Mints have a tendency towards stirring up the mucous membranes (that’s all those pink shiny places inside the body that we try not to think about).
So while they definitely affect the whole body, they have an especial affinity for a few specific areas.
It’s no coincidence that many of our kitchen spices are in the in the mint family. Much of the aromatic nature in these plants is helpful for improving digestion. We' ve discussed carminatives in previous blogs, but as a refresher, these are herbs that increase digestives juices, encourage circulation in the digestive tract, and can expel gas.
- Oregano Rosemary Thyme
- Lavender Basil Hyssop
- Peppermint Spearmint Sage
Common in many styles of cooking, Ocimomum basilicum or Common Basil is a warming carminative, acting to increase digestive activity, with the side benefit of making everything taste amazing.
The Nervous System
Anyone who’s ever had butterflies in their stomach before a major event (sky diving, job interview, first date, etc.) knows that the digestive system and the nervous system are intimately linked.
So it makes sense that the mints, which are so active in our GI tract can also be pretty effective in our nervous tissue as well.
Aroma Isn't Everything
Often the aroma of mints is enough to relax tension (all those lavender pillows!). However a number of mints have hardly any aroma, but instead relax through different pathways.
Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) not only has bitter principles that influence nervous tissue, but also has an affinity for relaxing the heart. Skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) has been used for centuries to calm an anxious mind. Neither of these is especially aromatic, but both can be powerfully relaxing, if not downright sedating.
- Skullcap Lemon balm Catnip
- Holy Basil Lavender Rosemary
A relative of the more common skullcap, this Rocky mountain native, Scutellaria brittonii is tiny and has only the slightest aroma. But these soft little flowers and leaves can pack quite a sedative punch!
Lungs and Circulation
The Scoop on Menthol
Look at any cough drop section in any pharmacy. The basic formula will probably look something like this:
- Some form of sweetener
- A few other random ingredients, maybe a cough suppressant or two
Menthol cooling effect is a big part of it's potency as a medicine. It stimulates the cold receptors in your cells, without actually making you cold (that’s the ‘cool’ taste behind various chewing gums). It tends to open up airways, and reduce inflammation locally, mainly by slightly reducing your vasculature.
Along with making it easier to breathe, this means menthol can also provide a slight anesthetic effect. Mentha arvensis, one of our native wild mints, is especially high in menthol.
It’s grown in the US as well in other countries for a natural source of menthol crystals. Other species high in menthol include peppermint, spearmint, and calamint.
Marrubium vulgare, aka Horehound (the common name comes from the downy hairs that cover the plant, making it look 'hoary'. Think hoarfrost, it keeps it from seeming too scandalous). A quite stimulating expectorant, this herb is an expert at clearing out your lungs.
A few mints also have a specific effect on coughs. Horehound, beebalm, oregano, and rosemary are all expectorant. Breaking down the Latin for this: ex=out, pector=breast. So an expectorant is something that promotes secretion of sputum (phlegm!) from airways.
A younger student once described it best. “So, it’s for hocking loogies!” This may sound undesirable, but when you’re in the middle of a mucous filled cough, this can be a lifesaver.
Not all mints have this effect though. Thyme, another common mint family member, has the opposite effect, and actually decreases the coughing reflex (called an antitussive). It’s specifically indicated for the racking spasms that come with whooping cough (aka Pertussis).
- Horehound Monarda Oregano
- Thyme Peppermint Spearmint
Common as muck in the kitchen spice rack, Thymus officinalis, Common Thyme, is considered a valuable remedy for racking coughs. Great to have this one handy as a honey syrup-for medicinal purposes, but also because it's delicious.
That same cooling effect that can be felt in the lungs can also have an influence on the skin. Poultices, balms, and liniments of various mints are all common herbal applications for sore muscles, sunburned skin, and some stings and bites.
The aromatic parts of mints, along with smelling amazing, also tend to be antibacterial. Scratches, insect bites, and mild acne can all benefit from a bit of love from our minty friends.
At least your sweat will smell nice…
Several species of mint are what’s called diaphoretic. This means that one way or another they make you sweat. Mints tend to be more diaphoretic when you take them as a hot tea, or other warm preparations.
- Lavender Rosemary Thyme
- Basil Oregano Heal All
- Sage Peppermint Spearmint
- Bee Balm Catnip
Bee Balm Monarda spp. One of the names given to this plant by the Winnebago is Oswego, which means “the outpouring”. A testament to it’s diaphoretic properties!
No Body System is an Island...
It’s important to remember that we are one big organism, and no one part of the body is ever in isolation from the rest. While I mention these specific body systems, most herbs are affecting your whole body at once.
You might feel it more in one place than another depending on what’s up for you (flu, digestive upset, presence of loogies), but there is almost always going to be more than one effect.
Whether you have a kitchen spice rack or a kitchen garden, get out there and try some herbs!
No matter how awesome, this article can in no way replace the care of a medical doctor. It is not meant to treat, diagnose, or prescribe in anyway. The above statements are not approved by the FDA.
How to Learn More
Wild Edible and Medicinal Plant walks and the the Introduction to Herbal Medicine classes through Meet the Green.
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