What Is It?
An herb prized for its medicinal benefits and distinctive flavor, peppermint (Mentha piperata) is a naturally occurring hybrid of spearmint (M. spicata) and water mint (M. aquatica). Unlike other mints, however, peppermint contains in its healing volatile oil the powerful therapeutic ingredient menthol, as well as menthone, menthyl acetate and some 40 other compounds. The oil is made by steam-distilling the plant’s aromatic leaves and stems, which are gathered just before its light-purple flowers appear in the summer.
Peppermint oil acts as a muscle relaxant, particularly in the digestive tract, and it can also reduce the inflammation of nasal passages and relieve muscle pains. It’s added to dozens of commercial antacid preparations (and, not surprisingly, can be found in countless toothpastes and breath fresheners for its distinctively minty taste). Some sources recommend placing a mixture of peppermint oil, eucalyptus oil and ethanol (ethyl alcohol) on the forehead and temples to reduce headache pain. And for many people, drinking peppermint tea offers a soothing option to capsules or tinctures.
Specifically, peppermint may help to:
Treat irritable bowel syndrome. Peppermint’s antispasmodic effect can provide significant relief for the abdominal pain, bloating, alternating periods of constipation and diarrhea, and general abdominal discomfort associated with this intestinal condition.
Ease nausea and vomiting. Nausea and motion sickness can subside with the use of peppermint tea or peppermint oil capsules, which both work to moderately anesthetize the stomach’s sensitive mucous lining.
Control flatulence and diverticular disorders. Peppermint can be helpful for people who have digestive symptoms such as gas and intestinal cramps from time to time. It can also offer relief for those with such chronic gas-causing conditions as diverticulosis; the tea may prove especially effective in such cases. Among its other attributes, peppermint relaxes digestive spasms.
Improve digestion and reduce heartburn. The menthol in peppermint increases the beneficial flow of all digestive juices, including bile. It also calms digestive spasms.
Dissolve gallstones. A number of studies indicate that peppermint oil may aid in reducing the size of gallstones and thus help some people avoid surgery. Consult your doctor before using peppermint oil for this purpose.
Fight bad breath. Several drops of peppermint oil applied to the tongue can freshen the breath. Drinking peppermint tea may help by killing bacteria and keeping the mouth moist.
Control muscle aches and chronic pain. When massaged into the skin, peppermint oil plays an innocuous trick on the nerves: It stimulates those that produce a cool, soothing sensation and desensitizes those that pick up pain messages.
Clear congestion and cough related to colds and allergies. By reducing inflammation in the nasal passages, peppermint can help to relieve the congestion so commonly associated with colds and seasonal allergies. Drinking peppermint tea–and inhaling the menthol–may also ease breathing. Peppermint oil and menthol appear in numerous commercial cough remedies, topical ointments, nasal decongestants, inhalants and other formulations.
Control mild asthma. Peppermint tea may offer some relief for mild asthma attacks, lessening bronchial constriction and making it easier to breathe. Peppermint oil capsules are sometimes combined with other herbs for asthma relief.
Fight stress. The aroma of peppermint oil when added to bath water may help release tension and dissipate fatigue.
Note: Peppermint has also been found to be useful for a number of other disorders. For information on these additional ailments, see our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Peppermint.
–To brew peppermint tea: Use 1 or 2 teaspoons of dried peppermint leaves for each 8 ounces of water. Pour very hot (not boiling) water over the leaves, cover the cup (to prevent the volatile oil from being released) and allow the mixture to steep for 10 minutes, then strain.
–Because the strength of tinctures varies, follow package guidelines for use. Usually, 10 to 20 drops per glass of water is recommended.
For irritable bowel syndrome, nausea or gallstones: Take one or two enteric-coated peppermint capsules two or three times a day between meals. Each capsule should contain 0.2 ml of oil. Some people prefer to drink peppermint tea regularly, particularly for nausea.
For relief from stomach upset and other digestive complaints, flatulence and diverticular disorders: Drink three or four cups of peppermint tea a day, between meals. For diverticular disorders, also try a cup of the following herbal tea three or four times a day: Combine one part peppermint and one part valerian to two parts wild yam. Pour 8 ounces of hot (but not boiling) water over the mixture, steep for 10 minutes, then strain and sweeten to taste.
For heartburn and bad breath: Drink three or four cups of peppermint tea throughout the day or place one or two drops of peppermint oil on the tongue as needed.
For muscle aches and chronic pain: Add several drops of undiluted peppermint oil to 1 tablespoon of a neutral oil, such as almond oil. Apply as necessary to the affected areas, up to four times a day.
For congestion: Drink up to four cups of peppermint tea a day, as needed. A tincture can also be used for this purpose; follow package directions.
For mild asthma: Take two to three peppermint oil capsules a day.
For stress relief: Place six to eight drops of the essential oil into a warm bath.
Be sure to check out our Dosage Recommendations Chart for Peppermint, which lists therapeutic dosages for specific ailments at a glance.
Guidelines for Use
• Take enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules between meals; use peppermint tea before or after meals.
• Select enteric-coated capsules when treating irritable bowel syndrome, nausea or gallstones with peppermint; they release the peppermint oil into the small and large intestine rather than the stomach, where it would be less effective.
• Most adults can drink peppermint tea regularly without worrying about an adverse reaction because the relative concentration of menthol in the tea is quite low.
• Some people enjoy having a peppermint after dinner for its stomach-settling properties. But however refreshing the taste, few commercial “after-dinner-mint” confections actually contain much peppermint oil.
• There are no known drug or nutrient interactions associated with peppermint.
Possible Side Effects
• Generally, peppermint in recommended doses causes no side effects, even over long periods of time.
• Very infrequently, enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules may cause heartburn or a skin rash; the latter problem may occur with topically applied peppermint oil as well, especially if it’s used in combination with heat.
• Large amounts of peppermint oil (more than two drops) placed on the tongue can actually cause heartburn and digestive upset, so avoid using more than the recommended amount.
• Never ingest pure menthol, which can be fatal in a dose as small as 1 teaspoonful (2 grams). Menthol is a major ingredient in peppermint oil.
• Don’t apply peppermint oil to the chest or nostrils of a child under age five; a choking feeling can result.
• Don’t use peppermint oil if you have a hiatal hernia. The oil’s muscle-relaxing effect will intensify its symptoms.
• Consult your doctor before using peppermint if you have gallstones.
• Avoid large doses of peppermint oil if you’re pregnant, because it can relax the uterus before it’s time to go into labor.
Allergies Drink up to 4 cups tea a day for congestion.
Asthma 2 or 3 capsules a day
Bad Breath 1 or 2 drops peppermint oil on the tongue, as needed. Drinking peppermint tea may also be helpful.
Chronic Pain Add several drops undiluted peppermint oil to 1 tbsp. neutral oil, such as almond oil, and apply to the affected area up to 4 times a day.
Colds Drink up to 4 cups tea a day for congestion.
Cough Add a few drops of oil to a pan of hot water; cover your head with a towel and inhale the steam.
Fibromyalgia 1 or 2 capsules 3 times a day between meals
Gallstones 1 or 2 capsules 3 times a day between meals
Heartburn Drink 3 or 4 cups tea a day between meals.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome 1 or 2 capsules 3 times a day between meals
Muscle Aches and Pains Add several drops undiluted peppermint oil to 1 tbsp. neutral oil, such as almond oil, and apply to the affected area up to 4 times a day.
Stress Place 6-8 drops essential oil into a warm bath.
David Edelberg, M.D.
Few herbs cater to such a broad spectrum of ills, from coughs to nausea, as peppermint. This old-world remedy is capable of easing your stress, revving up your digestive juices, and basically enhancing your health. Although its healing powers can be directly traced to its menthol content, no fewer than 40 other therapeutic ingredients have been identified in peppermint. Peppermint oil is made by steam distilling the plant’s aromatic leaves and stems, which are gathered just before its light-purple flowers appear in the summer.
HOW IT HELPS IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME
Anyone with IBS can be all too aware of its often-disabling characteristics: abdominal pain, bloating, cycles of constipation and diarrhea. These symptoms are largely the result of spasms that grip the intestinal tract. By relaxing digestive tract muscles and lessening the chance that spasms will occur, peppermint oil can be a welcome antidote indeed. Scientists have actually applied peppermint oil directly to the intestines of lab animals and watched the intestinal muscles relax. When you add it all up–the scientific insight into how it works, the countless testimonials from former IBS sufferers, and the promising results of clinical trials–you’ve got a remedy worth a try. In fact, European doctors regularly prescribe peppermint oil capsules for IBS.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
In theory, what could be more appealing than a cooling “after-dinner peppermint” to settle your stomach after a rich meal? But don’t get your hopes up too high. Few commercial candy confections contain much peppermint oil.
For reliable healing action, look for peppermint in one of the following forms: Capsules (enteric-coated, containing 0.2 ml of oil) are best taken two or three times a day between meals to treat symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. These types of capsules are particularly effective because they’re designed to release the peppermint oil into the small and large intestine where’s it needed rather than the stomach. Teas made with dried peppermint leaves are a popular alternative to capsules, especially if nausea is one of your discomforts. Remember to pour very hot (but not boiling) water over the leaves, and to cover the cup to prevent the key volatile oil from being released. Sip before or after meals. Oil (diluted) doesn’t qualify as a smart pick for IBS. As little as two drops or more on your tongue can actually cause or worsen digestive upset and heartburn. Tinctures vary widely in strength, so be sure to follow package guidelines. Ointments, creams, and undiluted oils designed to rub into the skin will distract you from muscle aches and pains, but they won’t improve a case of irritable bowel syndrome.
Peppermint oil holds a bit of a surprise for IBS sufferers, especially when taken for the first time. You may notice a burning or tingling sensation in your rectal area, as if you ate some particularly well-peppered chili. Take comfort: The sensation is totally harmless.
Peppermint is extremely safe used at recommended doses. A few other points are worth mentioning, too. Steer clear of purified, concentrated menthol, which is poisonous. If you’re fighting chronic heartburn, look for an another herbal remedy. Peppermint may actually worsen the condition by relaxing the muscle between the stomach and the esophagus, allowing stomach acid to creep upward. If you have a hiatal hernia, don’t use peppermint oil because the herb’s muscle-relaxing action will intensify the hernia symptoms.
David Edelberg, MD