“How about a nice cup of peppermint tea?” Do you remember your mother or grandmother offering that simple remedy whenever you complained of a mild stomachache?
Over the generations, more and more Americans have caught on to peppermint as a provider of relief. Even those with more serious stomach conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, have turned to peppermint. And recently, scientists have figured out exactly why peppermint works.
A study out of Australia that will soon be reported in the journal Pain explained that peppermint activates an “anti-pain” channel in the colon. Even in cases of inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract, peppermint contributes to pain relief, according to Dr. Stuart Brierley from the University of Adelaide.
In a University news release Brierley added, “Our research shows that peppermint acts through a specific anti-pain channel called TRPM8 to reduce pain-sensing fibers, particularly those activated by mustard and chili."
Among the triggers for irritable bowel syndrome are fatty and spicy foods, coffee and alcohol, but Brierley said the connection between what we consume and the onset of pain is complex. He said he is encouraged by the possibility of using peppermint to find a “mainstream” clinical treatment for IBS, given that it can be such a debilitating condition.
The Australian study also looked at whether an IBS patient who at some point has had gastroenteritis can have nerve pain fibers that are “heightened,” or more susceptible to discomfort.
On his website, Dr. Andrew Weil, a longtime practitioner of alternative medicine, said that peppermint often doesn’t get its due as a remedy for gastrointestinal complaints because it’s so familiar and commonplace. Yet in alternative medicine, irritable bowel patients often take enteric-coated capsules of peppermint oil. And peppermint tea is useful for the upper gastrointestinal tract and for relief of heartburn, indigestion and nausea, the site suggested.
Irritable bowel syndrome is one of the most common forms of inflammatory bowel disease. Doctors usually recommend alleviating the symptoms -- including pain, constipation, diarrhea, bloating and nausea -- through anti-inflammatory drugs, laxatives, pain relievers and antibiotics. They also recommend a healthy diet and stress reduction. Now we know a spot of peppermint tea wouldn’t hurt either.
Deborah Ross writes about health, education, the arts and Arizona travel from her home in Phoenix.