Aromatherapy/Essential Oils for Digestive Disorders

The term digestive disorder refers to a very large array of medical problems involving the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestine, large intestine (also called the colon), rectum, and anus. These problems can range from the relatively simple (upset stomach) to the very severe (colon cancer). Some common types of digestive disorders are gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), ulcer, diverticulitis and diverticulosis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, pancreatitis, lactose intolerance, proctitis, gastroenteritis, abdominal abscesses, hiatal hernia, and ulcerative colitis. These disorders are produced by a wide range of factors and require very different therapeutic approaches in allopathic medicine, ranging from changes in lifestyle to the use of a variety of medications to surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy (treatment with certain drugs). Practitioners of alternative medicine often recommend treatments that may contribute to (complementary) or replace (alternative) allopathic therapies. A popular type of alternative and complementary treatment is aromatherapy, in which certain substances obtained from plants—essential oils—are inhaled or absorbed by a patient to alleviate symptoms of disease.

How is Aromatherapy Used to Treat Digestive Disorders?

More than 100 different essential oils are used in aromatherapy. The specific oil selected for a particular disorder is determined by the properties of that oil. Some oils are thought to reduce inflammation, others protect against diseases caused by microorganisms, still others stimulate the nervous system, and some act as sedatives, calming the nervous system. Aromatherapists are experienced in analyzing the symptoms presented by a patient and determining the essential oil(s) that would be most appropriate in treating those symptoms. Because a vast variety of digestive disorders exist, the number of possible treatments is quite large.

Some oils that are commonly recommended for digestive disorders include:

  • Lavender (Lavendula officinalis), an oil known for its ability to calm the nervous system, which may help relieve some types of digestive disorders
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita), not only because of its calming influence on the body, but also because of its carminative properties. (A carminative causes the release of gas from the stomach and reduces intestinal spasms)
  • German chamomile (Matricaria recutica), thought to be an effective antispasmodic that reduces muscular and nervous spasms and relieves the pain with which they are associated
  • Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), which acts as an antispasmodic and also has sedative properties; relieves tension that may be associated with a digestive disorder
  • Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), which acts both as an antispasmodic and a carminative; it also has strong laxative effects, and so must be used with some care

The use of essential oils to treat simpler forms of digestive disorder has been known and relied upon throughout the world for centuries. A tea made of peppermint or ginger is widely recognized to be helpful in treating disorders such as nausea, stomachache, bloating, morning sickness, and simple forms of food poisoning. These conditions can also be treated by ingesting a drop or two of the essential oils of the plants since the oils provide a much more concentrated dose of the material than do the leaves, flowers, or stems used in making a tea.

Aromatherapists may also recommend the use of essential oils for the treatment of more serious types of digestive disorders. For example, one treatment that has been recommended for irritable bowel syndrome is a mixture of chamomile in a carrier oil that is used to massage the abdomen or added to a warm bath. (A carrier oil is a neutral oil used to dilute the essential oil being used in a treatment.) The more serious the medical condition, the greater caution required in selecting an appropriate treatment. Cancers of the digestive system, for example, do not respond well to aromatherapy, although essential oils may have an invaluable role in improving a patient’s emotion condition during other forms of treatment because of the calming effects they have on the nervous system.

What is Aromatherapy?

Many of the oils and procedures used by aromatherapists were discovered or developed hundreds or even thousands of years ago. In today’s world, practitioners can chose from well over 100 essential oils for the treatment of almost every physical, mental, and emotional problem with which humans have to deal. Aromatherapy has also become a popular treatment for certain disorders in dogs, cats, and other pets. The principle behind aromatherapy is to introduce a beneficial plant product, such as lavender or ginger, into the human body by inhalation, swallowing, absorption through the skin, or some other procedure. Once inside the body, the plant products acts on the nervous system, the muscular system, the digestive system, or some other part of the body to relieve problems that produce perceived signs and symptoms.

What Causes Digestive Disorders?

Digestive disorders have a great variety of known and hypothesized causes:

  • Irritable bowel syndrome: Cause unknown; possibly a colon that is unusually sensitive to certain types of food or an improperly functioning immune system
  • Lactose intolerance: Injury to the small intestine; genetic factors; digestive diseases
  • Peptic (gastric) ulcer: Bacterial infection caused by the Helicobacter pylori bacterium
  • Hiatal hernia: Abnormal esophageal hiatus (the connection between the esophagus and stomach); other anatomical factors may also be involved
  • Diverticulosis: Inadequate amounts of fiber in the diet
  • Cancers of the digestive system: Causes unknown, but many risk factors suspected, including heredity, smoking, diet, certain diseases of the digestive system, and infections caused by Helicobacter pylori

Additional Resources

Merck Manuals Online Medical Library. “Digestive Disorders”.

National Cancer Institute. “Aromatherapy and Essential Oils.”

Schnaubelt, Kurt. Medical Aromatherapy: Healing with Essential Oils. Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 1999.

Sellar, Wanda. The Directory of Essential Oils: Includes More Than 80 Essential Oils. London: Random House UK, 2005.

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