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Those afflicted with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are plagued with frequent abdominal pain, inflammation, bloating, and altered bowel movements. Sadly, IBS is one of the most common gastrointestinal disorders that impedes quality of life. Despite the number of patients frequently diagnosed with IBS, effective treatments are scarce or associated with several adverse effects. Even more unfortunate, little is known about the cause of IBS in the first place, making it difficult to treat.
Aside from dietary modification, there really is no preventative treatment available to IBS patients. More recently, herbal products have been evaluated for IBS patients with promising results from curcumin supplementation, fennel essential oil, and cumin essential oil.
Curcumin is the main constituent found in Turmeric. Turmeric is a thick rhizome that belongs to the ginger family and is native to South Asia. As one could imagine, it is used in both food and medicine, and is one of the primary ingredients in curry. Curcumin is the primary reason turmeric can boast of its high anti-inflammatory properties. Recent studies have indicated curcumin’s anti-inflammatory activity by reducing inflammation after intestinal injury by modulating the formation of pro-inflammatory markers in the body.
Fennel seeds are predominantly grown in Mediterranean areas of Europe, such as Italy, Greece, and France. Interestingly, fennel essential oil‘s major chemical component is anethole. Anethole contains a strikingly similar structure to that of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain. Anethole has been known to have a relaxant effect on intestinal smooth muscles in rat intestinal models. Thus implying it can prevent abdominal discomfort such as pain and cramping in humans.
Cumin is one of the oldest herbs and predominantly cultivated in Iran. Cumin essential oil has been used as a digestive, diuretic, anti-parasitic, anti-consultant, and anti-flatulent. Which is quite alot! In some cases cumin has perpetuated diarrhea or constipation, as it is known to typically regulate and balance GI motility if dosed appropriately.
What is the efficacy of Curcumin, Fennel, and Cumin in treating IBS?
In two separate studies, Curcumin extract, Fennel essential oil, and Cumin essential oil were administered in human patients over the course of 30 days to treat symptoms of IBS.
Cumin Essential Oil’s Results:
A pilot study performed by Agah et al, 28 patients were administered a cumin extract containing 2% of cumin essential oil orally. 10 drops in the morning, and again at night. Over the course of the study patients were advised not to change their dietary habits or regimens, and were told not to use any other medications to manage symptoms of IBS for 2 weeks prior to the study or during the course of the study.
Overall, IBS related symptoms decreased after 2 weeks after beginning treatment, with the greatest relief at the end of 4 weeks. Unfortunately, once treatment of cumin ceased, IBS symptoms returned, but with less severity.
For example, 72% of patients were afflicted with abdominal pain. 28% of which had severe abdominal pain and 44% reported moderate pain. At the end of 4 weeks, there were no reports of severe abdominal pain with only 22% of patients reporting moderate pain.
In regards to bloating, 54% of patients reported severe bloating and 46% complained of moderate bloating. At the end of 4 weeks, only 8% complained of moderate bloating. Even more interesting, once treatment with cumin ceased, only 12% of patients had severe bloating symptoms return.
Bowel movements with IBS can range from constipation, to urgency, to diarrhea depending on the individual. Before treatment, incomplete defecation, fecal urgency, and presence of mucous in stool were seen in 86%, 92% and 76% of patients. After 4 weeks of treatment, symptoms decreased to 14%, 8%, and 0% respectively. Unfortunately once treatment ceased, symptoms returned.
For diarrhea dominant patients 65% complained of watery diarrhea and 35% complained of loose stools. At the end of treatment, 88.5% of patients reported normal stool consistency.
Nausea was present in 42% of patients, at the end of four weeks, only 10% of patients complained of mild nausea.
Overall, Cumin essential oil proved to be an excellent supplement in the treatment and management of IBS symptoms. Unfortunately, this pilot study did not have a control to compare results. Therefore it is unknown how much of the outcome was a result of the placebo effect.
Curcumin and Fennel
A second human study performed by Portincasa et al was conducted under similar conditions. The study lasted a period of 30 days, patients were asked to maintain their normal diets, and patients were not permitted to take certain supplements or medications to manage symptoms two weeks prior to the study or over the course of the study.
In order to track symptom changes over the course of 3o days, 116 eligible patients took a survey to asses an Irritable Bowel Syndrome Symptom Severity Score. Scores ranged from 100-300 with higher scores indicating higher severity. There were four total evaluations taken over the course of 30 days, occurring on days 0,10,20, and 30.
Participants were placed into a control group and a treatment group. Those that received treatment, took a supplement with 42mg of curcumin and 25mg of fennel essential oil. This was a double blind study, meaning neither the patient or the administer was aware which group the patient belonged to.
Curcumin and Fennel Supplementation Results:
The mean IBS Severity Scores decreased from an average of 255.7 to 127.8 in the supplement group after 30 days of supplementation. Interestingly, patients that did not receive treatment also showed a decrease in severity scores from 263.2 to 195.5 as a result of the placebo effect. However, patients taking the curcumin and fennel supplement achieved a higher and statistically significant level of complete symptoms free rate.
A note on the placebo effect: the placebo effect is expected in IBS clinical trials as patients can enter spontaneous remission over time. On average, placebo responses range between 40-50% in different clinical trials.
Even better news, the safety data obtained from the study showed no adverse effects related to treatment.
The study concluded that the combination of curcumin extract and fennel essential oil was highly effective in achieving consistent relief of IBS symptoms. In fact, abdominal pain, the more difficult symptom to treat, showed an improvement greater than 50% in all patients.
What Can We Conclude?
It is fair to say both studies illustrate a clear picture of how effective essential oil supplementation can relieve abdominal discomfort such as those experienced by IBS patients. Furthermore, symptoms associated with IBS are similar to general gastrointestinal discomforts such as nausea, abdominal pain, and altered bowel movements. Therefore Cumin, Curcumin found in turmeric, and Fennel can be used for general gastrointestinal relief.
One thing we like about both of these studies is that they used actual essential oils rather than constituents derived from essential oils. Even better, studies were performed on human participants, giving us a clear picture of what the oil can do for you and its relative safety of use.