Even as the temperatures warm, the melting snow of spring chills the air here in WI. It is difficult not to notice the odd sensation of cold and warm at the same time. And when the thaw occurs, it is amazing to realize that the plants were popping up well before they were disrobed of their white winter wear.
This year my eye was caught by a few early risers in the Lamiaceae (Mint) family: motherwort, catnip, lemon balm, and peppermint. They not only share the same plant family, but have many similar medicinal actions. They are all anti-spasmodic to some degree, are nervine tonics, and can be anti-inflammatory.
Peppermint is the one that was on my mind months before the spring thaw, though. It has medicinal qualities that are very similar to a Midwestern spring. It cools yet warms tissue states in distress, refreshes the mind, and instills a sense of openness and wonder.
In this article on peppermint, I hope to describe the many uses of the tea, tincture and essential oil. Before getting started, however, I will mention a few contraindications peppermint essential oil, tea and tincture has.
Contraindications of Essential oil: Avoid use in strong dilutions. Avoid altogether if you suffer from epilepsy or other neural disorders, as it has been known to trigger seizures. I do not use peppermint topically on skin conditions for those with a soft personality, sensitive nerves, a sensitive scalp and pale skin color. It is extremely irritating, and may cause a severe rash. Internal consumption of the tea is fine, though. Avoid use on children under the age of 3-4. Menthol is a very heavy constituent, and may cause the oxygen to be forced from the lungs leading to death. This occurred in a few cases in Europe. The tea and tincture of peppermint are contraindicated for gastric ulcers with chronic inflammation. (Chamomile is the plant to use here, not peppermint!)
Plants in the Mentha genus have been employed as medicines for thousands of years. Mentha was named for Mintha, a nymph from Greek mythology. There are many stories which describe how the nymph became the Mentha plant. In the one I am most familiar with, Mintha, in a fit of jealousy and rage at the loose of her lover to another, was stepped on by Demeter, and grew out of the earth as Mentha.
Tisserand tells a different tale in his book, The Art of Aromatherapy. “Mint was once the nymph Mentha, whom Pluto found extremely attractive. Persephone, his jealous wife, pursued Mentha and trod her ferociously into the ground! Pluto then changed Mentha into a delightful herb.”
The species piperita translates from Latin as ‘pepper scented mint”. And in fact, it is a spicy but cool and crisp medicine.
Peppermint for Gastrointestinal Relief
Peppermint is sweet and spicy. It calms and cools upon contact, and begins to warm slightly thereafter. It’s anti-inflammatory, carminative, anti-spasmodic and astringent properties make the tea and tincture a fine medicinal for intestinal gas (carminative), nausea, vomiting and stomachaches. I love to use peppermint as a tea by itself, or combined with other bitter and carminative herbs as a tincture or tea. It adds great medicinal value to the formula as well as making the bitters more palatable.
One formula I find useful for intestinal viruses is blue vervain, peppermint and cinnamon. This bitter, sweet and pungent nervine formula calms the nerves of the digestive tract, relieves pain, gas and bloating. The cinnamon and peppermint also have immune stimulating, anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties. For gastritis and dyspepsia, combine peppermint with fennel, ginger, angelica root, and chamomile.
Peppermint is also one of several plants in the old Eclectic formula Neutralizing Cordial. The formula is specific for chronic gastric irritation with a reddened tongue, nausea, vomiting, and a tender abdomen. It is indicated in cases of constipation or diarrhea with excess gas and bloating. The Neutralizing Cordial is the Eclectics general gastric remedy. The herbs in the cordial are goldenseal, turkey rhubarb, cinnamon and peppermint with potassium bicarbonate.
Another general remedy for gastritis and dyspepsia combines peppermint, fennel, ginger, and angelica root and chamomile teas. It aids gas and bloating, while also increasing hydrochloric acid production and soothes the irritated mucosal lining of the stomach and intestines without interfering with absorption. Adding a small amount of red root for a few weeks decreases inflammation to the lymph and increases absorption.
While a less employed remedy for gas and intestinal upset, there are a few ways to use the essential oil here. One is through inhalation. Put a few drops of peppermint pure essential oil on a cotton ball, and inhale for a few minutes. I also like to add ginger and cardamom. While it is not the strongest delivery for a carminative, it does relax tension, and relieve some of the discomfort that arises in the nerves of the stomach and nervous system.
I have also had clients add a few drops of ginger, lavender and peppermint essential oil to castor oil, and apply this over the abdomen with a towel and hot water bottle. The castor oil breaks up stagnant energy in the digestive organs, also relieving constipation and liver congestion.
Acute Respiratory Infections and Allergies
Peppermint was historically used for spastic coughs, most specifically for pneumonia and bronchitis. While not all plant clinicians site peppermint as being effective for such, especially aromatherapists, I have found the essential oil, the tea and tincture to be a very effective remedy for such.
While peppermint is anti-spasmodic, astringent and dries wet mucous membranes, it is also considered an immune stimulant. Drinking a strong cup of the tea for minor acute upper respiratory conditions helps to cool excess heat, but also penetrates the mucous membranes, thinning mucus for it to dry and clear. It relieves headaches by breaking up congestion that causes it. Try adding some yarrow and sage for very wet conditions, or yarrow and ginger when dry and compacted congestion.
When employing peppermint in formulas for acute lower respiratory infections, one must get specific per person. For more information on herbs for respiratory tract infections, please see the previous article here on herbs for the respiratory tract. I will briefly say that using something like peppermint when the condition is dry is a bad idea. I recommend using an inhalation of peppermint pure essential oil with cinnamon, thyme and marjoram for dry conditions. It works to calm the respiratory tract without irritating it further. This formula is also anti-viral, a broad spectrum anti-bacterial and anti-spasmodic. For a more calming effect add lavender.
This formula of essential oils can also be applied to the feet in a 1-2% dilution. To make this, add a total of 7-14 drops of the above mentioned essential oils with eucalyptus to 1 ounce of olive oil. Shake the bottle well, and apply to the feet. Put socks on afterward. The veins in the feet run directly to the heart and respiratory tract, and can decrease spastic coughs quickly, for the medicine bypasses the liver. I use it throughout the day to manage bronchitis and less serious coughs, as well as at night.
Herbs for headaches are an article in itself, for headaches are a sign of a greater imbalance, whether from hormones, liver congestion, or sinus to name a few. None the less, the analgesic and anti-spasmodic effects of peppermint are excellent for relieving headaches. An excellent tea formula for headaches from general life stress combines peppermint, blue vervain, chamomile and lavender. I also recommend inhalation of peppermint essential oil combined with lavender.
Hormonal stress tends to dictate a more specific per person remedy, but peppermint essential oil combined with bergamot, lavender and clary sage do very well here for inhalation. A tea formula you may wish to try combines dandelion root, peppermint, lavender and ginger. Peppermint was found by the French to be a liver stimulant, thus increasing bile production. It is an excellent compliment to dandelion root, which assists the liver in metabolizing excess hormones that may cause liver congestion.
Sinus headaches may be helped by drinking peppermint tea, for the menthol content will help stimulate and dry congestion, while also acting as an analgesic and anti-spasmodic.
Headaches and migraines that are a result of liver heat and constriction can be relieved by a combination of fever few, lavender and peppermint tinctures. Feverfew is a cooling bitter liver stimulant that relieves a congested liver, is anti-inflammatory and a vasodilator. It is well complemented by peppermint, an analgesic and anti-spasmodic liver stimulant, and lavender a calming nervine with similar properties, but a much gentler action.
An example of one formula I have used for migraines is 5 ml. peppermint leaf tincture (1:2), 10 ml. lavender flower tincture (1:2), 15 ml. feverfew tincture (1:2). One may also want to add ginger for a warming formula. Take 30-60 drops of the formula every 15-20 min. while in the throws of a migraine until relief is felt. I also recommend inhalation of peppermint with lavender and chamomile during this time, if the scent can be tolerated.
Other Uses for the Essential oil
Essential oil of peppermint, being cooling upon contact and warming thereafter, finds its way into many of my formulas for sprains and arthritis. I love essential oils for pain, for they also help alleviate the emotional pain that comes with the physical.
One of my favorite essential formulas combines peppermint, with rosemary, eucalyptus, lavender clove and ginger. It makes an excellent general foot rub, or may be used for more sever injuries to relieve swelling and discomfort.
In small dilutions peppermint also relieves itching and inflammation caused by insect bites, ring worm, poison ivy, and scabies. I only use a few drops per ounce of carrier oil. For bug bites I recommend peppermint with lavender, for scabies peppermint with lavender, geranium and balsam peru.
Making a broad spectrum anti-fungal formula effective against ring worm can be tricky; for it depends on the person and region they live in. One formula I had great success with in the southwest with clients was geranium, tea tree, myrrh, lavender, balsam peru, peppermint and cardamom. I made it as a salve with a 5% dilution of essential oils (that’s 30 drops of pure essential oils per ounce of salve base), and recommended application 3-4 times daily for 2 weeks time.
Medicinal plants, humans and maladies have traveled together for thousands of years. A plant understands what the body needs for relief holistically, encouraging the symptom to a place of balance instead of suppressing it, while also addressing the root of the problem.
Peppermint is no exception here. It masterfully relieves symptoms and does so fairly quickly. It can be an orb that encompasses the stomach, bringing calm when it’s upset, or it can harmonize the mind, bringing it to focus in times of stress. Peppermint can stimulate circulation, decreasing inflammation topically or via inhalation for headaches, while it also decrease emotional pain caused by excessive stress.
Symptom relief is joined by its ability to address the root of the problem as demonstrated by its ability to stimulate the immune system and bile production in the liver to relieve congestion and heat there.
The leaf of the peppermint holds the light of spring. And my hope is that everyone finds a special place for this mystical mint in their garden and medicine chest. It will reward you with its strength and beauty throughout the year. Happy Spring, and Happy Harvesting!