Essential oils are a hot topic, and in recent months I have had a fair share of parents inquiring as to their efficacy in alleviating common maladies. My answer has been that the data is limited, but that it is certainly not harmful to use aromatherapy as an adjunct to medical treatment, and topical application of oils is likely fine as minimal amounts should penetrate the skin surface, but in all honesty, I don’t know enough about it. Essential oils are not med school fodder, and alternative medicine is rarely explored in allopathic medicine, not because all docs consider it fruitless, but more because we, as a whole, are skeptical of anything without strong scientific data behind it, especially if the complementary intervention could cause harm. I have definitely learned over time that “natural” doesn’t equate to “safe.” That being said, I believe it is becoming extremely important for medical doctors to understand the pros and cons of the natural remedies our patients use, on themselves and their children.

Since the world of essential oils is so vast, I am going to look at one specific oil at a time and give you the most reliable information I can find regarding its efficacy and safety of use. After some research, I came across an article in Pediatrics in Review (the official medical journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics) that discusses in detail the data behind the use of peppermint oil to treat common maladies such as abdominal pain, nausea and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as upper respiratory conditions and headaches.

Current evidence suggests that peppermint oil, via the menthol component, reduces smooth muscle contractions and results in an antispasmodic effect on the GI tract. Additionally, menthol aids digestion, acts to prevent gas formation, and even facilitates gaseous release via burping!

The data regarding adults treated with peppermint oil varies – some studies point to improvement in IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) symptoms, but not to the extent the pediatric studies report, likely because adults often have compounding health issues. ‘A randomized, placebo-controlled trial of enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules in kids diagnosed with IBS aged 8+ years, demonstrated significant improvement in GI symptoms, such as pain, compared with placebo within 2 weeks of treatment. Over ¾ of respondents reported a reduction in symptom severity with peppermint oil supplementation. Among the kids receiving placebo, approximately ¼ felt improved. Pretty impressive result statistically, especially when you consider the impact placebos alone often have on kids.

As with ingestion of all medicinal agents, pharmaceutical and otherwise, adverse reactions are possible. Heartburn is the most commonly noted, mainly because menthol causes a release of the esophageal sphincter (which connects the esophagus to the stomach) thereby allowing some degree of reflux – this is also why burping can increase with peppermint oil use – gas is pushed up rather than down (flatulence is reduced)! Personally, I think burping is certainly cuter that farting in pretty much any kid!!! And, of course, the overall incidence of either should decrease as gas production is minimized at the source.

Makes me think the combination of an enteric coated peppermint oil capsule given with a daily probiotic will be revolutionary for the gut, and rather than the dreaded fish-oil burps people describe with omega supplementation, peppermint burps would be a plus!

But what about just the topical application of the oil, or the inhalation of peppermint? The incidence of negative side effects would be reduced markedly since the oil is not being ingested. However, overall efficacy will likely also diminish, but difficult to say to what extent from one child to another.

So, the sum recommendation — if you have a child with intermittent complaints of abdominal pain, irregular stooling patterns, nausea and just plain bad gas (all kids), trial topical use as well as some inhalation whenever your child complains of tummy pain. It’s worth a shot, and this use of an essential oil is safe in children 3 years and up! Just as big-kid Vicks is contraindicated in infants, peppermint (due to the menthol component) is not safe either – as both can cause negative respiratory effects in babies.

However, if your child is chronically affected, has a diagnosis of IBS or functional abdominal pain, trial supplementation with enteric coated peppermint oil capsules (1 given 1x daily for children aged 8+ years) to start. Discuss increasing the dose with your child’s pediatrician or GI specialist if you find the supplement helpful, and definitely discuss with your doctor first if your child takes any additional medications or supplements!

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