Mentha Piperita, also known as peppermint, is a hybrid between spearmint and watermint. The peppermint plant is a perennial that grows in habitats that are shaded with a lot of moisture. During the summer, the peppermint yields purple flowers and dark green leaves that are harvested and used to make peppermint oil.
Peppermint oil has been used medicinally since the time of the ancient Greeks to treat various problems including digestive ailments. It turns out the Greeks were well ahead of their time. Some doctors now recommend peppermint oil to patients with irritable bowel syndrome to relieve their abdominal discomfort and cramping. Research also suggests that peppermint oil helps to relieve indigestion and abdominal fullness after a meal. It works by relaxing the smooth muscle in the wall of the gut so that cramping is relieved. No wonder peppermint oil is an ingredient in after-dinner mints!
People with a history of acid reflux diseases should only take enteric-coated peppermint oil since peppermint oil can irritate the stomach lining and make acid reflux worse. Peppermint oil can also be made into a tea to soothe the digestive tract by steeping 2 tablespoons of tea leaves in a cup of hot water for five minutes.
Mentha piperita and its oil have a high menthol content. Menthol helps to thin out mucous secretions and relieve the stuffiness of colds and respiratory viruses. To relieve clogged nasal passages, peppermint oil can be added to water and the vapors inhaled. It also helps to soothe sore, irritated throats and relieve cough. Peppermint oil not only relaxes the walls of the gut, it eases muscle tension and relieves tension headaches. Several studies show that applying peppermint oil topically to the head relieves tension headaches. Peppermint may even help with weigh control. In one study, people who breathed in peppermint oil when they had hunger cravings felt less hungry.
Peppermint oil has skin benefits too. The menthol in in the oil of menthe piperita helps to soothe dry, itchy irritated skin due to allergies or contact dermatitis. Due to its pleasant smell, manufacturers of cosmetics and personal care products have embraced peppermint oil as an ingredient in their products. It's used to add a pleasing odor or flavor to products such as toothpaste, mouthwash, breath fresheners, bath oils, body washes, body moisturizers, after-bath splashes, soap and foot moisturizers. Mentha piperita also has skin conditioning properties that make it ideal for body moisturizing products. In aromatherapy products, peppermint has an uplifting, energizing and stress-relieving effect.
Is peppermint oil safe? The active ingredients in peppermint oil are menthol and menthone, although it contains other compounds such as limone, pulegone and menthofuran. According to the International Journal of Toxicology, peppermint oil is only mildly toxic when taken orally at greater than recommended doses. One ingredient in peppermint, pulegone, is a liver toxin at high doses. This shouldn't be a problem for people who use recommended doses to treat headaches or digestive problems, although pregnant or young children shouldn't use it. It's possible that some peppermint plants may contain more pulegone than others, so oil from some peppermint plants may pose more of a health risk than others when used orally at high doses.
People with a history of acid reflux should only use an enteric-coated peppermint capsules when taking peppermint orally. In cosmetic and personal care products, peppermint oil is used at a concentration of less than 3%, an amount that seems to be safe. The Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database classifies it as a low-hazard cosmetic ingredient, and it has a history of being used for thousands of years medicinally without problems.
Peppermint oil gives products a fresh, pleasant taste and smell, and it may have medicinal properties for people with digestive problems and those with tension headaches or a stuffy nose. It also has an energizing, stress-relieving aroma and a helps to relieve itching and skin irritation. It appears to be safe in the amounts found in cosmetic and personal care products.