Everyone knows mint! Peppermint is probably one of the world’s oldest and most well-known herbs. It’s a common food ingredient and flavoring, has many uses in the cosmetic and ornamental industries, and also has a long history of use in medicine. And while the medicinal uses of peppermint most often involve its incredible ability to treat digestive issues, peppermint can actually help with so much more.
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Here’s the deal with mint:
- Origin: Most mints originate from the Mediterranean and Asia, but there are some that are native to North and South America, Australia, and South Africa. Today, mint is naturalized in places all over the world.
- Botanical characteristics: As is characteristic of the entire Lamiaceae family, mint has opposite leaves and a square stem. The flowers are white to pink to bluish or purplish and are arranged in whorls at the top of a stem.
- Growth Habits: Mint is a voracious grower. While it prefers moist soils, it can (and will!) grow practically anywhere. It’s infamous for quickly taking over gardens. Many people keep it confined in pots for this reason.
- Propagation: The mints are a complex crew within the Lamiaceae family. They hybridize so readily in both the wild and in cultivation that they can easily become indistinguishable from each other. Accordingly, mint does not produce viable seeds. To propagate mint, root cuttings are best.
- Plant constituents: The mints, including peppermint and spearmint, get their characteristic cooling properties from menthol. Because menthol gives a cooling sensation, it’s commonly used to help relieve pain and irritation associated with many inflammatory conditions.
- Folklore: The word mint originates from Greek mythology. Minthe was a Greek nymph who was turned into a plant as a result of a lover’s quarrel. Taking pity on her new plight as a plant, her lover softened the blow by making her fragrant and even more aromatic when she was stepped on. It was the least he could do, right?
There Are Over 600 Types of Mint!
There are literally hundreds of types of mint. In fact, over 600 plants can answer to the name mint. There’s peppermint and spearmint, of course. Then there’s apple mint, chocolate mint, mountain mint, pineapple mint, orange mint, Vietnamese mint, marsh mint, and the list goes on…and on… and on.
Wanna learn more about culinary mints? Check this out:
6 Delicious Varieties of Mint for Your Garden (& How to Grow Them)
FUN MINTY FACT! The genus Mentha is huge! Of over 600 plants that we call mint, but there are only 5 basic species: Mentha arvensis, M. aquatica, M. spicata, M. longifolia, & M. suaveolens.
These 5 basic mint species have given rise to only ~11 naturally occurring & named hybrids.
What’s the Difference Between Peppermint & Spearmint?
Being, perhaps, the most common of the mints, both peppermint and spearmint are easy to find. But what’s the difference?
- Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is much gentler than peppermint. In comparison, spearmint comes off as delicate and almost sweet. It’s much more commonly used in food. Typically the mint on the shelves at the grocery is spearmint.
- Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has a flavor that is much more intense than spearmint. It’s incredibly pungent and almost spicy. (Peppermint… get it?) And it’s actually a natural hybrid of spearmint and water mint (M. aquatica). Peppermint’s intensity is due to its much higher content of menthol, a compound that gives peppermint much of its high medicinal value.
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Culinary Uses of Mint
We use mint in candies, cocktails and liqueurs, cakes, ice teas, jellies, ice cream, chocolate, and more. It’s a signature ingredient in dishes all over the world. It’s quite the complimentary ingredient in grain dishes, poultry, and lamb, and well as fruits and vegetables.
Plus, it’s an instant breath freshener. Let’s not forget about mint toothpaste, mint chewing gums, and minty mouthwashes.
You’ll Love These Recipes with Mint
Medicinal Uses of Mint
I feel like you could say this about many of the medicinal plants, that [insert practically any herb] is one of our oldest medicines. And it’s the truth. The plants are our oldest form of medicine.
Mint’s use in medicine can be traced back to at least 1000 BC and is widely documented in ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman texts.
The main medicinal constituent of mint is menthol, and since peppermint has a much higher concentration of menthol than most other mints, we most often see peppermint most used in medicine.
As a medicine, mint is commonly used as the following:
- Diuretic: Diuretics help the body get rid of excess sodium by increasing the amount of fluid we’re getting rid of through urine. May be helpful in treating high blood pressure.
- Carminative: Carminative herbs help to stimulate digestion in a way that helps to prevent symptoms of poor digestion such as gas and bloating, indigestion, nausea, etc.
- Antimicrobial: Antimicrobial herbs demonstrate activity against harmful microbes such as bacteria and fungi.
- Antispasmodic: Antispasmodic herbs help to soothe muscle contractions and prevent spasms that may present as painful stomach cramping, muscle tension, and more.
- Anti-inflammatory: Anti-inflammatory herbs have a broad effect of decreasing inflammation in your body.
- External Analgesic: Analgesic herbs are natural pain relievers. Mint is often used externally to help relieve pain from headaches, sore muscles or cramping, and more.
- Stimulating Nervine: Nervine herbs help to nourish and support the central nervous system in a way that can help to restore and bring balance to the body. While some nervines are more sedative in nature, mint is more energizing.
The Many Health Benefits of Mint
The most well-known and most common use of peppermint in medicine is in the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders. As an aromatic carminative, there is very little that a cup of peppermint tea can’t do for our bellies.
By helping to relax the muscles of our GI tract, not only can peppermint help with every day digestive ailments such as gas and bloating after a meal, stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, it has also proven effective in more chronic gastrointestinal disorders such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Ulcerative Colitis.
Other medicinal uses of mint include:
- Inhale peppermint oil for nasal or sinus congestion.
- For insect bites, stings, poison oak, and itchy skin, mint can help with inflammation.
- Apply mint as a poultice to temples or the base of the neck to help ease headaches, especially tension headaches.
- Use peppermint to help each muscle pain (like menstrual cramps or overworked muscles).
- Use mint as a stimulating nervine. A cup of peppermint tea can help promote alertness, providing just the energy you need to get through a mid-afternoon slump.
- Peppermint can help treat fevers associated with cold and flu by helping to open pores so that heat can more easily be released.
Possible Side Effects of Mint
While the health benefits of mint make this a plant totally worth including in your every day, mint can be a little too much for some people, especially in large quantities. Mint is generally considered safe for all, especially when limited to culinary uses.
However, peppermint oil capsules are a common way to use mint for digestive upset. And peppermint oil is a very, very concentrated form of peppermint that be dangerous when taken in excess. Always consult with a licensed practitioner when considering ingesting significant quantities of medicinal herbs.
Peppermint can also be too cooling for some constitutions. If you already run cold and dry, peppermint may exacerbate these feelings. Although oftentimes, including moistening herbs like marshmallow and/or warming herbs like ginger may help to offset the cooling and drying tendencies of mint.
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Resources & Further Reading
- Aggarwal, B. B. (2011). Healing Spices: How to Use 50 Everyday and Exotic Spices to Boost Health and Beat Disease. Sterling Publishing.
- Tilgner, S. M. (2009). Herbal Medicine From the Heart of the Earth. Wise Acres.
- McBride, K. (2019). The Herbal Kitchen. Conari Press.
- Brahmi, F. et al. (2017). Chemical composition and biological activities of Mentha species. Aromatic and Medicinal Plants: Back to Nature. https://www.intechopen.com/books/aromatic-and-medicinal-plants-back-to-nature/chemical-composition-and-biological-activities-of-mentha-species
DISCLAIMER: The information given in this article is intended for educational purposes only. Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before consuming certain herbs & medicinal foods, especially if pregnant, nursing, or taking any prescription medications.