The Herbs Section
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Peppermint (Mentha x piperita [Latin]) is a hybrid of watermint crossed and spearmint. It is a hearty plant that grows in just about every country in the world, and the essential oil of this plant is a popular flavoring used in food and many commercial products. Of all species of mint, peppermint contains the most menthol, a phytochemical that helps calm muscle spasms throughout the body, improve digestion, protect against food poisoning, and relieve headache and nausea.
The menthol in peppermint has long been used as a cough suppressant and decongestant. Even in the United States, where herbal medicine is not widely used, menthol is a common ingredient in cough drops, nasal spray, and mentholatum chest rubs. The FDA actually approved the marketing of peppermint as a cold remedy, as did a panel of experts in Germany that evaluates the safety and efficacy of herbs.
Peppermint aids digestion by helping to prevent cramping of the smooth muscles lining the intestine. Studies have shown that peppermint can significantly reduce symptoms of gastrointestinal upset, and may even help prevent the formation of stomach ulcers. Peppermint tea has been used to treat colic, heartburn, indigestion, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
Peppermint relieves cramping in the uterus, which may help regulate irregular menstrual cycles. However, pregnant women using peppermint for morning sickness should drink peppermint tea instead of using the more potent peppermint oil capsules to avoid the risk of miscarriage. In addition, the antispasmodic action of peppermint increases bile production by relaxing muscles in the bile duct, an action that may help dissolve gallstones in some individuals.
The menthol in peppermint has antibacterial, antiviral, and analgesic effects. In laboratory studies, peppermint oil was found to kill bacteria that cause urinary tract infections and the herpes simplex virus. It is an active ingredient in some over-the-counter topical creams used for relief of muscle pain, such as Bengay ointment, as well as in lozenges used to treat sore throat. Peppermint oil also helps treat pain caused by insect bites, rashes, and headaches.
Peppermint is available in bulk herb oil, enteric-coated capsules, soft gelatin capsules, and liquid extract. This herb is easy to grow, and a handful of either fresh or dried peppermint leaves in a cup of hot water makes an excellent tea. You can drink up to four cups a day for treatment of digestive disorders, morning sickness, or to ease congestion.
There have been no toxic side effects associated with consumption of peppermint tea. However, excessive topical use of peppermint oil can cause headaches and flushing, and some people have reported gastrointestinal upset from taking peppermint oil capsules. Long-term use of peppermint oil may cause liver damage, so anyone with a liver disorder should not use this herb.
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