Native to Europe and the Mid East, peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a darling of folk medicine, highly praised for its antiseptic, antispasmodic, anti-anxiety, diuretic, diaforetic, carminative, anti-inflammatory and mildly analgesic properties. Peppermint is actually a cross between spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint (Mentha aquatica), now occurring naturally in the wild at such ease that it has become an invasive species.
What does peppermint look like? Peppermint is a perennial, 1 meter tall plant with pointy, elongated and broad dark green leaves having reddish veins and serrate (tooth-like) margins. Peppermint stems and leaves are generally covered in a light fuzz and the plant bears tiny, beautiful purple flowers starting from midsummer to late summer. The species can be propagated through young shoots as it does not produce seeds, but can quickly become invasive if left unattended.
What does peppermint taste like? Peppermint leaves are both slightly sweet and incredibly cooling. Peppermint has a stronger flavor than other plants in the mint family, hence the cold, tingling sensation it envelops your mouth with. Both the fresh and the dried plant are a popular choice for herbal infusions, maceration extracts and decoctions. Fresh leaves are also quite a popular seasoning herb, used mostly in salads, summer drinks such as lemonade or mint lemonade, as a garnish or main ingredient in various dressing recipes.
Like most herbs, peppermint derives its health benefits from its essential oil constitutents, notably menthol, menthone, menthyl acetate as well as smaller amounts of cineol, limonene and beta-pinene. Just like all herbs and spices, it can prove incredibly beneficial for human health, provided it is consumed in small amounts.
According to existing scientific literature, natural peppermint extracts, supplements, tea, essential oil and both fresh and dried leaves and stems can all be used for stomach and muscle-related problems, hair and skin care, nerve pain, as soothing and mildly analgesic agents, to increase alertness, physical and possibly cognitive performance. So what does peppermint (tea, oil, extract) do for you? Here are 9 wonderful health benefits of peppermint:
1) Excellent natural antispasmodic. Peppermint is great for indigestion, stomach cramps and even IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) pain and discomfort due to its excellent antispasmodic properties. According to scientific literature, peppermint exerts a calming effect on the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract, significantly reducing pain and discomfort. Moreover, even peppermint supplements, extracts and oil (which have a higher essential oil concentration than the fresh or dried plant) can be administered safely with wonderful results, provided a healthcare professional is consulted with.
Statistic data collected from a variety of studies on the effectiveness of peppermint for the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders shows that, on average, 3/4 of subjects given either peppermint capsules or oil formula showed visible improvement of IBS and dyspepsia symptoms of pain and impaired gastrointestinal function.
2) Mild natural analgesic. Peppermint is useful for treating muscle pain following intense physical exercise, nerve pain in the form of headaches or migraines or abdominal pain as a result of indigestion, bloating or IBS symptomatology. The herb exerts a strong anti-inflammatory action which accounts for its mild analgesic properties and pain management effectiveness.
3) Wonderful digestion aid. Peppermint is great at soothing an upset stomach and studies reveal it can help improve symptoms of abdominal discomfort and impaired digestion if consumed regularly. This is done by two mechanisms: first, peppermint alters the contraction of the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract, allowing for pain relief; secondly, it improves bile flow, directly contributing to the digestion process.
4) Improves physical performance. According to an article published in March 2013 in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (‘The effects of peppermint on exercise performance’), peppermint essential oil has a surprisingly positive effect on physical performance. Peppermint essential oil oral supplementation is believed to help relax the airway smooth muscle, increase brain oxygenation, lower systolic blood pressure, heart rate and decrease lactic acid levels in the blood, all of which have a positive effect on muscle function and muscle tone, contributing to enhancing physical performance and maximizing workout time.
5) Helps relieve constipation and flatulence and contributes to cardiovascular health. Peppermint is a natural diuretic, increasing the elimination of water through urine. This not only supports kidney function, but also contributes to cardiovascular health by lowering high blood pressure. At the same time, the essential oils in peppermint help relieve constipation by regulating fat digestion and positively altering muscle function at the level of the gastrointestinal tract. Last but not least, the herb is an excellent natural carminative, meaning it helps combat flatulence and the discomfort associated with it.
6) Boasts antiseptic and diaforetic properties. According to research, peppermint is reported to possess strong antiseptic and antimicrobial properties, having a highly beneficial effect on the digestive system in particular. Traditional medical practices recommend taking peppermint to help treat urinary tract infections and reduce pain symptoms.
Moreover, the herb exhibits diaphoretic properties and can be used externally for fever reduction by means of a poultice applied to the forehead, chest and arms. The essential oils in peppermint, notably menthol and menthone, efficiently cool the skin.
7) Aids in hair, skin and nail care. Peppermint is applied topically on the skin to calm irritation, sunburns and degrease oily skin. It can be successfully used for hair care to help regulate sebum production and improve the aspect of oily hair and scalp, as well as improve scalp circulation, stimulating hair growth. Peppermint essential oil relieves scalp irritation, calms scalp dryness, giving the hair a healthy glow. It can also be used as natural treatment for head lice. Last but not least, peppermint oil nourishes cracked, dry, brittle and splitting nails, improving their appearance and health.
8) Antioxidant and antitumor properties. Reviews on the potential health benefits of peppermint suggest that the herb may possess strong antioxidant and antitumor properties as a result of its essential oil content. Rosmarinic acid, eriocitrin, hesperidin and luteolin are just a few of the phenolic and flavonoid compounds found in peppermint. Hesperidin, for example, is being researched for its chemopreventive properties.
9) Enhances alertness and induces relaxation. While this may sound conflicting, peppermint boasts compounds that can do both: increase alertness and induce relaxation. Peppermint can enhance alertness and possibly cognitive performance by means of stimulating circulation and as a result of its mint-like fragrance that has a reanimating effect. At the same time, the rosmarinic acid in the herb boasts an anxyiolytic effect (a soft sedative effect), efficiently inducing relaxation and improving anxiety symptoms.
Conclusion. As with all herbal treatments, there is always a risk for an allergic reaction, especially in people already suffering from asthma. In the case of peppermint, there is a risk for toxicity if recommended doses are greatly exceeded due to the herb containing a natural insecticide called pulegone. Also, infants and young children should not be given the herb or supplements made from it without prior consulting with a healthcare professional as its menthol content can cause respiratory muscle spasms and even respiratory arrest. Other mild side effects of peppermint include nausea and heartburn.