Health Benefits of Peppermint Essential Oil
by Sue Hughes, MSEd, HHP, CNC
Peppermint essential oil holds a special place in my heart. It was the natural product responsible for my husband’s initial jump on board my holistic health bandwagon! I’ll explain: One day he had a headache that just wouldn’t quit. Even his go-to’s at the time, ibuprofen and acetaminophen, wouldn’t make a dent in the pain. So I seized the opportunity to save the day using one of nature’s powerful healing tools – peppermint essential oil. I dabbed a drop on each of his temples, and waited, knowing it would ease his pain. The rest is history!
Obviously, the peppermint oil did end up working like a charm, else I certainly wouldn’t be sharing this! Since then it’s been quite common to find stray bottles of essential oils floating around my husband’s office. What satisfaction! That’s the last time my husband referred to my profession as “voo doo”!! (Okay, maybe he still uses that term sarcastically every now and then, but he certainly doesn’t mean it!)
I don’t know about you, but I love hearing about people’s positive experiences with natural products like essential oils. These experiences are termed “anecdotal” and, even in the absence of scientific studies, many of these anecdotes … like the one I shared above … are valid. However, when you hear about actual experiences that have been confirmed through structured research, well, that is as exciting as it gets.
Essential oils have been around for thousands of years and, along with the millions of anecdotal accounts of their health-supportive attributes, there are plenty of legitimate research studies of which these oils have been the subject. Over the past several decades, advancing technology has allowed researchers to break the oils down into their chemical constituents and determine which compound is responsible for which health-supportive action! So given that, let’s take a closer look at the research findings on peppermint essential oil after a quick historical overview.
History and Origin of Peppermint Essential OIl
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita L.) is one of the mentha (mint) species of herbs commonly grown in Europe and North America and best known for its freshening aroma as well as its antispasmodic, painkilling, anti-inflammatory, decongestant and antioxidant effects. Plants in this family have been used for medicinal purposes since before 2000 B.C. They were present in the herbal pharmacopeia of ancient Greece as internal support for digestion and management of gallbladder disease as well as inhaled support for upper respiratory issues and cough. The entire plant is medicinal – the dry leaves and leafed shoot tops of peppermint are often used in herbal teas and the essential oil of peppermint is commonly used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food products, not to mention aromatherapy.
The essential oil of the peppermint plant is found in tiny vesicles throughout its stem, leaves, and flowers. Since the early 1800s, we’ve been able to isolate and collect the essential oil through the process of distillation. In the beginning, this was done via direct heating of copper stills but then, around the mid-1800s, steam distillation became the method of choice.
The major components of peppermint essential oil are menthol and menthone, which we were first able to isolate in 1771. It wasn’t until 1947, however, that science was able to detail and begin to fully understand the chemical properties these components.
Menthol is a significant component of peppermint essential oil. It’s a waxy crystalline terpene that is widely used in food, over-the-counter products for respiratory congestion, pain relief, and antiseptics. Menthol actually enhances the ability of a substance to penetrate the skin and possibly allowing it to more easily reach the bloodstream. It is also deemed a “counterirritant” meaning it irritates one location, resulting in the lessening of discomfort or inflammation in another area. And finally, menthol has anesthetic, antiseptic and antibacterial properties.
Get Rid of That Headache!
Although my account of the pain relief that my husband experienced using peppermint essential oil is, indeed, no more than anecdotal evidence of its effectiveness as a pain management therapy, this amazing oil is no stranger to science. Specific to pain relief, a 1996 study found that topical application of peppermint oil to the forehead and temples was just as effective as acetaminophen in relieving tension-based headaches. It’s proven to be a cost-effective and well-tolerated alternative to certain pain medications. This may have something to do in part with the cooling effect of the menthol contained within, as discussed earlier. Interestingly, local application of peppermint oil to the forehead also has shown to significantly increase blood flow to the skin.
Your Brain on Peppermint Oil
Here’s something else that’s pretty cool: applying peppermint essential oil for a headache can have beneficial side effects other than “just” pain relief! One study showed that a combination of peppermint oil, eucalyptus oil, and ethanol improves cognition – things like memory, comprehension, decision-making, problem-solving, judgment and concentration – all while relaxing your muscles and your nervous system. Basically, it stimulates the mind while relaxing the body. If you’re feeling depressed, it may be worth giving this essential oil a try.
Peppermint Oil for Athletic Performance
I was never aware of this point until I began researching for this article: peppermint essential oil helps increase the efficiency of breathing during exercise. And here’s more anecdotal evidence for you: for several years now I’ve been applying a drop of peppermint oil under my nose and on my wrists prior to working out or playing tennis. I felt it helped me breathe better! Now I know it wasn’t my imagination, as there is physiological validity to my own experience, most likely due to peppermint’s ability to tone the smooth muscle of the bronchial tubes. Oh, and by the way, peppermint oil also improves both audio and visual reaction time and acts as a strong antispasmodic for use as a massage oil for sports injuries.
Anti-Microbial Properties of Peppermint Oil
In one study of interest, certain strains of the herpes virus were destroyed by peppermint oil prior to viral penetration into the host cell. Once the virus took hold, however, peppermint essential oil could not kill it. What this may mean is that peppermint essential oil could be used topically to prevent recurrence of certain viral infections.
Peppermint essential oil has been found to work well as an anti-fungal, specifically against two of the most prevalent species of candida (yeast): C. albicans and C. tropicalis. It actually ranked second in antifungal activity behind Tulsi (Ocimum sanctum Linn.) essential oil.
In another study, the antibacterial actions of peppermint essential oil were tested on the proliferation of Helicobacter pylori, Salmonella enteritidis, E. coli and MRSA. The results were promising as the oil was found to inhibit the spread of each strain, even those that are antibiotic-resistant.
Finally, peppermint oil has proven to be incredibly effective against bacteria present in the mouth. So the use of this oil in mouthwashes and toothpaste not only freshens breath effectively but also kills bacteria!
Tell Bugs to Buzz Off
This information is quite timely considering the current fears over the spread of the Zika virus. The virus, transmitted through mosquito bites, has no known cure at this point. So, the best way to protect yourself is to use preventive measures such as insect repellent. The good news is that peppermint essential oil has shown very strong repellent activity when applied topically to the skin. In fact, the percentage of protection was determined to be between 84.5% and 100% against three species of mosquitoes. Pretty impressive. And, peppermint essential oil comes with no side effects, so you don’t have to worry that your skin is absorbing a toxin, unlike what is the case with chemical-based bug sprays.
I’ve already mentioned that peppermint essential oil relaxes the smooth muscle of the bronchial tubes, which explains its popularity as respiratory (breathing) support. Perhaps even more impressive is that, when inhaled, peppermint oil helped to decrease the inflammation caused by tuberculosis. Researchers now feel that it could play some role in preventing recurrences and continued worsening of this disease. Peppermint’s antimicrobial actions, as well as its ability to help tonify the bronchial tube smooth muscle would explain this finding.
Good News for the Gut
So if you have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), findings regarding peppermint essential oil may provide you with renewed hope. In one significant study, 42 children with IBS were given enteric-coated peppermint oil capsules or a placebo. After two weeks, 75% of those receiving peppermint oil had reduced severity of pain associated with IBS.
Once again, the smooth-muscle-relaxing or antispasmodic action of peppermint is a contributor here, since the intestines have several layers of smooth muscle. Keep in mind that although this action is welcome in the lower intestinal tract, this same action in the upper GI (specifically the lower esophagus) can result in reflux. So in an effort to get the peppermint oil past the upper intestinal tract into the lower section where it can metabolize and support the healing and lessening of the pain of IBS and other digestive issues, the use of enteric-coated capsules as a carrier vessel for the oil has become very popular.
Research has also shown that peppermint oil increases gastric emptying, meaning it helps the body move food out of the stomach. This is good news for those with functional gastrointestinal disorders such as gastroparesis, where the muscles do not work to properly move the food through on a timely basis, causing fullness and nausea.
Peppermint Oil for Shingles
The nerve pain around the area of skin where an outbreak of Shingles (herpes zoster) has occurred can be extremely painful and difficult to treat. A case study was done with a 76-year-old woman whose pain didn’t respond to standard therapies. She applied undiluted peppermint essential oil containing 10% menthol to the affected area of her skin and experienced immediate pain relief that went on to last for 4-6 hours after application. This was solid evidence of the strong analgesic effect of peppermint essential oil on neuropathic pain. Perhaps the “counterirritant” properties discussed earlier in this article are also relevant to this result.
Support for Hair Growth
The effect of peppermint essential oil on hair growth was scientifically studied and, amazingly, the oil accelerated the growth of hair! It caused an increase in dermal thickness, an increase in the number of follicles and an increase in the depth of follicles. Researchers believe that the peppermint essential oil actually extends the length of the anagen phase (the active growth phase of the hair follicles when the cells of the root of the hair divide most rapidly) of hair growth.
Safety and Contraindications
Peppermint oil stimulates the liver to produce more bile. This can be good because it helps to detoxify the body. However, those individuals who have gallbladder issues such as gallstones or inflammation of the gallbladder should not use peppermint oil.
The internal use of peppermint oil may exacerbate symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux in those with gastroesophageal reflux disease or hiatal hernia. As stated above, a way around this is to use an enteric-coated capsule to deliver the peppermint essential oil past the esophagus.
Avoid peppermint oil while pregnant due to its ability to trigger menstruation. Not enough information is available to determine if it is safe to use while lactating. Using it internally for young children is not recommended and be sure to keep it away from the faces of very young children and infants as it could cause bronchial spasms and respiratory arrest. That said, products where peppermint oil is merely one ingredient, such as over-the-counter medications, topical preparations, or dried peppermint leaves in herbal teas are all likely safe for pregnant and lactating women and for young children.
Common adverse effects of peppermint essential oil reported in clinical trials include allergic reactions, heartburn, perianal burning, blurred vision, nausea, and vomiting.
Laboratory studies have indicated that peppermint oil may inhibit an enzyme in the liver responsible for metabolizing medications which could mean that blood levels of certain drugs could increase. Specifically, peppermint oil has been reported to raise serum levels of simvastatin (Zocor) and felodipine (Plendil) in case reports.
The Bottom Line
Even I was surprised to find so much exciting research on the health benefits of peppermint essential oil! To sum it all up, peppermint essential oil can be used for nervousness, insomnia, cramps, coughs, migraine and tension headache, poor digestion, nausea, abdominal pain. Its anti-inflammatory action helps sciatica, neuralgia, and arthritis. The menthol in peppermint essential oil acts as a local anesthetic, as it’s able to relieve localized pain. Peppermint shows strong antimicrobial and antiviral properties, is an antioxidant and an antihistamine. It relaxes smooth muscle throughout the body, including the digestive, nervous and respiratory systems. It’s safe to apply topically and safe for internal consumption in dosages in line with the research data.
I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten to mention a thing or two about this amazing essential oil! No problem. I know just what I need to improve my memory . . .
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