Folk chefs were on to something when they started the tradition of making holiday treats with peppermint. More than just a minty flavoring for cookies and candy canes, peppermint is a gentle and natural remedy for winter ailments.
Its antibacterial and antiviral properties prevent and heal colds and flu, as peppermint soothes muscle aches, alleviates coughs, and opens nasal passageways. Its pain relieving properties have been proven to reduce the impact of tension headaches and migraines, as stress ramps up around the end of the year. It also helps alleviate the indigestion and heartburn that result from overindulgence. And beyond that, it’s been shown to be an effective remedy for Irritable Bowel Syndrome.
At any time of year, peppermint has also been shown to have potentially antitumor, anti-allergy, and antifungal properties. It also helps prevent and treat oral infections and dental problems. It’s easy to grow in the garden, and as an oil or tea, peppermint is an essential component to any medicine cabinet.
Soothing Stomachs, From IBS To indigestion
Dr. Joe Feuerstein, Director of Integrative Medicine at Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, says peppermint essential oil is his premier remedy for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). “I use it for IBS all the time,” he said in an interview with Reset.
Cramping, bloating, stomach pain, gas, and irregularity characterize IBS, which affects the large intestine, or colon. The large intestine is comprised of smooth muscle, and the painful cramping is caused by muscle spasms.
“One of the essential compounds in peppermint is menthol, which has a stimulating effect. Peppermint also contains a number of organic volatile oils and other substances, and it works as a calcium blocker,” Feuerstein said. “The smooth muscle in blood vessels need calcium to contract; by blocking calcium, the muscle relaxes.”
A 2014 randomized, placebo controlled study of 726 IBS patients, published in the Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, found that peppermint oil was an effective treatment in alleviating pain.
Dr. Feuerstein, who also teaches integrative medicine at Columbia University, recommends taking peppermint essential oil in enteric coated capsules. “It’s a very pungent, strong oil. We don’t want it to irritate the stomach,” he said. “Enteric coated capsules go through the stomach and slowly release in the intestines.”
In his unique practice, which prescribes no chemical medicines, he always purchases pharmaceutical-grade essential oils from Germany, where they are regulated and manufactured by pharmaceutical companies.
Germany’s medical system uses natural medicine extensively and maintains a national pharmacopoeia, which prescribes peppermint oil for gastrointestinal spasms, irritable colons, and respiratory inflammation.
The essential oil is powerful for IBS, but brewing leaves as tea is gentler, and effective for milder stomach problems.
“Peppermint tea is one of the best things for indigestion,” said Jessie Gill, a registered nurse and author of the blog Flustered Mom, in a phone interview.
“Peppermint is a phenomenal treatment for nausea,” she said. “For those suffering from a stomach bug, I encourage small sips of fresh brewed peppermint tea. I also recommend applying a drop or two of peppermint oil to a tissue and breathing in the aroma to soothe queasiness.”
A meta-analysis of peppermint studies published in Phytotherapy Research found that peppermint tea helped soothe heartburn, indigestion, nausea, stomach pain and cramps, vomiting, and bloating. Peppermint tea gently and safely helps moderate to severe digestive problems.
It’s so gentle that Germany’s Commission E, its medical regulatory body, prescribes peppermint tea to treat children’s stomach problems, and a mix of peppermint and chamomile for kidney and bladder problems. According to the translated Commission E monographs, the official formula for this blended tea is about two-thirds peppermint leaves with about one-third chamomile flowers.
Cold/Flu Pain And Tension Headaches
Winter means holidays and cold weather. The holidays often bring stress, making people who are susceptible to migraines miserable. At the same time, the cold weather makes everyone susceptible to cold and flu.
Peppermint helps both. A randomized, placebo-controlled study found that applying peppermint oil to the forehead during a headache was as effective as Tylenol at alleviating pain, and its analgesic effects relieve all muscle pain.
Dr. Kaila Nguyen, a naturopath at Origin Health Center in California, recommends diluting peppermint essential oil in a carrier oil such as jojoba or olive, and rubbing in on aching muscles to relieve pain.
“I tell patients to smell the oil first to see if they like it, because it is very strong,” she said in a phone interview. “I apply it on the temples for tension headaches, and apply it on the body for pain, because of its cooling and anti-inflammatory effects.”
“Use it moderately, a little at a time, to increase tolerance,” she advised. “You can rub it on the chest because it’s vaporizing for coughs. You can rub it on the throat, which is soothing, and you can drink the tea to soothe a sore throat, too. And the diaphoretic effect helps people to sweat during a fever.”
It’s also helpful for coughs. “The tea helps with a cough, since its antispasmodic,” she said.
The peppermint meta-analysis found it to be antioxidant, antimicrobial, and antiviral (as well as antitumor and anti-allergenic). Studies also showed that inhaling peppermint helps people with stuffy noses breathe more easily.
Registered nurse Gill said, “For colds, peppermint is awesome with eucalyptus oil. If you get a bowl of hot water and hold a towel over your head, it just breaks up everything right away. The menthol is very soothing.”
Germany’s Commission E prescribes one drop of peppermint to four drops eucalyptus oil and four drops pine oil in a bowl of hot water, to crate a steam bath to sooth children’s nasal congestion.
However, take caution if using it topically on children, as Dr. Nguyen points out. “Be cautious, as it can cause coughing because of its spasmolytic effect,” she said.
Peppermint For Skin Conditions, Healthier Teeth, And Pest Control
Dr. Nguyen said that peppermint may help with certain skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema. “We ask patients what they’ve tried before, and we have them smell the essential oil to gauge their tolerance, if they like it.” Though it’s not a foolproof treatment, some people find it effective. It’s antifungal properties do make it good for certain fungal infections, such as on nails, she said.
There are other ways that peppermint helps infections, which explains why it’s the favored flavor of toothpaste. Dr. Justin Sycamore, a dentist practicing in California, starting getting into peppermint when his assistant suggested it for getting rid of spiders that had cropped up in the office.
“I thought it was crazy, but at the same time I don’t like the idea of spraying pesticides around our office. So we placed peppermint oil strategically around our office,” he said. “I was blown away — immediately there were no spiders. I haven’t seen a spider since. It’s been months.”
He became intrigued and after doing research saw peppermint has been used to treat mouth and throat inflammation. “As a dentist, one of my primary goals is to reduce inflammation of the gingiva. Inflammation is the first step in periodontal disease. First, we remove the plaque and calculus, but then we need to relieve the inflammation.”
A patient arrived with major gum inflammation. Dr. Sycamore cleaned the plaque, and then went to prescribe chlorhexidine, his usual rinse. But the patient said her last rinse had left her with stained teeth.
“I suggested peppermint oil,” he said. “When I saw the patient a week later, there was absolutely no inflammation. It really exceeded my expectations. Now peppermint oil is always a recommendation to my patients with inflammation.”
Peppermint’s Overall Properties And Gentleness
Peppermint is antioxidant, antimicrobial, antiviral, antitumor, and potentially anti-allergenic. You can enjoy it in a hot cup of tea on a cold day, or by putting a few drops of oil in holiday cookie dough. It will help with food digestion, ward off cancer, prevent infections, keep teeth and gums healthy, and help prevent or alleviate colds and flu.
No wonder it’s in candy canes!