Peppermint (mentha piperita) is a hybrid of watermint (mentha hirsute) and spearmint (mentha spicata). All three plants are native to Europe and the Middle East. They are, however, widely cultivated throughout the world. They are all part of the mint (lamicaceae) family of plants.
The mint family includes numerous flowering varieties that have a long history of medicinal uses. The health benefits of peppermint are similar to other familiar plants in the mint family, such as sage, oregano, and thyme.
The mint family of plants are known for their essential oils, tannins, saponins, and organic acids. These natural chemicals give the plants their aromatic and flavorful qualities. They are also why mint plants have so many medicinal uses. And peppermint is no exception.
You can discover the health benefits of peppermint by using peppermint both internally and externally. So in this post we will discuss both ways you can use peppermint as part of your path toward holistic health and wellness.
A Distant Cousin of Peppermint
Like peppermint, pennyroyal is in the mint family. But unlike peppermint, pennyroyal has lost favor in recent years as a medicinal plant. During the middle ages, Hildegard von Bingen was enthusiastic about the effectiveness of the pennyroyal plant and wrote about the plant:
“The pennyroyal has a pleasant warmth and remains moist. It carries the power of many medicinal plants, including zeodary, cloves, galangal, ginger, basil, comfrey, lungwort, birthwort, yarrow, southernwood, female fern, agrimony, storax, geranium, and watermint.”
-Hildegard of Bingen
Pennyroyal typically thrives in the nutrient-rich and moist soils of European streams or lake shores. Even though it grows easily, the wild European pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is rare. As a result, pennyroyal is now protected in some countries. The plant bears a striking resemblance to peppermint, however it is much smaller. And the taste of pennyroyal is more spicy than minty.
Today, we know that the pennyroyal plant contains higher amounts of pulegone, than peppermint. Pulegone is a natural pesticide, which is toxic to the liver. For this reason, we do not recommend the ingestion of pennyroyal. Fortunately, peppermint is worthy substitute for pennyroyal.
There are many benefits of peppermint. We will explore some of the most noteworthy.
Peppermint Medicinal Uses
One of the most common ways to enjoy the benefits of peppermint is with peppermint oil. Peppermint essential oil is made by distilling the leaves of the peppermint plant. Distilling involves a process in which steam is used to extract the oils. The oils are then concentrated by removing the excess water.
Peppermint essential oil is one of the most commonly used oils for baths. In fact, one of the oldest uses of peppermint is in a hot bath to help relieve respiratory discomfort.
Traditionally, the essential oils of peppermint have been used as a topical treatment for muscle aches and pain. Since the flavor of peppermint is so appealing, the leaves of the peppermint plant are commonly included in healing teas. Similarly, many throat lozenges also include peppermint for flavoring.
Peppermint for Migraines
According to research conducted at the University of Kiel (and the National Institute of Health), local topical treatment with peppermint oil proves effective in treating headaches and migraines. The study found that peppermint favorably compared to acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) and paracetamol (acetaminophen).
Peppermint for Performance
In addition, a recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that the even just the scent of peppermint has benefits. Specifically, researchers found that adding just a few drops of peppermint essential oil to drinking water significantly increased the performance of athletes. Other studies have found similar results.
Note: most research suggests caution when applying to children (and not at all to babies and toddlers!)
Common Health Benefits of Peppermint
Benefits of Peppermint Taken Internally:
- Relieves cramping
- Improves digestion
- Regulates appetite
- Performance enhancer
Benefits of Peppermint Used Topically:
- Cooling (like a massage oil, to relieve minor muscle aches)
- Antiseptic (kills germs, prevents infections)
- Analgesic (relieves pain)
Peppermint Benefits: How Peppermint Works
The natural essential oils of peppermint stimulate the smooth muscle tissue of the digestive system. As a result, taking peppermint oil can relieve cramps and digestive discomfort. Similarly, peppermint oil can stimulate the flow of bile, which promotes digestion. Always use caution when ingesting any essential oil, as the concentrated oils can cause irritation.
When applied topically to the skin for the relief of aches and pain, peppermint oil stimulates the cold receptors in the skin to create a cooling sensation.
Peppermint uses for common ailments
- Gastrointestinal discomfort
- Mild gastritis and bloating
- Mild forms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Mild inflammation of the respiratory tract
- Common cold (runny nose, sore throat)
- Headaches and mild migraines
- Mucosal inflammations in the mouth and throat
- Muscle and nerve pain
How to Use Peppermint
Basic recipe for peppermint tea: First, brew four fresh peppermint leaves (or 1 teaspoon of dried leaves) in a cup of boiling water. Next, allow the tea to steep covered for 10 minutes before straining. If necessary, drink 3 – 5 cups daily until the symptoms have settled or you feel refreshed.
Peppermint inhalation for colds: First, fill a bowl with hot water and add a few drops of peppermint oil. Next, cover your head and bowl with a towel and slowly breathe-in the minty steams. You will immediately notice a loosening effect to mucus in nasal congestion and loosening of cough-related phlegm.
Peppermint essential oil for headache: Topically apply peppermint oil for muscle, nerve and headache. Use 3 to 4 drops of peppermint oil. Gently rub the oil on the forehead and neck. If you have sensitive skin, you may want dilute the oil with 2-3 parts almond, coconut, or other natural oil. Avoid getting any oil near your eyes or other sensitive areas.
Precautions When Using Peppermint
Take precautions when handling peppermint oil. Do not use essential oil to treat problems with bile ducts, gallbladder inflammation, or liver ailments. Likewise, never use oil in or near the eyes.
The eyes and mucous membranes of children are highly sensitive. As a result, peppermint oil is not suitable for infants and toddlers. Keep peppermint essential oils away from the chest or the face of infants and toddlers. Most importantly, always keep essential oils out of the reach of children.