While research suggests there are health benefits, the FDA doesn’t monitor or regulate the purity or quality of essential oils. It’s important to talk with your healthcare provider before you begin using essential oils and be sure to research the quality of a brand’s products. Always do a patch test before trying a new essential oil.

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is a common gastrointestinal disorder that causes uncomfortable symptoms such as bloating and constipation. Many medical and at-home treatments are successful for reducing IBS symptoms, although what works for one person may not work for another.

For some people with this condition, essential oils provide relief from symptoms.

If you have IBS and are wondering which essential oils work and how to use them, here’s what you need to know.

Essential oils are aromatic compounds extracted from botanicals such as trees and plants. Once extracted, these compounds, called essences, go through a distillation process, such as cold pressing. Once they’re distilled, the essences become essential oils.

Essential oils are known for their distinctive scents and powerful strength, but some are more than just olfactory delights. Many essential oils contain chemical compounds that provide health benefits.

How to use

There are a few ways that you can use essential oils, such as aromatherapy.

Some essential oils are available as nutritional supplements. When buying a supplement, look for enteric-coated capsules. These are less likely to cause stomach upset.

You may also find essential oils listed as an ingredient in over-the-counter medications and as an ingredient in herbal teas.

There are several essential oils that you may find beneficial for reducing IBS symptoms.

Some essential oils, such as lavender, produce feelings of calm and relaxation when used in aromatherapy. Others are anti-inflammatories and have antispasmodic properties that relax intestinal smooth muscle.

According to research, the following essential oils show promise for IBS symptom relief.

Peppermint

Peppermint oil (Mentha piperita) has been shown to reduce cramping, pain, and other IBS symptoms in 12 randomized trials. Study participants were given peppermint oil in enteric-coated capsules to take orally.

Peppermint oil contains L-menthol, which blocks the calcium channels in smooth muscle. This produces an antispasmodic effect in the gastrointestinal tract. Peppermint oil also has anti-inflammatory properties and may support the immune system.

Anise

Licorice-scented anise (Pimpinella anisum) has antispasmodic properties. It’s been used as a treatment for bowel disorders in ancient Persian medicine for centuries. It’s currently marketed as an enteric-coated gelatin capsule for use by people with IBS.

A clinical trial of 120 patients found that anise was beneficial for reducing bloating, diarrhea, constipation, gastroesophageal reflux, and other symptoms. Benefits were also reported for reducing depression.

Fennel

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is botanically related to anise and also has a rich, licorice scent.

Capsules containing fennel and curcumin, a polyphenolic compound in turmeric, were given to study participants with mild to moderate IBS symptoms.

Curcumin has anti-inflammatory properties. Fennel reduces flatulence and is antispasmodic. When compared with placebo, those given the fennel-curcumin combination experienced less abdominal pain and improved quality of life.

Since the causes for IBS aren’t completely understood, research has looked at whether essential oils can address several potential underlying issues.

A 2013 study examined the antibacterial properties of several essential oils to see if they might be effective at reducing overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine.

Several essential oils, including pine, thyme, and tea tree oil, were found to be highly effective at fighting bacterial overgrowth. Peppermint, coriander, lemongrass, lemon balm, rosemary, fennel, and mandarin were found to be moderately effective.

Some essential oils may be beneficial for certain symptoms, yet unsuccessful at treating others. For example, ginger is effective at reducing nausea and motion sickness for some people, but it may be ineffective for treating other IBS symptoms.

It’s important to use essential oils as directed. Unless you’re purchasing supplements designed for oral use, don’t drink essential oil or add it to foods or beverages in quantities other than what’s specified as safe.

Essential oils are meant to be used as aromatherapy. Some are considered toxic if swallowed and are dangerous for pets. When using aromatherapy, consider pets, children, and others who might respond negatively to the oils.

Dilute with a carrier oil before using topically

Don’t rub essential oil onto your stomach, temples, or other parts of your body unless it’s been diluted with a carrier oil. Also, don’t use any essential oil you may be allergic to, and do a patch test before using it more widely.

To do a patch step:

  1. Wash your forearm with mild, unscented soap, then pat dry.
  2. Apply a few drops of diluted essential oil to a small patch on your forearm.
  3. Cover with gauze, and keep the area dry for 24 hours.

Remove the gauze after 24 hours and look for signs of an adverse reaction to the oil, such as redness, blistering, or irritation.

If you experience any discomfort or notice any signs of a reaction before the 24-hour period ends, discontinue use. But if no irritation develops, then the oil is likely safe for use.

Don’t use on infants, if you’re pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or nursing

If you’re pregnant, trying to become pregnant, or nursing, don’t use essential oils. There’s not enough research available to ensure their safety at this time.

Also, don’t use essential oils on infants or babies. Be sure to check with your child’s pediatrician before applying.

Use organic, therapeutic grade essential oils

Look for oils that are organic, or therapeutic grade. Keep in mind that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate essential oils, so it’s important to do your due diligence when buying.

Some essential oils are diluted with ingredients you may not want. Always check the ingredient list before buying. Research your manufacturer and aim to use those in North America. Some essential oils can be contaminated with heavy metals or may not be an actual essential oil.

Be wary of miracle claims

Essential oils are often touted as being able to cure anything and everything. Be very wary of these claims. Be sure you know what you’re buying, who you’re buying from, and how to use the oil.

IBS can be a challenging condition to live with. There are many lifestyle treatments and medications that are effective at reducing symptoms.

If you have IBS and haven’t been successful with alternative therapies, talk to your doctor. They can recommend eating plans and prescribe medications that may help.

Certain essential oils, such as peppermint, fennel, and anise, may provide some benefit for IBS symptom relief. Aromatherapy may be a pleasant way to introduce healing into your body.

Essential oils such as lavender may also help produce relaxation when used in aromatherapy.

If essential oil use and other lifestyle treatments don’t give you the relief you’re looking for, talk to your doctor. There are medications and eating plans that can help.