Peppermint: Its History and Uses

I love all things peppermint, such as gum, candy, toothpaste and ice cream. Last week, however, my doctor suggested that I try peppermint to ease my stomach discomfort. I had not heard that before, so I researched my favorite mint.

There are two different theories on the origin of peppermint; scientific and mythological. The scientific theory is that peppermint is a naturally occurring hybrid of water mint and spearmint. It was classified as a subspecies of mint in 1696, but most historians agree that when “mint” was mentioned in ancient texts, it was a reference to peppermint.

The mythological theory is much spicier. Hades, god of the underworld, came upon a river nymph named Minthe. Unable to help himself, he was just about to seduce her when his wife, Persephone, caught the lovers. In a jealous rage, Persephone turned Minthe into a lowly plant designed to be walked upon. Hades softened the spell by making Minthe smell good.

Regardless of which story you prefer, there is no doubt that peppermint has been used for health purposes for a long time. The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical text dating back to 1550 BC, lists peppermint as an effective way to calm indigestion. Dried peppermint leaves have been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000 BC.

The ancient Greeks and Romans valued peppermint as a stomach soother. During the eighteenth century, peppermint became popular in Western Europe as a folk remedy for nausea, vomiting, morning sickness, respiratory infections and menstrual disorders.

Peppermint is one of the most researched of all of the herbal remedies. A study published in 2005 by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that peppermint oil (1-2 capsules 3x/day for 24 weeks) may be preferred in patients with non-serious constipation or diarrhea to alleviate general symptoms.

Alexander C. Ford, MD, a gastroenterologist and researcher in Ontario, Canada, and several colleagues combined the results of four different studies on the effectiveness of peppermint oil on stomach discomfort. They concluded that 1 in 2.5 patients would get significant relief of symptoms if treated with peppermint oil, compared to 1 in 5 patients taking antispasmodics and 1 in 11 patients taking fiber.

Clearly, my doctor was right to suggest peppermint oil to help ease my stomach discomfort. I have been taking it for a few weeks, and I find that it works quite well. Some people who take peppermint oil experience a bit of heartburn, but my only side effects have been a calmer gut and fresher breath.