The most widely used of all aromatic essential oils, peppermint makes a grand and obvious appearance in all sorts of edible and nonedible products, including beverages, ice cream, sauces and jellies, liqueurs, medicines, dental preparations, aromatherapy preparations, cleaners, cosmetics, tobacco, desserts, and gums.
It was known to the Egyptians, who dedicated mint to the god Horus. The Romans personified it as Minthe or Mentha, the beautiful naiad loved by Pluto, god of the underworld. When Pluto’s queen, Proserpine, saw what was going on she jealously trampled Minthe, transforming her into the lowly plant. But Pluto decreed that the more mint was walked on the sweeter it would smell.
Peppermint self-hybridized by the seventeenth century into more than 20 modern varieties of square-stemmed perennials that easily spread by underground root systems. It now grows wild throughout Europe, North America, and Australia, and is one of the few essential oil plants grown in the U.S., where the rainfall, temperature, and soil conditions in Michigan and central Oregon are ideal for high oil production. Most of the oil is redistilled to produce a lighter mint flavor for candies and gums.
After the British Medical Journal noted in 1879 that smelling menthol, which is the main component in peppermint, relieves headaches and nerve pain, menthol cones that evaporate into the air became all the rage. Taking center stage in several controversies, herbalists have long argued for or against the assertion by the ancient Greek physician Galen that peppermint is an aphrodisiac. But everyone, including modern scientists, agrees that it is a strong mental and physical stimulant that can help one concentrate and stay awake and alert.
Principal constituents of peppermint: Menthol (up to 70 percent), menthone, menthyl acetate, limonene, pulegone, cineol, azulene, and others
Scent of peppermint: Peppermint has a powerful, minty-fresh, camphoraceous, cool, and distinctive fragrance.
Therapeutic properties of peppermint: Anti-inflammatory; relieves pain, muscle spasms, and cramping; relaxes the nerves; kills viral infections; decreases gas and indigestion; clears lung congestion; reduces fever
Uses for peppermint: Peppermint helps the digestion of heavy foods and relieves flatulence and intestinal cramping, actually relaxing the digestive muscles so they operate more efficiently. A massage over the abdomen with an oil containing peppermint can greatly aid intestinal spasms, indigestion, nausea, and irritable bowel syndrome.
Peppermint essential oil is included in most liniments, where it warms by increasing blood flow, relieving muscle spasms and arthritis. Peppermint relieves the itching of ringworm, herpes simplex, scabies, and poison oak. It also clears sinus and lung congestion when inhaled directly or when a vapor balm is rubbed on the chest. It also destroys many bacteria and viruses. Peppermint is not drying, as one might assume; rather, it stimulates the skin’s oil production, so use it blended with other oils to treat dry complexions. When using peppermint, remember that it is an energizing scent.
Warnings about peppermint: Watch out! At first peppermint feels cooling, but too much of it can burn.