Last year, my mom gave me some mint from her herb garden. “Take it! Plant it in a bucket, or it’ll take over everything!” she said, with a rueful look at the huge corner of mint that was slowly devouring the chives, basil, and making its way to her parsley. Sure enough, it grew heartily in front of my DC townhouse all last season – and then, to my surprise, came up again without any effort on my part this year! That’s my kind of plant.
Someday I hope to surround my home with plants that come up on their own every year, and flower at the perfect time, one after the other, like the fountain in front of the Bellagio. Gardening is nice, but I’m not tryna spend my whole life in the dirt, ya know?
Anyway, the mint. Aside from being hearty, mint is also delicious, and commonly used as a flavor element. It’s even got some nice (potential) health benefits. The Natural Standard Database is a fantastic tool for analysis of alternative therapies, including almost any herb, supplement, disease, and food component you can think of. Basically, they comb all databases of scientific literature to evaluate the strength of evidence for any possible combination of health effect and food. They give an extensive report for each, and grade the evidence A-F (see the legend on their homepage to learn what each letter means). Here’s the table for spearmint:
And for peppermint:
Peppermint and spearmint are related, but have different flavors due to their primary chemical components, menthol and carvone, respectively.
NSD goes on to generate an in-depth look at each condition, possible mechanisms, offers an evidence table of each study, and carefully cite 166 references. Unfortunately, the NSD isn’t free, but you can pay for an annual membership – hot tip, though, most academic institutions buy it for their students, so if you’re in or at a college, check into your library’s online resources. To get some FREE hot tips, follow NSD on Twitter or Facebook – it’s #FollowFriday, after all!
As you can see, there isn’t terribly strong evidence for spearmint to do much, though there’s a bit more for peppermint. Some indications are for topical use (headaches, breast tenderness – and hey, it’s in BenGay!), some for concentrated use in the form of essential oils (bad breath, IBS), some as teas brewed from the leaves (gastro discomfort), and some as just the aroma (cognitive effects, relaxation).
Since evidence is strongest for peppermint oil and IBS, here’s a short excerpt from NSD on that:
“The principal effect of peppermint oil relevant to the gastrointestinal tract is a dose-related antispasmodic effect on the smooth musculature due to a mechanism that may involve antagonism of calcium channels (222;283;284). Peppermint oil has been reported to improve rhythmic peristaltic contractions of the intestinal tract and relieve intestinal spasm (285) and may similarly be related to reduction of calcium influx (2;3). Peppermint oil relaxed animal (2) and human colon smooth muscle cells in vitro (2). Peppermint has also exhibited effects on the histaminic, 5-hydroxytriptaminic, and cholinergic systems of the gut (286;287). Intravenous peppermint oil released morphine-induced contraction of Oddi’s sphincter in guinea pigs (288). Peppermint’s use in esophageal spasms has been reviewed (289;290).”
Basically they’re saying it seems like the active components of peppermint oil act to alleviate gastrointestinal discomfort by reducing intestinal muscle spasms and improving regular muscle contractions by acting on the nerves that are interlaced into your digestive tract.
Beyond that, mint has a few vitamins and minerals to offer – here are the nutrition facts for just 2 Tbsp of fresh spearmint:
So basically, mint is pretty great. Throw a few leaves into your tea, garnish a dish, even just chew on a leaf to freshen your breath! Here’s my recipe for a recovery smoothie that will knock out some fruits and veggies while tasting more like a peppermint patty :)
Double Chocolate Mint Smoothie
- 1 c milk
- 1 Tbsp cocoa
- 1/2 banana
- 1/2 c frozen spinach
- 1 tsp honey
- 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
- 2 Tbsp fresh mint leaves
- 2 tsp mini chocolate chips
Blend in a blender, drink after a strenuous workout! Notice the 3-4:1 ratio of carbs to protein in the nutrient analysis below :)