Peppermint (Mentha piperita ) is an aromatic perennial plant that grows to a height of about 3 ft (1 m). It has light purple flowers and green leaves with serrated edges. Peppermint belongs to the Lamiaceae family and grows throughout North America, Asia, and Europe. There are more than 25 species of true mint grown throughout the world.
The plant is harvested when the oil content is highest. When ready for harvest, it is always collected in the morning, before noon sun reduces the leaf essential oil content. This generally takes place shortly before the plant blooms, which occurs in the summer (July through August) or during dry, sunny weather. The United States is responsible for producing 75% of the world's supply of peppermint.
Peppermint is a natural hybrid of water mint (Mentha aquatica ) and spearmint (Mentha spicata ) and was first cultivated in England in the late seventeenth century. The herb has been used as a remedy for indigestion since Ancient Egyptian times. In fact, dried peppermint leaves were found in Egyptian pyramids dating back to 1000 b.c. The ancient Greeks and Romans valued it as a stomach soother. During the eighteenth century, peppermint became popular in Western Europe as a folk remedy for nausea, vomiting, morning sickness , respiratory infections , and menstrual disorders. Peppermint was first listed in the London Pharmacopoeia in 1721. In modern times it appears in the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia as a remedy for intestinal colic, gas , colds, morning sickness, and menstruation pain .
Peppermint is a cooling, relaxing herb that contains properties that help ease inflamed tissues, calm muscle spasms or cramps, and inhibit bacteria and microorganisms. It also has pain-relieving and infection-preventing qualities.
The medicinal parts of peppermint are derived from the whole plant, and include a volatile oil, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and triterpenes. The plant is primarily cultivated for its oil, which is extracted from the leaves of the flowering plant.
The essential oil contains the principal active ingredients of the plant: menthol, menthone, and menthyl acetate. Menthyl acetate is responsible for peppermint's minty aroma and flavor. Menthol, peppermint's main active ingredient, is found in the leaves and flowering tops of the plant. It provides the cool sensation of the herb.
The menthol content of peppermint oil determines the quality of its essential oil. This varies depending upon climate, habitat, and where the peppermint is
grown. For instance, American peppermint oil contains 50–78% menthol, while English peppermint oil has a menthol content of 60–70%. Japanese peppermint oil contains 85% menthol. Peppermint and its oils help with intestinal function.
Peppermint also contains vitamins A and C, magnesium, potassium , inositol, niacin, copper, iodine , silicon, iron , and sulfur .
Peppermint is one of the most popular flavoring agents. Many products contain peppermint, including chewing gum, mints and candies, ice cream and other sweets, tobacco, toothpaste, mouthwash, cough drops, teas, alcoholic liqueurs, and digestive aids . It is also used to scent soaps, perfumes, detergents, lipsticks and other cosmetics, and is an ingredient in many over-the-counter medications. Therapeutically, peppermint is used to treat many ailments of the skin, circulatory system, respiratory system, digestive system, immune system, and nervous system.
Peppermint and headaches
Peppermint's pain-relieving effects on headaches have been known for many years. The first documented report to link peppermint and headache relief was published in 1879. A more recent study took place in Germany in 1996. In this double-blind study, researchers found that an ethanol solution containing 10% peppermint oil was as effective in relieving headache pain as 1,000 mg of acetaminophen. In another study, 32 people with headaches massaged peppermint oil on their temples. The results showed that the peppermint oil significantly relieved their pain.
When applied to the skin, peppermint reduces sensitivity and relieves pain. Rubbed on the temples, across the forehead, and behind the neck, peppermint oil helps to ease digestive-related headaches and migraines by generating a cooling effect on the skin and relaxing cranial muscles.
Peppermint as a digestive aid
Peppermint is employed in the treatment of various digestive ailments, such as irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn's disease, diverticulitis , liver and gallbladder complaints, loss of appetite, spastic colon, diarrhea , gas, bloating, colic, cramps, and heartburn . The infused herb tea of peppermint or a few drops of its essential oil stimulate the flow of digestive juices and the production of bile, a substance that helps to digest fats. This eases indigestion, relieves gas, reduces colon spasms, and eases motion sickness and nausea. When peppermint is taken after a meal, its effects will reduce gas and help the digestion of food by reducing the amount of time the food is in the stomach. This is one reason after-dinner mints are so popular.
The compounds of the essential oil have antispasmodic properties that reduce spasms of the colon and intestinal tract and relax the stomach muscles. Peppermint has a soothing effect on the lining and muscles of the colon, which helps to relieve diarrhea and spastic colon.
Menthol acts to stimulate the stomach lining. Its cooling properties soothe the stomach and ease stomach pain. Peppermint oil is popular in the treatment of motion and sea sickness and nausea associated with pregnancy . It acts as an anesthetic to the stomach wall and eases vomiting and nausea. An account on the effects of peppermint on nausea appeared in the September 1997 issue of the Journal of Advanced Nursing, in which gynecological patients were given peppermint oil to counter post-operative nausea. The patients reported less nausea and required fewer drugs to treat the nausea.
A German health commission, German Commission E, has endorsed peppermint tea as a treatment for indigestion. Clinical trials in Denmark and Britain in the 1990s confirmed peppermint's actions as a therapeutic treatment for irritable bowel syndrome. In 1996, a German study was performed to research the therapeutic benefits of peppermint essential oil on irritable bowel syndrome. Subjects with irritable bowel syndrome were given enteric-coated capsules containing peppermint and caraway oils. Results showed that the pain symptoms, which ranged from moderate to severe, improved in 89.5% of the group.
Peppermint and respiratory ailments
Peppermint is an expectorant and decongestant. It is used to help treat many respiratory ailments including asthma, bronchitis , sinusitis, and coughs.
Peppermint is an element of many cough preparations, not only for its pleasant flavor, but also because it contains compounds that help ease coughs. Constituents of peppermint increase the production of saliva, causing frequent swallowing and suppressing the cough reflex.
German Commission E has officially recognized peppermint's ability to reduce inflammation of nasal passageways. When menthol vapors are inhaled, nasal passageways are opened to provide temporary relief of nasal and sinus congestion.
Peppermint essential oil is an ingredient in many commercial chest and cold rubs. These are popularly rubbed onto the chest to ease congestion.
A tea made from the leaves can stimulate the immune system and relieve the congestion of colds, flus, and upper respiratory infections.
Peppermint is an effective relaxant and can be helpful in treating nervous insomnia, stress, anxiety , and restlessness.
Many over-the-counter balms and liniments contain peppermint essential oil. These are applied externally to relieve muscle pain, arthritis, itching , and fungal infections .
Peppermint induces sweating and can help bring down fevers. It is said that it contains antioxidants that help prevent cancer and heart disease . The essential oil is a powerful antiseptic and is useful in treating bad breath and sore throats. It is also beneficial in preventing tooth decay and gum disease .
A plant with potent antiviral properties, peppermint can help fight viruses that cause ailments such as influenza , herpes, yeast infections, and mumps . Peppermint is also used as an earache remedy, to dissolve gallstones , to ease muscle tightness, and to ease menstrual cramps.
A 2002 report announced that peppermint also helped participants in a study run faster do more pushups and show greater grip strength than those who were not exposed to peppermint scent. Although researchers concluded the effect may have been psychological, a result of peppermintís effect on mood and increased motivation, it still resulted in measurable performance improvement.
Peppermint is available as a tincture, tea, essential oil, oil capsules, and tablets. The fresh and dried leaves may be purchased in bulk.
Tablets and capsules are often coated so the oil's therapeutic properties are released in the intestine and not in the stomach. These enteric-coated pills are used in the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome, diverticulitis, and other chronic digestive ailments. Peppermint oil capsules are effective in treating lower intestinal disorders:
- Irritable bowel syndrome: 1–2 capsules three times daily between meals.
- Gallstones: 1–2 capsules three times daily between meals.
Peppermint tea may be used to relieve migraine headaches, minor colds, digestive ailments, and morning sickness, as well as many other conditions. Taken after a meal, the tea acts to settle the stomach and improve digestion. To prepare the tea, pour one cup of boiling water over 1–2 tsp of dried peppermint leaves, cover, and steep for 10 minutes. Strain the mixture before drinking.
DOSAGE. For relief of migraine pressure, drink 1–2 cups of cool tea daily.
For digestive disorders, drink one cup of tea with meals.
For cough relief, drink 3–4 cups of cool tea throughout the day, taking frequent sips (every 15–30 minutes).
For morning sickness, women may drink a tea that has been diluted.
Aromatherapy and peppermint
The essential oil of peppermint is a pale yellow or greenish liquid that is made by distilling the flowering herb. When inhaled, the oil can reduce fever , relieve nausea and vomiting, improve digestion, and soothe the respiratory system. Various studies have been performed on the oil's ability to improve the sense of taste and smell and improve concentration and mental acuity when inhaled.
The oil blends well with other essential oils such as benzoin, rosemary, lavender , marjoram, lemon, eucalyptus , and other mints. Essential oils are available at many health food stores or through a qualified aromatherapist.
Peppermint essential oil can be used in several ways: inhaled, rubbed on reflexology points on the bottom of the feet, diffused into the air, or as a therapeutic bath. Below are some applications for the use of peppermint essential oil:
- Steam inhalation for congestion relief: A few drops of the essential oil of peppermint are placed in a large bowl of hot water. The person should cover his or her head with a towel, lean over the bowl, and inhale the steam.
- Motion sickness: A few drops of essential oil should be places on a tissue and inhaled.
- Headaches: A few drops can be placed on a cool, wet towel and used as a compress on the forehead. Or, massaged into the neck, back, temples, and/or forehead.
- Digestion: Several drops of diluted oil massaged on the stomach or the pure oil rubbed onto the bottoms of the feet.
- Breath freshener: Several drops placed on the tongue.
- Therapeutic bath: Several drops of diluted oil placed into a tepid bath to relieve stomach complaints, nasal congestion, headache, or menstrual cramps. If essential oil is not available, a bath can be made by adding to the water a cloth bag filled with several handfuls of dried or fresh peppermint leaves.
As with any essential oil, caution should be taken when using it. Essential oils are highly concentrated and should be diluted with a vegetable oil prior to external use to prevent adverse reactions, as some people are allergic to peppermint or its essential oil. The oil may cause a skin reaction if the dosage is excessive. Avoid contact with the eyes.
Extreme caution should be used when administering to children under five years of age as the menthol can cause a choking reaction in young children.
Peppermint oil should not be applied to the faces of infants or small children.
The essential oil of peppermint should not be ingested unless under professional supervision.
Pure menthol or pure peppermint should not be ingested. Pure peppermint may cause an irregular heartbeat. Pure menthol is poisonous and fatal in doses as small as 1 tsp.
Pregnant women with a history of miscarriage should use peppermint with caution. Large amounts of peppermint may trigger a miscarriage. Additional caution should be practiced by women who are breast-feeding their infants.
If the essential oil is not used properly it can cause dermatitis and other allergic reactions.
Rare reactions to enteric-coated capsules may occur. These reactions include skin rash, heartburn, slow heart rate, and muscle tremors .
Large internal doses of peppermint essential oil may result in kidney damage.
Peppermint should not be used in conjunction with homeopathic treatment.
Foster, Steven, and Varro E. Tyler, Ph.D. Tyler's Honest Herbal. The Haworth Herbal Press, 1999.
Moxey, Beth."A Peppermint Twist: New Research Shows that a Whiff of Peppermint May Improve Your Running (Health and Fitness)." Runnerís World (January 2002): 21.
"Peppermint Oil and Tea Best for Nose and Stomach, Not Lungs." Environmental Nutrition (January 1997):7.
Siegel–Maier, Karyn. "Peppermint: More Than Just Another Pretty Flavor." Better Nutrition (February 1998): 24.
Teresa G. Odle
pep·per·mint / ˈpepərˌmint/ • n. 1. the aromatic leaves of a plant of the mint family, or an essential oil obtained from them, used as a flavoring in food. ∎ a candy flavored with such oil. 2. the cultivated Old World plant (Mentha × piperita) that yields these leaves or oil. DERIVATIVES: pep·per·mint·y adj.