Essential Oils to the Digestive and Microbiome Saving Rescue


It’s a big issue. Sixty to seventy million people are affected by digestive diseases, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.1  In fact, about 20% of the population struggles with gastroesophageal reflux disease alone, experiencing reflux at least once a week.1 In a 2012 epidemiological study in Gastroenterology, abdominal pain was the most common GI symptom that prompted a clinic visit (15.9 million visits) and gastroesophageal reflux was the most common GI diagnosis (8.9 million visits).2

A few years ago, I discussed heartburn and acid reflex, and provided some tips, tools, and testing options for a happier belly. In this blog, I want to go over a more broad-based approach to digestive issues by focusing on essential oils to enhance the health of this system.

Before I get too into this aromatic topic, it’s important to remember that, if you are experiencing GI discomfort that doesn’t get better with lifestyle, diet, and the use of essential oils, it’s important to rule out the cause and use a functional approach to address it. For example, your doctor should be familiar with implementing the 4 R’s plus rebalancing (paying attention to sleep, exercise, and stress- now known as the 5 R’s).

Also, here is a more non-inclusive but pretty comprehensive list of tests to consider with your physician if your gut has gone awry and nothing is helping. These tests can assist in detecting pathology, functional issues with digestion, assimilation, absorption, inflammation, Celiac disease, and critter overgrowth:

  • Endoscopy – biopsy
  • Capsule endoscopy
  • Intestinal permeability (lactulose/mannitol)
  • Breath test (SIBO)
  • Motility test
  • Antibodies to parasites, candida, H. pylori
  • Celiac serology including HLA typing (DQ2/DQ8)
  • Indican, lactate (dysbiosis)
  • Organic acids
  • Stool DNA/ GI MAP
  • Stool culture
  • Stool O&P (ova and parasite)
  • Fecal calprotectin
  • Fecal lactoferrin
  • Stool mycology
  • Additional Comprehensive Digestive Stool Analysis markers:
  • Stool SCFAs
  • Fecal pH (CHO malabsorption)
  • Pancreatic elastase vs. chemotryspsin
  • Vegetable fibers


superbugs and oilsWhen the Bad Guys Go Rogue- How Essential Oils Can Help

On my Saratoga blog, I reviewed all the benefits we receive from our buggy friends. You can read that here. But, what happens when our belly bugs go bad?

Various critter overgrowth has been linked to the underlying causes of many digestive disorders.3-5 According to an article in the American Journal of Gastroenterology:

The relationship between acute infectious gastroenteritis and the subsequent development of chronic gastrointestinal dysfunction has been established on the basis of clinical observations, prospective and epidemiological clinical studies, and from animal models. Clinically, two specific syndromes have been identified: postinfectious irritable bowel syndrome and postinfectious functional dyspepsia. These syndromes may develop in up to 30% of patients with gastroenteritis and both host and microbial risk factors have been identified. Initially, these conditions were considered to be short lived but recent epidemiological data indicate that they can persist for at least 8 years or more. Studies on animal models as well as in patients have identified changes in intestinal barrier and motor functions, as well as evidence of immune activation and low-grade inflammation. These findings prompt ongoing research into the role of anti-inflammatory medication treatment for these conditions. In addition, current research examines possible changes in the intestinal microbiota as a basis for the low-grade inflammation and symptom generation. The long-term consequences of these syndromes remain to be determined.3

Although treating with antibiotics and medications may assist with eradicating an infection in the gastrointestinal tract, it may cause havoc to the microbiome which then needs to be
“mopped up.” In fact, just one dose of antibiotics can have lasting long-term effects on the our belly bugs, impacting diversity and overall wellness.6-7

Furthermore, there may be a place where herbal therapies and essential oils are as effective against GI (gastrointestinal) pathogens. One study actually found that herbals appeared to be as effective as triple antibiotic therapy or rifaximin for SIBO (small intestinal bacteria overgrowth).8

Due to the fact that essentials oil are secondary metabolites with immune modulating effects, it is doubtful that they would have the same negative impact on the beneficial microflora as synthetic antibiotics. In fact, a 2012 review article provided support that essential oils can work in synergism with probiotics to have “complementary antimicrobial effects with practically no side effects.” 9

You can find lots of information on the anti-microbial power of essential oils on my essential oils database here.

However, essential oils can do so much more than kill off infections and help save our microbiome from antibiotic distress. Let’s highlight a few goodies.


Essential Oils and Digestion


Perhaps peppermint is the most famous essential oil for digestion. In fact, a 2005 literature review of 16 different trials concluded that peppermint oil  may be a first choice option “in IBS patients with non-serious constipation or diarrhea to alleviate general symptoms and to improve quality of life.”

Peppermint has many reasons why it’s so helpful for digestive health. This includes its role as an antioxidant and microbe inhibitor. One study abstract reports:

Peppermint (Mentha piperita L.) is one of the most widely consumed single ingredient herbal teas, or tisanes. Peppermint tea, brewed from the plant leaves, and the essential oil of peppermint are used in traditional medicines. Evidence-based research regarding the bioactivity of this herb is reviewed. The phenolic constituents of the leaves include rosmarinic acid and several flavonoids, primarily eriocitrin, luteolin and hesperidin. The main volatile components of the essential oil are menthol and menthone. In vitro, peppermint has significant antimicrobial and antiviral activities, strong antioxidant and antitumor actions, and some antiallergenic potential. Animal model studies demonstrate a relaxation effect on gastrointestinal (GI) tissue, analgesic and anesthetic effects in the central and peripheral nervous system, immunomodulating actions and chemopreventive potential. Human studies on the GI, respiratory tract and analgesic effects of peppermint oil and its constituents have been reported. Several clinical trials examining the effects of peppermint oil on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms have been conducted. However, human studies of peppermint leaf are limited and clinical trials of peppermint tea are absent. Adverse reactions to peppermint tea have not been reported, although caution has been urged for peppermint oil therapy in patients with GI reflux, hiatal hernia or kidney stones.10

Peppermint with its Friends

In a rodent study, a combination treatment with peppermint and caraway was found to modulate post-inflammatory visceral hyperalgesia, a functional digestive disorder, with the two oils working synergistically.11

Another in vitro study demonstrated the antimicrobial effects of peppermint, lemon balm and coriander for pathogens associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This same study explains:

Peppermint and lemon balm extracts are also present in the mixed herbal extract, Iberogast®, or STW-5, which has also been shown to be effective against IBS in a clinical trial [63]. This suggests that antibacterial activity may also underlie Iberogast®’s mechanism of action, in addition to its documented antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and prosecretory effects [55,62]. This hypothesis is further strengthened by the fact that Iberogast® has been shown in clinical trials to be effective in treating functional dyspepsia [64], which has been linked to infection with Helicobacter pylori and can be treated with antibiotics [123].12 (Bold emphasis mine.)


2. Oregano and Thyme

Similar to frankincense and myrrh, oregano and thyme also make for a dynamic duo. One study showed that the two combined mitigated the effect of inflammatory colitis in rodents. There’s also the antimicrobial activity of both of these oils and high antioxidant properties of thyme which may contribute to their digestive prowess.13 Oregano also has some in vitro evidence to inhibit biofilms, which is one factor that makes microbes so resistant to killing.


3. Frankincense and Myrrh

Click here to read about how frankincense and myrrh modulate inflammation in inflammatory bowel disease. Also visit my essential oil database to learn about both oils’ mechanisms of action.


4. Cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum)

There’s some good in vitro and in vivo evidence for cardamom in supporting gut health. One study using rabbit and guinea pig digestive organs and rats concluded, “These results indicate that cardamom exhibits gut excitatory and inhibitory effects mediated through cholinergic and Ca++ antagonist mechanisms respectively and lowers BP via combination of both pathways. The diuretic and sedative effects may offer added value in its use in hypertension and epilepsy.”14

According to a review of cardamom (Bold emphasis mine. Note: carminative is a phrase that means it is gas relieving):

Besides the usual terpene hydrocarbon and alcohols as minor compounds and the dominance of 1,8 – cineole and oc-terpinyl acetate, it is significant that methyl eugenol also has been identified [6]. The basic cardamom aroma produced by a combination of the major components, oc-terpinyl acetate and 1,8, – cineole. These aromatic compounds are reported to be antiseptic, antiinflamatory, carminative and stimulating.15


5. Ginger

Well known for its digestive properties, 16-22 ginger oil has been shown to be microbe inhibiting and have inflammatory modulating properties. The constituents of ginger oil have also shown to be stomach protective,19 have antioxidant properties, and modulate inflammation. 16-22 One study review of five trials had compelling evidence that the inhalation of peppermint oil and ginger oil could assist with nausea, though some methodical issues were reported.21


6. Fennel

The essential oil of fennel is said to contain 87 constituents, including limonene.23 In a study with 125 infants, the authors concluded, “that fennel seed oil emulsion is superior to placebo in decreasing intensity of infantile colic.”24 Fennel oil was also shown to support blood sugar and have antioxidant properties in rodents.24 Although there is some concern for the anethole content, it appears very safe when used in appropriate doses.


7. Tarragon

Tarragon may have some benefit in supporting blood sugar.25


8. Juniper

Juniper was shown to support protein digestion in cows’ rumen. 26 One study reports, “In vivo studies confirmed these effects of the oil which created the possibility of blocking the oxidation processes in yeast cells by increasing activity of the antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT), and glutathione peroxidase (GPx).”27


9. Copaiba

I don’t usually think of copaiba for digestion, but I did find an interesting study that demonstrated the protective effect of Copaifera langsdorffii (Leguminaceae) on indomethacin-and ischemia-intestinal inflammation in rodents:

Copaiba oil-resin from Copaifera langsdorffii (Leguminaceae) is a reputed traditional remedy for the treatment of inflammatory conditions and to promote healing of ulcers and wounds. Previous studies established its anti-inflammatory and gastroprotective properties through animal experimentation. The present study extended these earlier studies to analyse the intestinal anti-inflammatory potential of oil-resin Copaifera langsdorffii (ORCL) and its diterpene constituent, kaurenoic acid (KA) in rat models of ulcerative colitis induced by acetic acid (AA-UC), and trinitribenzene sulfonic acid (TNBS-UC), and in indomethacin -and ischemia-reperfusion-induced intestinal inflammation (IND-II and I/R-II). Further, its wound healing potential was evaluated in rats on open and incision wounds. Rats were pretreated orally (15 hrs and 2 hrs before) or rectally 2 hrs before the induction of colitis with ORCL (200 and 400 mg/kg), KA (50 and 100 mg/kg) or vehicle (1 ml, 2% Tween 80 or 1 ml, 2% DMSO). Colitis was induced by intracolonic instillation of a 2 ml of 4% (v/v) acetic acid solution or TNBS (0.25 ml of 20 mg) and 24 hrs or 72 hrs latter, the colonic mucosa was analysed for the severity of macroscopic colonic damage, the myeloperoxidase and the malondialdehyde levels. In AA-UC model, a marked reduction in Gross damage score and in wet weight/length ratio of colonic tissue were evident in animals pretreated orally or rectally with test substances, as compared to vehicle alone-treated controls. This effect was confirmed biochemically by a significant reduction in colonic myeloperoxidase (MPO) activity, the marker of neutrophilic infiltration and by a marked decrease in malondialdehyde (MDA) level, an indicator of lipoperoxidation. Besides, AA elevated increase in the levels of nitrite and catalase activity in colon tissue was also significantly decreased by ORCL treatment. Furthermore, microscopical examination revealed the diminution of inflammatory cell infiltration, and the submucosal edema in colon segments of rats pretreated with ORCL or KA. In a similar manner, in TNBS-UC, a marked reduction in Gross damage score and in wet weight/length ratio of colonic tissue was evident by ORCL pretreatment (400 mg/kg, p.o. or intra-rectal) at 2, 24 and 48 hrs after intracolonic injection of TNBS. MPO activity but not the MDA and catalase levels were significantly affected by ORCL treatment. Histological observations also indicated only a partial protection by ORCL, suggesting that TNBS-UC being a chronic model, a more prolonged therapy may be needed. In the model of I/R-II, five forty minute of ischemia followed by one hour reperfusion of superior mesenteric artery caused significant elevations of MPO, catalase, MDA and nitrite levels with a significant decrease in non-protein sulfhydryls (NP-SH/ GSH) indicating an oxidative stress. These changes were significantly reversed by oral pretreatment with ORCL (200 and 400 mg/kg), suggesting that ORCL obliterates oxidative stress. Pretreatment of animals with ORCL (200 and 400 mg/kg, p.o.) or KA (100 mg/kg, p.o.), 12 and 2 hrs before the administration of 20 mg/kg indomethacin mitigated the intestinal toxicity as evidenced by decreases in tissue levels of MPO and nitrite. Unlike indomethacin, ORCL but not KA at either dose failed to induce a significant increase in intestinal permeability. This effect of ORCL simulated that of a selective COX-2 inhibitor, rofecoxib. These observations suggest that ORCL is devoid of intestinal toxicity unlike the classical non-selective COX inhibitors. Also, ORCL promoted wound healing in rats on experimental open or incision wounds as evidenced by an early wound contraction and increased wound tensile strength. The data indicate a significant anti-inflammatory potential of copaiba oil-resin and its diterpenoid, kaurenoic acid possibly mediated through an antioxidant/anti-lipoperoxidative mechanism(s).28


Spicing Up Digestive Juices

One study demonstrated that a majority of spices aided the secretion of digestive enzymes in rats:

In vitro influence of 14 individual spices (curcumin, capsaicin, piperine, garlic, onion, ginger, mint, coriander, cumin, ajowan, fennel, fenugreek, mustard, and asafoetida) on the activities of digestive enzymes of rat pancreas and small intestine was examined by including them in the reaction mixture at two different concentrations. A majority of spices enhanced the activity of pancreatic lipase and amylase when they are directly in contact with the enzyme. It is inferred that this positive influence on the activity of enzymes may have a supplementary role in the overall digestive stimulant action of spices, besides causing an enhancement of the titres of digestive enzymes in pancreatic tissue.29

Another study supported the role of ginger and other spices for enhancing fat digestion and absorption:

Thus, dietary ginger and other spice compounds enhance fat digestion and absorption in high-fat fed situation through enhanced secretion of bile salts and a stimulation of the activity pancreatic lipase. At the same time, the energy expenditure is facilitated by these spices to prevent the accumulation of absorbed fat.30



Just the smell and sight of food trigger gastric secretions; hence the use of spices since ancient times for digestion. 31 Essential oils are powerful and have many mechanisms which help support digestion and aid in an overall health.



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Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic quality essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been tested for purity and standardized constituents. There is no quality control in the United States, and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only to contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. The studies are not based solely on a specific brand of an essential oil, unless stated. Please read the full study for more information.

This material is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness. You should check with your doctor regarding implementing any new strategies into your wellness regime. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Affiliation link.)