An essential oil is a highly concentrated form of the oil naturally found in plants. They’ve been used for thousands of years for all kinds of health-related purposes. Because the concentration is so intense, a little goes a long way. Just a single drop or two can have a powerful effect.
When it comes to gut health in general and irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in particular, the following 7 essential oils have been found to be quite effective.
1. Peppermint Oil
Peppermint oil is one of the most often recommended natural treatments for IBS symptoms. It can be effective in helping to relieve nausea, indigestion, gas, bloating and abdominal pain. Due to its anti-spasmodic properties, it is able to ease the intestinal spasms that often cause pain, cramping, bloating, constipation and/or diarrhea. Peppermint oil can also aid in reducing stress, which is frequently a trigger for IBS.
Numerous studies have been done testing the effectiveness of peppermint oil for various IBS symptoms. A 2005 study reviewed 16 clinical trials investigating the use of enteric-coated peppermint oil for IBS. Three of the studies testing peppermint oil against anticholinergic drugs commonly prescribed for IBS found that peppermint oil was at least as good as the drugs in relieving symptoms. The researchers concluded, “Taking into account the currently available drug treatments for IBS, peppermint oil…may be the drug of first choice in IBS patients with non-serious constipation or diarrhea to alleviate general symptoms and to improve quality of life.”1
2. Cumin Oil
Cumin oil has powerful anti-inflammatory, antispasmotic and pain relieving properties. It is particularly good at helping stimulate gastric juices to speed up digestion, which makes it especially effective for IBS constipation.
A 2013 study of 57 patients with IBS found that abdominal pain, incomplete defecation, fecal urgency and presence of mucus discharge in the stool were significantly decreased during and after treatment with cumin essential oil. Stool consistency and defecation frequency were also both significantly improved in patients with a constipation dominant pattern of IBS.2
3 & 4. Thyme and Rose Oils
The primary constituent of thyme oil is thymol, and the primary constituent of rose oil is geraniol. A 2015 study found that the combination of thymol and geraniol could be effective in suppressing pathogens in the small intestine without damaging the good bacteria necessary for healthy digestion.3
5. Oregano Oil
Oregano oil’s antibacterial, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic properties make it a good option for supporting digestive health. A 2016 study found that oregano essential oil was effective in improving intestinal barrier (gut lining) integrity.4
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6 & 7. Coriander and Lemon Balm Oils
A 2013 study compared the antibacterial activity of a variety of essential oils to investigate potential new treatments for IBS. The oils were tested for their ability to inhibit E. coli growth. While most of the oils exhibited antibacterial activity, coriander, lemon balm and peppermint oils were by far the most potent.5
Other oils that are often used to support healthy digestion include ginger, fennel, lavender, frankincense, tea tree, clove, cardamon, tarragon and anise.
How to Use Essential Oils
There are three primary methods for using essential oils:
- Inhaling – One way to inhale essential oils is by putting a few drops into a diffuser. The oil molecules will then be dispersed throughout the room over a period of a few hours via a fine mist. Another good way to inhale essential oils is to put a drop or two in the palm of your hand, then cup your hand over your nose and take several deep breaths.
- Applying topically – When applying essential oils topically, it’s always best to dilute it with a carrier oil like coconut, jojoba, sweet almond or even plain old olive oil. Diluting the essential oil will actually help it permeate the skin better as well as preventing problems with skin sensitivity. Rubbing the diluted essential oil on your abdomen can be an effective way to help ease IBS symptoms.
- Ingesting – Ingesting essential oils is a very controversial topic. Some experts say you should never ingest them. Others say that occasionally ingesting a very small amount of an essential oil (no more than a drop or two) can be safe if done properly. Before deciding to ingest an essential oil, you should study the pros and cons so you can make an informed decision. If you do decide to ingest an essential oil, one critical factor is to make sure it is a food-grade oil. All food-grade oils are required by law to display a Supplement Facts panel on the bottle. Just as with topical application, essential oils should be diluted before ingesting.
Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief, as well as being the Editor of both the IBS and Weight Loss HealthWatch newsletters. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) in 1997 and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, then worked for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network before coming to ProHealth.
1. Grigoleit HG, Grigoleit P. “Peppermint oil in irritable bowel syndrome.” Phytomedicine. 2005 Aug;12(8):601-6.
2. Agah S, et al. “Cumin Extract for Symptom Control in Patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Case Series.” Middle East Journal of Digestive Diseases. 2013 Oct; 5(4): 217–222.
3. Thapa D, et al. “Essential oils have different effects on human pathogenic and commensal bacterial in mixed faecal fermentations compared with pure cultures.” Microbiology. 2015 Feb;161(Pt 2):441-9.
4. Zou Y, et al. “Oregano Essential Oil Improves Intestinal Morphology and Expression of Tight Junction Proteins Associated with Modulation of Selected Intestinal Bacteria and Immune Status in a Pig Model.” BioMed Research International. 2016; 2016: 5436738.
5. Thompson A, et al. “Comparison of the antibacterial activity of essential oils and extracts of medicinal and culinary herbs to investigate potential new treatments for irritable bowel syndrome.” BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine. 2013; 13: 338.