Local medical herbalist explains the health benefits of peppermint
Nicola Parker details how peppermint is famous for its usefulness in digestive issues, and is often prescribed for IBS and symptoms like indigestion and bloating but may worsen conditions such as heartburn.
Today I’d like to talk about the widely known but often misunderstood peppermint. Peppermint is famous for its usefulness in digestive issues, and is often prescribed for conditions like IBS and symptoms like indigestion and bloating.
The efficacy of peppermint at alleviating these symptoms can be attributed to its high volatile oil content. Volatile oils are what give many herbs their pungent, aromatic smell, making volatile oil-rich herbs excellent for herbal teas, essential oils and culinary use.
In herbal medicine, we call these herbs carminatives, because of the relaxing effect they have on the digestive tract. Much of our digestive tract is made from smooth muscular rings that are joined together and squeeze alternately, helping food and waste move through, much like how you’d squeeze toothpaste from the bottom of a tube to the opening.
This long winding passageway is about 30ft in length, so the moment something enters our mouth, it has a long journey ahead of it. Interspersed through this passage are sphincters, valves that open and close to let food and air pass through.
Carminatives like peppermint help to relax these sphincters, easing trapped wind, gas and bloating by letting air pass through, instead of building up uncomfortably and stretching the muscle walls of the digestive tract.
A good example of this, is the old fashioned method of using fennel water to ease colic in a baby. The first sphincter is located above the stomach, and it holds itself tightly closed to stop stomach acid from escaping and burning the oesophagus. Fennel water or cold fennel tea gives enough volatile oil to relax this valve, so that air can rise upwards and be expelled through the mouth.
Peppermint as an aid to digestion works in just the same way, which is why it’s important to consider what symptoms you are experiencing before taking peppermint tea or capsules. To say that peppermint is good for digestion is a very vague claim, since digestion occurs on so many different levels.
If you find that your experience of indigestion involves reflux, acid rising into the gullet and heartburn, this is because the valve about your stomach is weak. Using peppermint or any carminative herb like fennel, will relax the valve further, worsening, rather than alleviating symptoms.
The fact that antacid medicines like Peptac are flavoured with peppermint, only perpetuate the myth that peppermint is a one size fits all remedy for indigestion.
Where it actually helps is much further down. Look to peppermint for help with cramping and bloating in the stomach that is caused by a build up of gas creating pressure on the digestive walls that cause them to stretch uncomfortably. Carminatives will relax the sphincters in the lower digestive tract, letting wind pass through more easily.
If you’re looking for herbs beyond peppermint and fennel, any aromatic herb will work in a similar way. Lemon balm, caraway, ginger, chamomile, cinnamon, lavender, all these herbs act as carminatives. Lemon balm has the added bonus of being an anti-anxiety herb, so it can assist when IBS symptoms are triggered or aggravated by stress. Cinnamon helps kill off gas producing microbes like candida, so it may be especially useful for people with high sugar diets or excessive bloating.
Chamomile is a tricky one here because, although it is a carminative, it’s also gently bitter. While volatile oils relax sphincters, bitters help to tighten them and so it can be used for both reflux, heartburn and stomach cramps. In fact, chamomile is a much more appropriate “all round” remedy for digestion than peppermint.
If you struggle with reflux, you don’t need to avoid all these deliciously aromatic herbs while cooking every day meals, but avoid using aromatics as medicine and I’d suggest bringing more bitter foods into your diet. Herbs like chamomile, yarrow and young dandelion, rocket and watercress leaves all encourage your valves to tighten up and prevent acid rising or causing heartburn.
Keep peppermint for problems that are lower down or enjoy the fresh scent if your nose is stuffy and congested, as the menthol oil can help to open up your airways, just as it does inside your gut.
For more information or to book an appointment with Nicola, contact her clinic on 01524 413733.