Mint has been called “The World’s Oldest Medicine,” after being discovered in ancient Egyptian tombs and found in fossils ten thousand years old. The medicinal value of mint has been so universally recognized that it can be found growing wild almost everywhere on Earth where civilization has thrived. Both then and now, it is the herb of choice for digestive issues.
This is the second article in the series on common plants and herbs used for health and wellness.
Once again, I have called upon Susan Perry, a practicing herbalist, educator, and master gardener to lend her extensive expertise to Backdoor Survival readers.
Medicinal Use of Mint
By Susan Perry
Parts used: The leaves and small, tender stems (aerial parts) are used medicinally.
Herb Actions: To sum up the primary medicinal uses of mint, here are some of its major actions. These are most prevalent in Peppermint, as described above, and to lesser degrees in the other mints. Becoming familiar with these terms helps you understand how herbs work, and decide which herbs to use for your health issues.
1. Anti-spasmodic: prevents and eases muscle spasms in the body.
2. Anti-emetic: reduces nausea, relieves or prevents vomiting.
3. Anti-septic: helps the body destroy or resist harmful bacteria and other microorganisms.
4. Carminative: containing volatile oils which both stimulate the digestive system and relax the stomach, thus supporting digestion and reducing excess gas in the digestive tract.
5. Nervine: having a beneficial effect on the nervous system.
6. Analgesic: reducing pain when applied internally or externally.
Mint In the Garden
Mints do best in rich, loamy soils with full or partial shade, in hardiness zones 3 to 7. Before planting, the soil should be deeply cultivated and a manure-rich compost or fertilizer high in minerals added.
Good drainage is equally important to avoid water damage to the roots. Once mints are off to a good start, they will grow well in most soils as long as they are free of weeds and the soil is cultivated.
After plants have matured, peppermint and spearmint prefer consistent soil moisture, while most other mints prefer a dryer soil. For commercial production, mints have traditionally been planted in shallow trenches three feet apart.
Varieties of Mint
All the mint species easily crossbreed, and there are now more than 600 varieties we can identify. All mints have a square stem, distinctive minty odor, and a fresh taste. Here are the four most common varieties.
1. Peppermint (mentha piperita)
Peppermint is considered the most effective mint for medicinal use. Its main constituent, menthol, makes it a powerful antispasmodic.
It improves many digestive issues, including painful spasms throughout the digestive tract, and is used for colic, flatulence, cholera, and diarrhea. Peppermint helps heal ulcerative colitis and Chrohn’s disease. It relieves nausea, including the morning sickness of pregnancy and motion sickness, and is used to increase the flow of digestive juices and bile.
Peppermint is also used for respiratory illnesses and reducing fevers. When asthmatic symptoms are present, including those triggered by physical exercise, peppermint helps reduce irritation and acts as a bronchodilator by opening the airways to improve breathing.
Peppermint has an antihistamine effect, along with the strong, cooling action of menthol that dissolves mucus and makes it an effective decongestant for throat, nose, bronchial tubes, and lungs. Sipping peppermint tea can stop the progression of a cold in the early stages. Once a cold or flu has set in, mint is best combined with boneset and yarrow.
Peppermint’s nervine qualities act as a nerve tonic and for reducing tension and anxiety.
2. Spearmint (mentha spicata)
This variety has many of the same medicinal qualities as peppermint, but its effects are less powerful. This makes it very suitable to use for young children’s digestive or respiratory problems.
The chief constituent of Spearmint is carvone, which gives it a unique taste that is milder than peppermint, and has resulted in its frequent use as flavoring for foods and medicines.
3. Pennyroyal (mentha pulegium)
Although pennyroyal has some of the properties of other mints, it is most often used medicinally to stimulate and support uterine contractions if needed during childbirth. For this reason, it should definitely be avoided during pregnancy, and is also not to be used for children.
4. Downy Woodmint (blephilia ciliata)
The medicinal use of this mint is similar to that of Spearmint, although slightly stronger. It makes a delicious tea with a mild mint flavor and has been effective in alleviating headaches.
Mint seeds may be started indoors. Plant seeds ¼ inch deep in starter pots and keep them moist.
Move plants outside after the last frost date for your area. Plant them six inches apart; when nearly mature, thin them to two feet apart. Keep young plants moist but not over-watered. Occasionally add a high-mineral fertilizer if plants are not growing rapidly, or if a soil test shows any deficiencies.
Mint spreads quickly and will crowd out other garden plants due to its vigorous roots and runners, and easily scattered seeds. This is great if you’re only going for big yields of mint, but if space is limited or you want to maintain several different mint varieties, you need to devise a way to contain them.
Here is a simple strategy that keeps mint from taking over your garden.
1. Gather plastic planting containers or buckets with drainage holes. For small patches of mint, use 1-gallon size containers; for a larger number of plants, use larger sizes.
2. Trim two round pieces of porous garden fabric (such as landscape cloth) for each pot, making them 8 inches larger than the width of the bottom of the container. Put these inside the pots. This is what keeps the roots from spreading.
3. Fill each container a little more than half way with good quality garden soil. Gently add the mint plants, leaving several inches between each one. Add more soil, carefully patting it down around the roots to come within 3 inches of the top. Add water to saturate the soil without it becoming waterlogged.
4. Dig a hole in the garden for each pot. The soil level in the container should be even with the garden surface. Adding mulch in and around the pots to cover the edges makes for a tidy, well-kept look. If rhizomes start to grow over the edge, just trim them off, then discard them or start a new plant. Plants may need to be divided after a few years, depending on how quickly they grow.
• Gather leaves and small stems when they are full-size to ensure the greatest medicinal potency. Unless you are planning to save some seeds, pinch off the flower buds as they develop.
• Harvest mint on a dry, sunny day, in the morning after the dew has lifted, as mint can develop mold quickly if it is moist. Gather it before mid-day sun, which can deplete the plants’ volatile essential oils.
• Trim the largest branches and allow small parts to continue growing.
How to Prepare and Use Mint
Infusions are most often used for internal healing, especially digestive and respiratory issues. These just happen to be the primary medicinal uses for mint, so an infusion (the technical name for herbal tea) is the most common preparation.
NOTE: The standard amount of time to steep herbs in hot water is fifteen minutes, but mint is an exception. Five to ten minutes is enough to bring out the medicinal properties; any longer will result in a bitter taste.
Use 1 cup water per teaspoon of dried herb, or two teaspoons fresh herb.
1. Heat water to a boil in a covered pan.
2. Remove from heat. Add mint leaves, stir until all leaves are saturated.
3. Cover pan and let steep for five to ten minutes.
4. Strain out the mint, pouring the liquid into another container. The remaining plant material makes good mulch for the garden.
5. Keep extra in the refrigerator; stays fresh for up to three days.
Standard dosage: 1 cup up to three times per day.
Precautions When Using Mint as a Medicinal Herb
• Do not take Pennyroyal in large doses, and do not use for children or during pregnancy. If used to strengthen contractions during labor, best to do so under a doctor’s supervision.
• Children under age six should not be given Peppermint, nor rubbed with ointment containing menthol, since it could cause gagging or choking. (Spearmint and applemint are excellent for children.)
• Mint can irritate mucous membranes.
• Avoid taking peppermint if breastfeeding as it can reduce the milk flow.
• Since menthol can stimulate the gallbladder, mint should not be taken if there are gallstones present.
• Mint is also contraindicated in those with heartburn caused by gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). Menthol can relax the sphincter between the esophagus and stomach, allowing stomach acids to enter the esophagus. Ginger can be used instead for digestive upsets.
How to Preserve and Store Mint
1. Dry leaves and small stems immediately after harvesting, as mold can set in quickly.
2. If using a dehydrator, set the temperature at 95 degrees.
3. Mint may be air-dried on trays in single layers in a warm, dry place, but not in direct sun.
4. Mint can also be tied in small, loose bunches, covered with a paper lunch bag with the bottom cut out, and hung upside down in a warm, dry place. This method takes a bit more drying time, but less counter space. The bag protects the leaves from dust.
5. Store dried herbs in airtight containers. Glass is good, plastic is not, as moisture can enter. When dried and stored correctly, leaf herbs can keep their potency for a year or more.
6. Mint can also be preserved by making extracts in alcohol or oil.
Identifying Mint in the Wild or in Your Backyard
Peppermint (mentha piperita)
Grows to three feet, has smooth branching stems, pale pink or violet flowers growing on short spikes at the ends of branches. Leaves are a large oblong shape ending in a point, and with toothed edges. It is found throughout the U.S. in moist meadows and along roadsides. Peppermint can be identified by the strong cooling sensation when you chew on a leaf, then breathe in through your mouth.
Spearmint (mentha spicata)
Shorter than peppermint, grows ten to twenty inches with pale violet or pink flowers. The leaves are attached directly to the stem with no stalk. It prefers wet soil, and grows throughout the U.S.
Pennyroyal (mentha pulegium)
Leaves are soft and hairy, growing in opposite pairs with two small protrusions underneath; pale blue flowers grow in small tufts on the stem between the leaf pairs. Grows six to eighteen inches in dry fields from Minnesota to Nova Scotia and areas south.
Downy Woodmint (blephilia ciliata)
Similar in appearance to peppermint, but leaves have a more rounded shape and are covered with soft down. Grows in dry woods and dense bushy areas from Wisconsin to Vermont and areas south.
Homesteading Benefits of Mint
Control Pests and Parasites: Growing mint right outside the barn or hen house can help reduce parasites and other insect pests. When poultry has access to fresh mint, they have fewer internal parasites. This eliminates the need for toxic chemicals. Ants, rodents, and flies are also kept away with mint. In addition, hang bunches of fresh mint inside the barn or coop, or sprinkle drops of peppermint essential oil on windowsills and other surfaces.
Fresh leaves of Pennyroyal or other strong mints can be strewn in cupboards, closets, or wherever needed to deter ants, fleas, and other insects.
Draw bees to a new hive by rubbing peppermint leaf on the beehive; bees will be attracted and set up housekeeping.
Feed a few fresh peppermint leaves to goats to reduce or eliminate intestinal parasites.
Attract Pollinators with mint’s blue, pink, or violet flowers.
Soothe Poison Ivy: Soak a mint tea bag in cold water for a few minutes, then apply to skin. A cloth soaked with peppermint tea also works well. The soothing and cooling properties of mint provide relief for most skin irritations.
Repel Mosquitoes: Rub a few drops of Peppermint essential oil on arms, legs, and other exposed skin to prevent mosquitoes from landing and biting. Although slightly less potent, fresh leaves can also be rubbed directly on the skin.
Keep Your Cool: Working outdoors in the heat of summer can lead to skin irritation, rashes, and even heat stroke. Cooling herbs can keep you fresh and comfortable, and nothing works better than mint. Add mint to a summer lemonade or fresh fruit salad, or try these easy recipes:
Watermelon Ginger Mint Slushy
2 cups cubed watermelon
1 tablespoon lime juice
1 teaspoon minced ginger
4-5 mint leaves, cut into several pieces
10 or so ice cubes
Place all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth. Check the taste and add more mint or ginger if desired. My friend Mary says adding splash of vodka would make this a lovely, summer afternoon cocktail. I’ll meet you on the porch!
Cucumber Mint Water
Pure water infused with fruits and herbs has become a popular way to stay hydrated, remove toxins from the body, and support weight loss. Cucumber water makes a healthy, mellow drink; with mint, it’s even more refreshing on a hot day.
1. Cut a cucumber into thin slices, then put them into a glass pitcher.
2. Add 5 – 7 whole fresh mint leaves, and crush them using a wooden spoon.
3. Add one half gallon of water and a pinch of Himalayan salt to round out the flavor and add minerals. Stir gently.
4. Refrigerate for 2 – 3 hours to release the flavors and create a delicious summer drink!
Other Benefits of Mint
Stop Hiccups: The menthol in mint helps to calm muscle spasms. Make a cup of warm tea, or a cool mint drink by blending fresh mint leaves with one cup of water, then strain. In a hurry? Just chew on the fresh leaves.
Promote Hair Growth: Thinning hair and premature balding can be improved by gently massaging either peppermint essential oil or a mint infusion into the scalp. Research shows this strengthens and invigorates hair follicles to promote new growth.
Boost Memory: The stimulating scent of peppermint increases memory and alertness, and is a general energy booster. A diffuser works well, or just simmer fresh or dried mint in a pan of water. The whole house will smell fresh and clean, and you can resume your chores with new enthusiasm.
Control appetite and lose weight: The taste of peppermint has been proven to reduce the desire to eat. Have some mint tea between meals or brush your teeth with mint-flavored toothpaste after a meal.
Here are a few resources you can use to learn more about using mint for medicine, homestead needs, and cooking. As an added bonus, the last one contains ways to use mint and other herbs to make your own beauty products. All four should be available at your local library.
Peppermint Essential Oil
A discussion of the healing qualities of mint would not be complete without mentioning mint in it’s most concentrated form, as an essential oil. The two most common mints used in essential oils are peppermint and spearmint.
Peppermint essential oil is commonly used to relieve headaches, stomach and digestive distress, and congestion from allergies and colds. It is bargain priced and for me, personally, my go-to oil for headaches. More uses of peppermint essential oil can be found in the article, The Miracle of Peppermint Oil: 20 Practical Uses for Survival.
Spearmint essential oil can be used in the same manner although it tends to be a bit pricier. That said, it is favored over peppermint for use with digestive problems such as flatulence, constipation, nausea.
The Final Word
Mint has been a powerful healing remedy for thousands of years. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was used not only for medicine, but also to flavor sauces and wines, to make garlands, and to decorate tables at feasts. Mint is mentioned in the Icelandic Pharmacopeia of the thirteenth century. And so it goes with many references throughout the years of the positive benefits of using mint for healing.
If you’re interested in herbs for healing, for use on a homestead or for times when traditional medicine is not available, you simply can not go wrong with mint.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!