If something is natural, does that mean it's completely safe? Not necessarily. While peppermint tea can be a safe option for treating certain symptoms, other forms of peppermint could be potentially harmful. In the case of botanicals and herbal supplements, you're wise to proceed with caution.
Peppermint is one of many botanicals that are praised for their medicinal qualities, but because they're not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, they don't need to be tested to see whether they're safe or even effective before they're put on the market.
What Is Peppermint?
Peppermint is a type of botanical, which the National Institutes of Health describes as a plant used for medicine or therapy. Additionally, botanicals can be used as flavors or scents, as peppermint commonly is. Botanicals can be sold several ways, most commonly in the form of capsules or in the form of tea. As long as these products have another dietary ingredient, like a vitamin or herb, they can be labeled as a dietary supplement.
Peppermint, a natural cross between water mint and spearmint, is most often taken as an herbal tea to treat irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive problems, as well as the common cold and headaches. As a topical agent, it is used for muscle aches and itching.
The problem is that there is little research that has been done on the peppermint leaf, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. This could present a problem for people who are turning to peppermint oil for diarrhea and other nausea-related problems.
Uses of Peppermint
The most common condition treated by peppermint tea is irritable bowel syndrome, a gastrointestinal disorder with no known cause. It is usually felt in the large intestine and can manifest itself in bloating, gas, constipation, diarrhea, cramping and general abdominal pain.
A cup of peppermint tea for upset stomach and diarrhea can be soothing. Steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of dried leaves in boiling water and sip.
You can also use up to 200 milligrams in the form of tablets. No harmful effects of peppermint leaf tea have been reported, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
Read more: 5 Unexpected Benefits of Drinking Matcha Tea
What Are the Risks?
Peppermint oil, however, should be used with care. Like peppermint tea, peppermint oil can be used to treat indigestion, especially when combined with caraway oil. Taking it orally is safe, but it can be toxic if you take too much.
This was recorded in a November-December 2012 report in the Indian Journal of Anaesthesia, which tracked the case of a patient who overdosed on peppermint oil and went into a comatose state.
This report — which noted peppermint oil's side effects are mild and can include gastro-esophageal reflux, heartburn, nausea, vomiting, allergic reactions and diarrhea — said the exact amount of peppermint oil was unknown.
The subject, a 40-year-old woman, was admitted to the emergency room comatose, in shock, with a respiratory rate of 6 to 8 per minute, oxygen saturation of 30 percent, and with blood pressure that was not recordable. Her extremities were cold and clammy.
The report described the case as a "suicidal bid" rather than a case of faulty administering, where someone took too much peppermint oil for diarrhea, for example. Still, it demonstrates that ingesting toxic doses of peppermint oil can be deadly.
The National Institutes of Health advises that anyone taking botanicals for dietary supplementation or as an alternative medicine should follow the instructions on the package and never take more than the recommended dose. It's also important to understand that just because herbal supplements are natural, they aren't entirely safe, and sometimes they aren't even suited for ingestion.
Even in more moderate doses, peppermint oil has a few negative side effects. Those who are sensitive to it can suffer allergic reactions and heartburn when ingested, and can get skin rashes and irritation from the topical oils. More importantly, a topical peppermint oil shouldn't be put on a baby's chest because breathing it in could have negative side effects.
The National Capital Poison Center notes that menthol, one of the naturally occurring compounds of peppermint oil, can cause eye and skin irritation, and products with menthol are flammable, so you should keep it away from flame and heat.
Other Treatment Options for IBS
If you're wary of using peppermint oil for diarrhea and other digestive issues, and you would rather avoid it altogether, there are other options. Chamomile, another botanical commonly used to make tea, can be used for intestinal cramps and nausea. Chamomile tea for upset stomach and diarrhea is generally considered safe, but pregnant or lactating women should avoid it. Chamomile is also good as a sedative.
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, however, reports that it is combinations of herbs containing chamomile that are best for making tea for upset stomach and diarrhea; chamomile alone is not necessarily effective.
Here are some nonherbal methods from the American Academy of Family Physicians that you could try:
- Change your diet: Get more fiber, and try to avoid foods that you find trigger it. These foods will be different for everyone, but potential triggers could be caffeine, gluten, dairy, certain fruits, certain vegetables, spicy food or fatty food. You can also try eating smaller meals more frequently.
- Change your lifestyle: Get plenty of regular exercise and be sure to get enough sleep.
- Try other medical options: Medicine and therapy could help, depending on your type of IBS.
Remember that IBS is not a condition that ever gets truly cured — it can go away for a while, but then something in your lifestyle may trigger it to come back. Talk to your health care practitioner for the best ways to treat it.
It's not as if peppermint tea is toxic and dangerous — if you like the crisp flavor and you find it soothes your upset stomach, you can still take it. Peppermint oil can even be safe as long as you don't take it in toxic quantities. You should also remember that peppermint isn't the best option because some people do have allergies, and it isn't guaranteed to be effective.
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Peppermint Oil”
- National Institutes of Health: “Botanical Dietary Supplements”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “Herbal Health Products and Supplements”
- University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health: “Medicinal Uses for Herbal Teas: Evidence, Dosing, and Preparation Methods”
- Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology: “Peppermint Oil for the Treatment of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis”
- Indian Journal of Anaesthesia: “A Near Fatal Case of High Dose Peppermint Oil Ingestion”
- American Academy of Family Physicians: “What Is Irritable Bowel Syndrome?”
- National Capital Poison Center: “Can Menthol Have Harmful Effects?”
- National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: “Chamomile”