What is Peppermint?
Peppermint is a fragrant herb that grows wild throughout Europe and North America. If you've ever grown peppermint in your garden, you know that it has a tendency to spread and take over. People often confuse peppermint with spearmint, a similar plant that is widely used for its refreshing flavor. But what sets peppermint apart are its unique healing ingredients—including menthol, which is used in many over-the-counter cold and cough remedies.
What is it used for?
The tradition of reaching for after-dinner mints has a basis in folk medicine. The active ingredients in peppermint help aid the digestive process, calming spasms in the digestive tract, promoting the flow of digestive juices, and relieving gas. Peppermint also fights germs and freshens your breath—one reason why it is such a common ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash. When inhaled in steam, peppermint oil may help ease sinus congestion due to colds and flu.
What's the best form to use?
Peppermint flavoring adds zing to everything from candy to chewing gum. But if you're interested in peppermint's health benefits, you'll need a more natural form of the herb.
- Peppermint tea. This popular tea is widely available. But if you buy it in the form of premade teabags, check the box to be sure that what you're getting is real peppermint and not just peppermint flavoring. For fresh tea, consider making your own from the leaves of a peppermint plant (see below to learn how to grow one). Simply pluck off a few leaves, wash them, chop up a tablespoon's worth, and put them in a cup. Add boiling water and cover to keep the active oils from escaping. Let steep for 10 minutes, and strain out the herb.
- Peppermint oil. Look in health food stores for this pure oil, a concentrated form of peppermint that you can add to hot water and inhale as steam to unclog your sinuses.
- Enteric-coated peppermint capsules. These capsules are potent and the only safe way to ingest peppermint oil. They can be used to treat many conditions, including digestive problems and bowel disorders, but they can be expensive.
How do I use it?
- For indigestion, digestive spasms, period cramps, or gas: Sip peppermint tea slowly, as needed. Let cool slightly after steeping, as water that is too hot may hurt your throat.
- For sinus congestion: Add two or three drops of peppermint oil to a pot of just-boiled water. It will release menthol into the steam that may ease the swelling in your stuffy sinuses and let you breathe easier. Lean over the steam and inhale, but be careful not to touch the pot. It may help to make a "tent" over your head with a towel to help concentrate the steam.
- For bad breath: Chewing slowly on fresh peppermint leaves helps freshen your breath, while the herb's active ingredients travel into your bloodstream to help fight odors caused by strong-smelling foods such as garlic and onion. If you don't have fresh peppermint leaves on hand, drinking peppermint tea may help do the trick.
- For insect stings: Peppermint oil can help soothe insect bites, but its pure form may be too strong to apply to your skin. The solution? Toothpaste. In a pinch, try putting a dab of peppermint toothpaste (the paste form works better than the gel) onto an insect bite. Keep it on the bite until the paste dries.
How can I grow a peppermint plant?
Peppermint plants are available in the herb section of many nurseries and plant stores (be sure to buy peppermint, not spearmint—they look similar and are sometimes simply labeled "mint."). You can grow peppermint either outside in your garden or indoors in a pot or window box. Peppermint likes either full sun or partial shade. Keep the soil moist, but be sure your pot or container has good drainage. What's great about peppermint plants is that the more you cut off their leaves, the bushier they grow.
The active ingredients in peppermint have a muscle-relaxing effect that may cause heartburn. If you get heartburn after taking peppermint, stop using the herb. Be cautious when giving peppermint tea to children age 10 or younger, as it has been known to cause a choking reflex in young children and infants. (For the same reason, don't use products containing peppermint oil near a child's face or nose.) Don't apply peppermint oil to your skin without testing it first on a tiny patch of skin, as it may produce a rash or other allergic reaction. Don't swallow peppermint oil or add it to foods or tea—it can be toxic and is meant for external use only. People with gallstones should talk with a health care provider before using peppermint.
The use of herbs is not recommended during pregnancy and breast-feeding except under the guidance of a health professional.