By Trina Palomarez, MS, CNS, CNC
Cramping and abdominal pain can be a real struggle for those with IBS. Unfortunately, these symptoms can be a normal part of life for those with IBS, including constipation based, diarrhea predominant or mixed symptom IBS. IBS cramping pain can come in many forms, it can happen after eating, on an empty stomach, while active and even in the middle of the night. Levels of severity can vary wildly, from mild enough to carry on with work, although annoying and nagging, to cramping so severe it keep you home from work and regular activities.
The cause of IBS related cramping can be complex. Regular bouts of diarrhea will cause the intestines to spasm, as the body expels stool and water from the colon. Constipation can also be a source of cramping, as compacted stool sitting the the colon causes smooth muscles to spasm and contract. Certain foods can also play a role. Food and IBS is a complicated thing, and some hard to digest foods may cause the intestines to bloat, spasm and cramp as the body struggles to break them down. Others with IBS can feel pain even on an empty stomach, with high stress levels impacting the delicate gut brain axis, leading to the digestive discomfort.
Dealing with cramping pain can be isolating and frustrating. If you have been diagnosed with IBS you may have tried an over the counter or prescription medication for your symptoms. Although some people may find relief, these medications can also have unwanted side effects or may not be effective for severe symptoms. Luckily, there are many natural remedies that can be effective for reducing pain and cramping associated with IBS. Here is a list of some natural remedies that may be beneficial for improving symptoms of cramping, pain and digestive distress.
Ginger (Zingiber officinale) is a culinary herb with tremendous medicinal value. It is an anti-inflammatory, natural pain reliever and carminative, an herb which can help to relax the smooth muscles of the intestine and expel gas. Ginger has been shown to be an effective natural anti-inflammatory in the treatment of different types of pain including arthritis1. Ginger’s pain relieving properties are so strong, that one study2 showed ginger to be as effective as NSAID medication for cramping and pain associated with menstruation in women. It can also improve gastric emptying and improve gut motility3. Ginger comes in many forms including candies, chewables capsules and liquid extracts. For ease of use, higher doses of ginger can be taken in powdered capsules or standardized extracts. Doses for pain and cramping start at about 500 mg three times per day, although it is safe to take up to 3,000 mg daily. Ginger also helps with nausea, bloating and indigestion making it a useful remedy for a variety of digestive complaints.
Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) is another supportive herb for all types of digestive ailments. It has a long traditional use as a treatment for intestinal spasm or colic, and its gentle nature makes it an appropriate remedy for both adults and children. Chamomile is a natural bitter herb that supports many aspects of digestion. It promotes healthy digestive secretions, calms irritation and relaxes the nerves promoting a healthier digestive response. It is also a useful carminative herb, working to ease tension and bloat associated with IBS. Chamomile has been shown to be useful in dispelling gas, soothing the stomach, and relaxing the muscles that move food through the intestines5. Chamomile’s ability to relax the intestines can help to ease pain and diminish cramping associated with IBS. Chamomile can be used a therapeutic tea, or as a liquid extract or tincture. Tincture doses range from 2-5 ml, 2-3 times per day for cramping. To make chamomile tea, steep 1 teaspoon of dried herb in 1 cup of boiling water. Allow the herbs to macerate in the water for several minutes, with the longer maceration creating a stronger tea. Strain the herb and enjoy, chamomile has a naturally sweet and pleasant taste and can also help to promote relaxation and better sleep!
Peppermint Essential Oil
Peppermint is an herb with a long list of therapeutic benefit. Most are familiar with its minty aroma and it's often used as a flavoring agent in toothpaste and soap and found in many herbal tea blends. Peppermint is used for colds, flus, headaches and as a digestive carminative, easing gas and cramping. Peppermint essential oil is a type of natural remedy that utilizes the distillation process to produce a concentrated extract of peppermint in liquid form. The highly concentrated essential oil of peppermint intensifies its carminative effects on the intestines and this action can help to alleviate cramping and pain associated with IBS. There are several research studies that support the efficacy of peppermint essential oil in cramping with IBS. A systematic review of 9 studies by Khanna et al. on peppermint essential oil and IBS showed that it provided statistically significant improvement over placebo in relieving abdominal pain5. Three studies using peppermint essential oil versus muscle relaxant medications showed no difference between treatment outcomes6, supporting its use as an effective natural remedy.
When using peppermint essential oil for IBS cramping, it is imperative to use it in enteric coated capsules only. Ingesting peppermint essential oil in liquid form can cause extreme irritation in the mucus membranes of digestive tract and should be avoided. Enteric coated capsules are designed to deliver the essential oil down to the intestines for best relief of symptoms. Doses start at 150-200 mg. Avoid peppermint essential oil if you are pregnant, nursing or have acid reflux.
Cramp Bark & Black Haw
You may be unfamiliar with the herb Cramp Bark (Viburnum opulis) but it can be an effective natural remedy for cramping associated with IBS. Cramp bark is a natural antispasmodic herb. It relaxes the peripheral nerves and can ease cramping and relax muscles anywhere in the body. Cramp bark is often paired in combination with it herbal cousin, Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium) to ease a variety of cramping pain including intestinal cramping and colic, menstrual cramps, bladder spasm, diarrhea, respiratory spasm and post partum pain7. Both herbs also provide a very mild sedative effect which can help to soothe the central nervous system and offer even further relaxation to the smooth muscles of the intestines. Cramp bark and black haw can be drunk as a tea, taken as a liquid tincture or consumed as a dried herb powder encapsulated. To make tea, add 1 teaspoon of dried black haw and cramp bark to 1 cup of boiling water. Macerate the herbs, strain and drink 1-3 cups daily. Combine black haw and cramp bark with ginger and chamomile to create a comprehensive herbal remedy to help ease pain and IBS cramping.
- Altman R. D., Marcussen K. C. Effects of a ginger extract on knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis. Arthritis & Rheumatism. 2001;44(11):2531-2538.
- Ozgoli G, Goli M, Moattar F. Comparison of Effects of Ginger, Mefenamic Acid, and Ibuprofen on Pain in Women with Primary Dysmenorrhea. J Altern Complement Med. 2009;15:129–132. doi: 10.1089/acm.2008.0311.
- Hu ML, Rayner CK, Wu KL, Chuah SK, Tai WC, Chou YP, Chiu YC, Chiu KW, Hu TH. Effect of ginger on gastric motility and symptoms of functional dyspepsia. World J Gastroenterol 2011; 17(1): 105-110
- Srivastava, Janmejai K et al. “Chamomile: A herbal medicine of the past with bright future” Molecular medicine reports vol. 3,6 (2010): 895-901.
- Khanna R, MacDonald JK, Levesque BG. Peppermint oil for the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome: a systematic review and meta-analysis. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2014 Jul;48(6):505-12. doi:10.1097/MCG.0b013e3182a88357. Review. PubMed PMID: 24100754.
- Grigoleit HG, Grigoleit P. Peppermint oil in irritable bowel syndrome.
- Phytomedicine. 2005 Aug;12(8):601-6. Review. PubMed PMID: 16121521
- Mars, B. (2016). The Desktop Guide to Herbal Medicine, Second Edition. Basic Health Publications. Columbus, OH.
About the Author
Trina Palomarez, MS, CNS, CNC
Certified Nutrition Specialist, Clinical Herbalist and Wellness Coach
Trina Palomarez is a Functional Medicine Nutritionist, Clinical Herbalist and Wellness Coach with over 20 years experience in the health industry. Her professional background includes Board Certification as a Nutrition Specialist, with a Master's of Science Degree in Nutrition from Maryland University of Integrative Health and a Bachelor's of Arts in Women's Studies from UCLA. She completed a clinical program in Medical Herbalism at the California School of Herbal Studies and is certified as a Nutrition Consultant and Health Educator through Bauman College. Her broad educational base and diverse professional experience have provided her with a range of expertise in the field of nutrition and integrative health.