Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a rich reserve of health-bestowing volatile oils, which contain, among other things, menthol and menthone. Peppermint helps relax the stomach and intestinal muscles preventing gas and bloating. It also helps the liver release more bile acids to break down fat better. Peppermint is a rejuvenating herb. It could help keep off mental tiredness by upping your GABA levels and simultaneously increase your alertness by making more acetylcholine available to your nerves.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is a natural hybrid between watermint and spearmint (yes, they’re three different plants!). Best known for its strong, fresh aroma and flavor, it lends well to confectionery and cosmetics alike. But its effects are not just superficial. They’re health promoting.
The volatile oil in peppermint leaves, particularly the plant chemicals menthol and menthone in the oil, have gained quite a bit of traction in research. It’s becoming increasingly clear that these chemicals travel to your digestive system and brain and support regular biochemical processes there.
Note: Though most studies have been done on peppermint oil and not the leaves, the oil is what maketh the leaves.
Why It’s So Great
1. Supports the Digestive System
Peppermint is excellent for your digestive system, especially if you’re prone to bloating and flatulence. Which is why a lot of people swear by drinking peppermint tea after a heavy meal.
Here’s how it helps:
- Relaxes the walls of the stomach and intestine
Gas is produced in the stomach as part and parcel of the normal digestive process. It could be that you swallowed too much air while eating or that your body processes certain foods in a certain way. Sometimes too much gas in the stomach triggers muscle spasms in the stomach and intestinal walls as they strain to release the gas. This is when you feel discomfort and possibly pain.
Peppermint can help by relaxing the muscles in the stomach and intestinal walls. You see, muscles contract as a result of waves of calcium ions that flow in and out of their cells. Menthol blocks the entry points of calcium ions, i.e. calcium channels, thereby preventing muscular contractions.
Menthol may even directly influence the nerves in the intestinal wall, discouraging them from sending these waves of calcium. In scientific parlance, it induces membrane potential depolarization via TRPA1 receptor.
- Encourages the secretion of bile
Bile produced by the liver is critical for fat digestion. It helps break down larger fat aggregates into smaller, more absorbable forms. Peppermint’s compounds likely influence the genes involved in the production of bile acids, helping in more efficient digestion of dietary fats.
2. Makes You More Energetic and Alert
A minty whiff is all you need! Can’t you almost feel it?
The peppermint aroma is enough to stir areas of your brain that decide how alert you feel. What happens at a molecular level is yet to be worked out, but it seems to involve dopamine pathways and menthone. Dopamine is a brain chemical associated with wakefulness.
In support of this hypothesis, a study has shown that the oil reduces daytime sleepiness.
And you know those deep breaths that help you gather your energy? Peppermint may be able to help with those too by influencing the muscle elasticity in your airways (bronchial smooth muscles).
3. Helps You Feel Less Mentally Tired
Most of us can testify to this. So many triggers, every day. So many things happening at once. So much thinking. Mental exhaustion is our normal.
Luckily for us, peppermint can help with that. It can slow down the buildup toward mental exhaustion. You won’t feel as worn out as quickly. It’s almost meditative. You feel a calm, focused energy.
Peppermint’s high levels of menthol and menthone are at work here too.
- Quietens the nerves
GABA (γ-aminobutyric acid) is an inhibitory nerve signaling chemical that quietens your nerves and helps you relax. It basically stifles the dialogue between nerve cells by sitting on GABA-A receptors.
Menthol not only directly activates GABA-A receptors but also enhances the effect of GABA when scarce.
- Keeps You Focused
Acetylcholine is a messenger chemical that carries signals from one nerve to the other, like GABA but with an activating effect (except in the heart). By inhibiting the enzyme out to destroy it (acetylcholinesterase), peppermint allows for more acetylcholine to be available and more nerve talk.
So, through both inhibition and activation, peppermint helps orchestrate the communication between nerve cells, allowing for more focused, controlled, quicker reactions.
Get a hold of fresh peppermint leaves. Add them as garnish over your dishes or dry and steep them into a refreshing, caffeine-free tea.
For the tea: Add a tablespoon of recently dried leaves to a cup. Pour boiling water over it until the cup is about two-thirds full. Steep for 5–10 minutes. The tea is best had after a heavy meal or when you’re feeling low on energy.
You could also chew on a couple of fresh peppermint leaves after eating as a mouth-freshener. The better digestion is a bonus!
There are certain things to keep in mind though. If you’re prone to heartburn or gastric ulcers, minimize your intake of peppermint. Also, don’t give the tea to children.