What Is It?
Since ancient times, Europeans have relied on the root of the marshmallow plant (Althea officinalis) to concoct cough and sore throat remedies. Interestingly, the “Althea” in the herb’s botanical name comes from the Greek word for “heal” or “cure.” And the plant’s common name–marshmallow–comes from the habitat that it favors: marshes and other damp environments.
Marshmallow is native to Europe and western Asia. It can also be found in North America, particularly in salt marshes along the eastern seaboard. In addition to its root, marshmallow’s velvety leaves and pale pink or white flowers are occasionally used in healing as well.
Interestingly, historians believe that parts of the marshmallow plant were once used to fill hungry stomachs during famines. And in 19th-century America, children with sore throats were given a hardened disk made of whipped marshmallow root juices, sugar, and egg whites to suck on. Despite the name, marshmallow treats roasted over campfires today don’t contain any part of the plant.
The key ingredient in marshmallow root and leaf is mucilage, a substance that becomes gooey and gel-like when combined with a liquid. This quality has been put to good use, both in internal and external forms, to soothe and protect inflamed mucous membranes and other tissues.
Cooled marshmallow root tea has been used to soothe inflamed skin or mouth irritations; it can also be used as a gargle. A compress, poultice, or paste made from the root works well as an emollient for skin irritations and wounds.
Marshmallow contains rich stores of various vitamins and minerals, including key immune-system boosters such as vitamins A and C.
Specifically, marshmallow may help to:
Soothe a sore throat and suppress a cough. Few herbal remedies have been used for as many centuries–with such great effectiveness–as marshmallow for irritated throat and cough. Try sipping a tea made with the roots or leaves of marshmallow for quelling a sore throat or dry, irritating cough. Even Germany’s highly critical Commission E gives high approval marks for these uses.
Lessen heartburn and intestinal conditions, such as ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, and constipation. The root of the marshmallow plant is particularly rich in mucilage and gets extremely gooey when wet. This quality makes it particularly valuable for coating and protecting irritated mucous membranes in the mouth, throat, and gastrointestinal tract. British health authorities even consider marshmallow root preparations safe and effective for soothing ulcers along the digestive tract.
For cough: Add 1 teaspoon of liquid extract to 1 cup (8 ounces) of very warm water 3 times a day. Alternatively, drink 1 cup of marshmallow tea (or a marshmallow-containing herbal cough tea) up to 3 times a day as needed.
For sore throat: As a tea, use 1 tablespoon of dried herb per 8-ounce cup of very warm water. Alternatively, mix 1 tablespoon of liquid extract in 8 ounces of very warm water. Drink up to 3 cups daily.
For heartburn or other stomach upset: Drink 1 cup of tea as needed or add 1 teaspoon of liquid extract to 8 ounces of water, and sip 4 times a day.
Guidelines for Use
Many people use marshmallow tea for healing. It’s important to know the proper brewing method: Use 1 to 2 teaspoons of the dried root (or 1 teaspoon of the dried leaf) for each 8 ounces of water.
While very hot (not boiling) water can be poured over the material, the ideal way to make the tea and retain the key ingredients is to use cold water and then gently warm the liquid before drinking. Steep the tea for 5 minutes, and then strain.
For external use, add just enough water to the chopped root to make a paste.
Marshmallow may delay the absorption of other drugs when taken at the same time.
According to studies in mice, marshmallow can lower blood sugar levels. It’s not clear whether this happens in humans, but it may interfere with treatments for lowering blood sugar, such as insulin. If you have diabetes, consult your doctor before taking marshmallow and monitor your blood sugar levels closely.
Possible Side Effects
There are no known side effects associated with marshmallow.
Marshmallow has been safely used for centuries.
Cough Add 1 tsp. liquid extract to 1 cup (8 oz.) hot water 3 times a day. Alternatively, drink 1 cup marshmallow tea (or a marshmallow-containing herbal cough tea) up to 3 times a day as needed.
Heartburn Drink one cup tea as needed or 1 tsp. liquid extract in water 4 times a day.
Sore Throat As a tea, 1 tbsp. dried herb per 8 oz. cup of hot water. Alternatively, mix 1 tbsp. liquid extract in 8 oz. of hot water. Drink up to 3 cups daily.
David Edelberg, MD