Peppermint: a history of healing

botanical illustration of the peppermint (Mentha piperita) plant

Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a close cousin of spearmint, water mint, and forest mint. This extended family includes hundreds of distinct plants that fall under the genus Mentha.

Although a formidable herbal star in its own right, peppermint is believed to be a naturally occurring hybrid of spearmint and water mint.

From ancient medicine...

Peppermint has a long history of cultivation; we find recorded medicinal use from ancient Egypt in the Ebers Papyrus, a medical text dated back to 1550 BC, where mint is listed as a remedy for stomach pains. The herb was so valuable in ancient societies that it was also used as a form of currency! Jesus is quoted in the Bible (Luke 11:39) as saying:

“But woe unto you, Pharisees! For ye tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs and pass over judgment and the love of God: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.”

Religious judgement aside, this adds legitimacy to the theory that the herb originated in North Africa and the Mediterranean, as well as the fact that it was seen as valuable enough in the ancient world to be given as part of a mandatory religious donation.

There's also a long history of the medicinal use of peppermint in ancient Rome and Greece, which goes hand in hand with mint’s folkloric place in these cultures.

Greek mythology holds that Minthe was a river nymph who dwelt in the Cocytus, one of the five rivers of Hades. One day the ruler of the underworld Hades (basically her landlord but let’s not cloud myth with modern sensibilities) came across Minthe and was so enchanted by her beauty that he became her lover. At some point, his (stolen, but that’s another story) wife Persephone heard that Minthe thought herself superior to her. So, she did what any self-respecting Goddess would do, and had poor Minthe turned into a lowly mint plant that people would walk on forevermore. Hades then, being unable to say no to his wife (she had powerful parents), decided to add a silver lining to the spell’s dark cloud; he made it so that whenever people stepped on his lover, her sweet smell would travel up to their noses, forcing them to recognise her beauty.

All mints have the beautiful fresh smell that we’re all familiar with, but peppermint has a particular peppery pungency that distinguishes it from the rest of its minty family.

The Roman natural philosopher wrote that peppermint stimulates the appetite and ‘stirs the mind and appetite to a greedy desire of food.’ We have a wealth of experience with this herb, and today still use it for its powers of promoting good appetite and digestion.

Found listed in the London Pharmacopoeia of 1721 as a remedy for illnesses ranging from headaches to venereal disease, peppermint’s global use and cultivation has grown steadily over the centuries.

To modern medicine...

Modern herbalists have been able to build upon this age-old wisdom and modern clinical research to prescribe peppermint as complementary medicine in the treatment of a wide range of illnesses including:

  • depression-related anxiety

  • nausea and vomiting including morning sickness and chemotherapy-related emesis

  • muscle spasms

  • indigestion

  • colic and excessive intestinal wind

  • colds and cases of flu

  • IBS, bloating, and diarrhoea

  • digestive issues caused by anxiety and stress

  • calming irritated (but not broken) skin

  • headaches and migraines

  • nasal congestion

  • brain fog and stress

How does it work?

Like all plants, peppermint produces a range of secondary plant metabolites, which help the plant to defend itself from disease and predators, as well as to attract pollinators. One of the main ones found in peppermint is the aromatic compound menthol.

In the human body, these chemical compounds can have a range of effects. The components of peppermint are naturally anti-microbial (even effective against some antibiotic-resistant bacteria), anti-inflammatory, decongestant, anti-spasmodic, and analgesic (painkilling).

These active constituents make it an excellent plant ally for those suffering from colds and flu because it relieves congestion and relaxes muscles which can help with headaches, as well as encouraging the body to sweat, which can help break a fever.

Use it at home

Dried peppermint leaves are one of the most popular herbal teas sold worldwide. This plant is also easy to grow on a windowsill, and produces new leaves very quickly, which you can use for teas, tinctures, and infusions.

Peppermint essential oils are also widely available, and these can be used along with eucalyptus and camphor to make an at-home steam treatment that shrinks the swollen nasal tissues and provides congestion and pain relief in the case of a cold or flu.

Other uses include:

  • Diluting peppermint essential oil with a skin-friendly carrier oil like coconut or almond for soothing unbroken skin

  • Diluted peppermint oil for massaging the temples can ease headaches and migraines

  • Massaging the lower abdominal area for menstrual pain relief or other areas with musculoskeletal pain

  • Use in a diffuser for the calming and clearing aromatherapeutic qualities of menthol, this is especially useful to relieve a lack of focus or brain fog

  • Peppermint tea or capsules are a wonderful remedy for digestive issues ranging from bloating and pain, to bowel and loose stool issues and cramps.

  • It also is a 'digestive' herb, containing bitter compounds that prepare the gut for good digestion by promoting the production and secretion of bile by the gall bladder.

  • Spiritually, peppermint corresponds to the element of air. You can use peppermint leaves and essential oils to foster mental clarity in times of confusion, for cleansing the energy around you, and to magnify financial abundance!

Peppermint is a true all-rounder! With its fresh smell and unique flavour, it's great for both specific medicinal issues and everyday use.

We hope you have learned something you didn't know before and will think of this superb herb next time you need a little boost.

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