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Peppermint Packs a Punch … but Is It Good for You?

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I start and end most days with peppermint tea. It’s my go-to remedy for stressful mornings and chilly nights. And while I love the invigorating flavor and scent, what’s really made me a die-hard devotee has more to do with its soothing properties. As someone with what feels like a perpetually upset stomach, I’ve found that adding this herb to my daily routine has done wonders for my well-being. And it’s not all in my head, either—growing evidence suggests that peppermint’s a terrific natural remedy for digestive issues. But while peppermint may seem like an innocent herb, taking too much of it may have dangerous consequences. 

What It Does Help With
Peppermint tea is often recommended for people who have stomach problems, and for good reason. Its essential oil, menthol, actually relaxes the stomach muscles, in turn making digestion and gas production—two common causes of ailments—much smoother operations. Based on this, ingesting peppermint should lead to less bloating and gas pain overall. That’s why its effects on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are of such interest to the medical community. 

Much research has been conducted on the use of peppermint as an IBS treatment. In 2001, forty-two kids with IBS were given either peppermint oil capsules or a placebo in a University of Missouri study. After two weeks, a whopping 75 percent of the children given peppermint said they were in less pain. In addition, a 2008 review from McMaster University in Canada analyzed more than sixty years of IBS treatments and found that peppermint improved IBS sufferers’ symptoms in 40 percent of the cases. 

The capsules used in the 2001 University of Missouri study were enteric-coated, which makes them dissolve in the intestines, rather than the stomach. That’s worth noting because menthol’s muscle-relaxing properties can have an adverse effect on people with acid reflux disease; if the muscle between the stomach and esophagus is relaxed too much, it can encourage acid to travel upward and cause indigestion and heartburn. Coated capsules are broken down in the intestines, thereby eliminating that problem. A 2007 review published in the American Family Physician found that enteric-coated peppermint capsules are indeed effective in alleviating some stomach issues. 

What It Might Help With
Do an online search on the health benefits of peppermint, and you’ll find a number of surprising results beyond IBS issues. For instance, peppermint oil’s supposedly great for skin, relieving itchiness, rashes, inflammation, and so forth. Also, the rosmarinic acid it contains is said to help open up airways in asthmatics and fight against bacteria and viruses, due to its antioxidant and antimicrobial characteristics. Even so, science has yet to prove it makes enough of a difference for peppermint to be an effective treatment for asthma, colds, and so forth. 

Peppermint may also help with achy, sore muscles because its menthol component dulls pained nerves and activates cold-temperature receptors. However, peppermint oil is far too caustic for the skin to be applied directly—side effects include skin rashes, allergic reactions, muscle spasms, and painful burning—so the topical applications you find at health-food stores are diluted with ethanol or other, similar ingredients. If you want to attempt to create an all-natural peppermint lotion or body scrub at home, always be sure to do your homework before you get started. 

There’s some evidence that peppermint can ease headache pain as well, as a 1994 study performed at the University of Kiel in Germany found. Researchers discovered that peppermint oil and ethanol mixed together resulted in significant pain reduction among thirty-two volunteers. 

However, as with peppermint’s effects on asthma and skin conditions, much more evidence is needed before people should look to peppermint derivatives as a replacement for actual medicine. According to the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), peppermint does seem to truly help alleviate symptoms of IBS, but as for any other health claims, the Center states, “Although there are some promising results, there is no clear-cut evidence to support the use of peppermint oil for other health conditions.” The NCCAM even calls the evidence supporting peppermint’s use for indigestion “preliminary”—in other words, too early to tell. 

What (and How) It Can Harm
There’s nothing wrong with seeking out alternative medicine, as long as you go into it knowing the facts, including that peppermint’s healing properties are still iffy at this point and that this plant even poses some potential health hazards. The NCCAM maintains that it “appears to be safe” for adults in small doses, but warns of possible allergic reactions and increased risk of heartburn. The aforementioned American Family Physician review suggests that pregnant or lactating women, as well as babies and very young kids, shouldn’t taken any peppermint at all. If you have gastroesophageal reflux disease (chronic heartburn) or a hiatial hernia, or are taking any medications with which peppermint could interfere (diabetes and low–blood pressure medications are possibilities), peppermint intake should be avoided as well. Ingesting too much peppermint oil can cause a host of maladies, too, including dizziness, lowered heart rate, and potential brain damage. 

In any case, it’s always best to consult a doctor before using herbs medicinally. But if you don’t fall into any of the categories listed above and want to try drinking peppermint tea with your meal, I can vouch for its usefulness in settling stomachs, so if your digestive system’s feeling off, try some tea and see how you feel afterward. But, as with any other natural remedy, don’t expect instant, complete improvement; peppermint is an herb, not a miracle worker.

Updated on March 4, 2011


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