By Darin Ingels, ND

Parents who give their infant a preparation of fennel seed oil at the onset of irritability and inconsolable crying may be able to reduce the intensity of the colic, according to a study in Alternative Therapies (2003;9:58–61). This is the first study to show fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is an effective treatment for this difficult-to-treat condition.

Infantile colic is a frequent reason for visits to the emergency room or doctor’s office. Colic is defined as crying for at least 3 hours a day, for at least 3 days a week and continuing for more than 3 weeks. Causes of colic may include food allergies, formula intolerance (such as lactose intolerance), excessive gas formation, or intestinal cramping. Some infants do benefit from removing suspected allergens from the diet, but this does not always resolve the symptoms. In the study, 121 infants with colic were randomly assigned to receive 5 ml to 20 ml of a 0.1% fennel seed oil emulsion or placebo up to four times per day for one week. Diaries of symptoms were kept for one week before starting the study, during the study and for one week following discontinuation of the treatment. The amount and frequency of treatment solution given was also recorded.

Colic symptoms decreased significantly by 45% in the infants taking the fennel formula, compared with only a 5% reduction in symptoms in those taking the placebo formula. Based on specific diagnostic criteria, colic was eliminated in 65% of the infants taking the fennel formula. No adverse side effects were observed in infants receiving fennel treatment.

Fennel has been shown in some studies to reduce intestinal spasm and to increase the motility of the small intestines. The effectiveness of fennel in the new study supports the hypothesis that abnormalities of these two factors play a role in the development of colic. The only other medicine known to help colic is dicyclomine hydrochloride (Bentyl®), but studies suggest that up to 5% of infants who take this medicine may develop side major effects, including breathing difficulties, seizures, dizziness, coma and even death. As a result, physicians rarely prescribe this medication for infants. No adverse side effects have been reported with using fennel. It is an apparently safe, effective treatment for colic and may bring relief to both the infant and parents.