Peppermint is a fragrant herb that grows wild throughout Europe and North America. If you’ve ever grown peppermint in your garden, you know that it has a tendency to spread and take over. People often confuse peppermint with spearmint, a similar plant that is widely used for its refreshing flavor. But what sets peppermint apart are its unique healing ingredients—including menthol, which is used in many over-the-counter cold and cough remedies.
The tradition of reaching for after-dinner mints has a basis in folk medicine. The active ingredients in peppermint help aid the digestive process, calming spasms in the digestive tract, promoting the flow of digestive juices, and relieving gas. Peppermint also fights germs and freshens your breath—one reason why it is such a common ingredient in toothpaste and mouthwash. When inhaled in steam, peppermint oil may help ease sinus congestion due to colds and flu.
Peppermint flavoring adds zing to everything from candy to chewing gum. But if you’re interested in peppermint’s health benefits, you’ll need a more natural form of the herb.
Peppermint plants are available in the herb section of many nurseries and plant stores (be sure to buy peppermint, not spearmint—they look similar and are sometimes simply labeled "mint."). You can grow peppermint either outside in your garden or indoors in a pot or window box. Peppermint likes either full sun or partial shade. Keep the soil moist, but be sure your pot or container has good drainage. What’s great about peppermint plants is that the more you cut off their leaves, the bushier they grow.
The active ingredients in peppermint have a muscle-relaxing effect that may cause heartburn. If you get heartburn after taking peppermint, stop using the herb. Be cautious when giving peppermint tea to children age 10 or younger, as it has been known to cause a choking reflex in young children and infants. (For the same reason, don’t use products containing peppermint oil near a child’s face or nose.) Don’t apply peppermint oil to your skin without testing it first on a tiny patch of skin, as it may produce a rash or other allergic reaction. Don’t swallow peppermint oil or add it to foods or tea—it can be toxic and is meant for external use only. People with gallstones should talk with a health care provider before using peppermint.
The use of herbs is not recommended during pregnancy and breast-feeding except under the guidance of a health professional.
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