing the smooth muscles of the intestinal tract; it improves digestion by stimulating the flow of digestive secretions and bile. Menthol is also a nasal decongestant (that’s why it’s used in vapor balms). And when applied topically, it acts as a local anesthetic.

Clinical studies verify peppermint’s traditional use as a digestive aid. In a review of all studies evaluating herbal treatments for indigestion, researchers reported that various forms of peppermint (often in combination with other digestive herbs, such as caraway) effectively and safely relieved symptoms in 60 percent to 95 percent of patients (Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 2002, vol. 16, no. 10).

3 other digestive aids>>
1: Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) Chamomile helps to relax the intestinal tract. Sip a cup of warm chamomile tea to soothe an upset stomach.
2: Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) Fennel seeds contain gas-relieving compounds. Drink fennel tea, or chew on a few seeds for quick relief.
3: Ginger (Zingiber officinale) Ginger is a proven aid for nausea. The best forms for nausea relief are powdered ginger in capsules or crystallized ginger.

Peppermint oil capsules are commonly used as a natural treatment for easing cramping, gas, bloating, and other symptoms of IBS. In a review of clinical studies, researchers concluded that peppermint oil appears to be beneficial for IBS but recommended further studies (American Journal of Gastroenterology, 1998, vol. 93, no. 7). Enteric-coated capsules of peppermint oil are most effective because they do not break down before reaching the colon.

Side effects
Peppermint leaf is extremely safe. At recommended doses, peppermint oil capsules are also safe. Do not take pure peppermint essential oil internally without the advice of a qualified health practitioner.

Cost
Dried peppermint leaf costs approximately $1 per ounce; liquid extracts are about $7 per ounce. Enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules cost approximately $9 for 60 capsules.

Herbalist and author Laurel Vukovic lives in Ashland, Oregon, and has published nine books, including Herbal Healing Secrets for Women (Prentice Hall, 2000).