Who doesn’t love peppermint?
Of course, it tastes wonderful. But even more importantly, for most people it can bring back terrific childhood memories. Peppermint is Christmas treats and candy canes and Peppermint Patties and Grandma, all in one simple aroma.
Peppermint isn’t just a throwback flavor and aroma, though. Its invigorating flavor, and the cooling sensation it provides, have kept it popular for generations.
Those who bake regularly are likely to have a bottle of peppermint extract in their cabinets, even if they only use it occasionally. Others may regularly enjoy peppermint tea, buy (or make) peppermint ice cream, or chew peppermint gum. Peppermint is a popular flavoring for toothpaste and mouthwash. Peppermint oil capsules are used as dietary supplements to ease digestive problems, among other medical issues. And – as you know – the holiday season does still come once every year.
The scent has new life these days as well – as peppermint essential oil (EO) has become one of the most popular varieties of oils used in aromatherapy and therapeutic massages.
Let’s find out why.
What Is Peppermint?
We all know that oranges come from orange trees, blueberries come from blueberry plants, and garlic grows underground.
But where does peppermint come from? Is there such a thing as a peppermint plant?
Yes, there is. Peppermint, known in the botanical world as Mentha piperita (or more accurately as Mentha x piperita), is what’s known as a hybrid mint plant. It’s a cross between the watermint and spearmint plants, and was originally found in the Middle East and in Europe.
Peppermint is a fast-growing and hardy plant, growing wild all over the world and farmed in many nations. In the United States, it’s cultivated for its oil mostly in Oregon and Washington State. Wild peppermint is found all across North America, however, and it grows so quickly and widely that it’s actually considered an “invasive” species in the upper Midwest, as well as in Australia and New Zealand.
The peppermint plant isn’t only a source for peppermint flavoring and essential oil. The cool, minty compound menthol (and its close relative menthone) which is used in cough drops and ointments, and as a flavoring in cigarettes, is also derived from peppermint oil.
What Is Peppermint Essential Oil?
Easy answer: it’s oil extracted from the peppermint plant.
Better answer: it’s a natural oil with a wonderfully-pleasant aroma that’s extracted from the peppermint plant. It’s been found to provide quite a few apparent important health and wellness benefits.
This essential oil is contained in the peppermint plant’s leaves, flowers and stems, and it’s extracted with a method known as steam distillation. The plant parts are gently crushed as heated steam is passed through them; that releases the oil into the resulting vapor, which is then condensed into a liquid. The liquid that’s collected is peppermint essential oil.
You can buy it at all types of stores, from supermarkets and natural foods stores, to many drug and department stores. You can buy it on Amazon, or directly from essential oil producers’ websites. You can make your own DIY peppermint essential oil, too.
First, wash and then crush peppermint leaves with a mortar and pestle. Put the crushed leaves into a jar and cover them with a “carrier oil” like olive oil, coconut oil or jojoba oil, seal the jar tight, and let the mixture sit for at least three days. Strain the mixture and repeat the process, adding new crushed leaves to the jar containing your oil. After another three days (you can wait longer for more concentrated oil), strain again and – voila! Your very own peppermint essential oil.
DIY oil won’t be as potent as the steam-distilled pure essential oil you buy. And since it’s mixed with carrier oil, it’s more suitable for topical application or therapeutic massage than for use in a diffuser. It will still smell amazing, though, and will provide many of the same medicinal benefits.
“What medicinal benefits?” we hear you ask. Never fear. We have answers, right after we quickly answer one common question.
Is Peppermint Essential Oil the Same as Peppermint Extract?
The peppermint extract you use in the kitchen is definitely not essential oil.
Peppermint essential oil – at least, if it’s pure essential oil – doesn’t contain anything else. Peppermint extract, on the other hand, is basically alcohol with a little bit of peppermint oil added to give the extract its minty taste. Some inexpensive extracts also contain other food additives or preservatives, and they’re not always natural.
Essential oil is usually at least four times as strong as peppermint extract. It’s so strong that you can’t ingest it by itself, and it could cause burns or rashes if you apply it directly to the skin unless it’s first diluted with a carrier oil. You can use peppermint essential oil in cooking or baking, and it will provide a lot more flavor. Just be sure that you use a lot less – and never consume it on its own.
You didn’t ask this question, but we’ll answer it anyway: peppermint capsules used as dietary supplements usually contain essential oil in an enteric-coated capsule, which won’t dissolve until it passes through the stomach. That’s the only way it’s safe to consume peppermint essential oil.
Here’s one answer you didn’t ask for: peppermint essential oil is not the same as peppermint fragrance oil or aroma oil; the latter are usually synthetic products that just smell like peppermint, and provide none of essential oil’s health and wellness benefits.
Health Benefits of Peppermint Essential Oil
Some literature claims that peppermint oil wasn’t used widely until the 18th century, but that’s not really true. The confusion seems to stem from the fact that the terms “spearmint,” “mint” and “peppermint” were often used interchangeably before that.
In reality, the mint has been used by healers and physicians for centuries. The first written mention of peppermint was in an Egyptian medical text from the 16th century B.C., in which there’s a reference to the ability of the mint to ease stomach pains. It was used around the world since that time, and was regularly used for medicinal purposes in Europe during the Middle Ages.
Later on, the 1721 edition of Pharmacopoeia Londinesis, published by the Royal College of Physicians as the definitive English medical reference, listed peppermint as a treatment for a number of issues including colds, headaches, and venereal disease.
Today we have the benefit of actual research studies on the effects of peppermint essential oil. They not only confirm traditional beliefs in the power of peppermint, but have added a number of other apparent medical benefits to the list.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome
The vast majority of research projects studying the effects of peppermint EO have focused on irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other conditions involving the gastrointestinal tract.
A large meta-analysis of that data shows that the essential oil, when contained in a capsule and ingested, is both effective and safe for treating the many symptoms of IBS including constipation, diarrhea and abdominal pain. The capsule is commonly used to make sure the oil makes it all the way to the small intestine before it’s released; that minimizes internal side effects. In fact, direct ingestion of essential oils can be quite harmful.
There’s more, too. Peppermint essential oil used in aromatherapy has been shown, at least in one study, to help relieve nausea. It appears that peppermint is an antispasmodic, and is able to prevent GI spasms during procedures like endoscopies. And research has suggested that both peppermint oil combined with caraway and peppermint tea may be good treatments for indigestion, bloating and stomach pain, although regular consumption of the tea may cause heartburn.
The clearest indications that peppermint essential oil can help ease pain come from studies on headache sufferers.
The use of a solution of peppermint oil and alcohol has been shown effective for the treatment of tension headaches, and the solution is already recommended by a number of professional societies. A research study tested a topical gel made from the menthol contained in peppermint EO, and found that it was able to relieve acute migraine pain within two hours. And a preliminary animal study reported that peppermint seems to relieve hay fever symptoms, which could bode well for the use of peppermint EO for painful sinus headaches.
Peppermint oil may help with more than headaches and stomach pain. A generalized review of studies considered the effects of the most popular essential oils, including peppermint, eucalyptus and lavender. It found that relief from knee and joint pain was more noticeable when combining aromatherapy with acupressure massage, than it was when massage was administered by itself. And another study on the effects of peppermint essential oil found that patients with some types of chest pain and difficulty swallowing experienced significant relief after being given peppermint oil.
The evidence is limited so far, but it appears that peppermint essential oil may have the ability to inhibit the growth of some common bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus and E.coli. It may also be effective at battling some Candida strains of fungi.
Peppermint essential oil doesn’t just contain menthol and menthone. It also contains a terpene called 1,8-cineole, which is effective at reducing inflammation and breaking up mucus in patients with bronchitis and other respiratory diseases. The performance of cineole has been studied in more detail in conjunction with eucalyptus oil, which also contains the terpene – but the implications are clear. Peppermint EO may hold promise in the treatment of those diseases as well.
Itchy Skin and Hair
Topical use of peppermint oil can provide additional benefits. Studies show that the essential oil, when applied to the skin in a carrier oil solution, significantly reduced chronic itching in several groups of patients. Even more tantalizing: one study showed that application of peppermint essential oil was able to safely induce hair growth in mice.
How to Use Peppermint Essential Oil
Essential oils can be used in several different ways. We’ve already mentioned most of them, but let’s get a little more organized and make a list.
- Aromatherapy: Peppermint essential oil can certainly make your house smell delicious when it’s used in an aromatherapy diffuser. Diffusing the oil, or putting a few drops into a handheld inhaler and sniffing it, may provide the pain-relief and anti-nausea benefits discussed earlier.
- Topical application: Using peppermint EO during a therapeutic massage, or simply rubbing it into the skin, may help ease pain and reduce itching. There are also some indications that just applying peppermint oil to the skin over the stomach may provide some of the IBS and GI tract pain relief that this oil is known for.To repeat a very important warning: never use essential oils directly on the skin. Dilution with a carrier oil can prevent some pretty serious reactions. That’s easy to do; for example, you can mix a few drops of peppermint oil with a drop or two of tea tree oil, and blend them with warm coconut oil.
- As a health and beauty aid: Many cosmetics, soaps, creams and roll-on lotions have peppermint oil blended into them, and they deliver a fresh and invigorating smell and feel to the skin and hair as they contribute wellness benefits. Even a few drops of peppermint oil in the bath can be refreshing and leave your skin smelling yummy.
- Ingested: We’re covered this before, but we’ll emphasize it here. Whether it’s diluted or undiluted, healthcare professionals agree: don’t swallow peppermint essential oil. It’s only safe to take peppermint oil if it’s contained in enteric-coated capsules, and then only after you’ve gotten the green light from your healthcare provider.
Can Everyone Use Peppermint Essential Oil?
Peppermint oil is safe for nearly everyone, but a few groups of people should avoid its use.
- Young children
- Patients with GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease) or hiatal hernias
- People with a G6PD enzyme deficiency
Peppermint essential oil may also interact negatively with some medications. The most likely interactions are with antacids, blood pressure pills, some diabetes drugs and anti-rejection meds taken by transplant recipients. If you’re taking any prescription or over-the-counter medication, though, it’s best to seek medical advice before using peppermint oil.
But for the vast majority of people peppermint essential oil can provide health and wellness benefits, while contributing that wonderful smell that may make you feel like a kid again.
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