If you want to add a refreshing and cooling twist to your salads, soup, tea or even plain water, a few mint leaves may just do the trick. Known for its sweet-smelling aroma and cooling flavor, mint is a highly-celebrated herb in the culinary world because of its many uses.
But did you know that mint offers potent health benefits as well? This calming and soothing herb has one of the highest antioxidant capacities of any food.1 Because of this, mint can help alleviate a variety of ailments. Keep on reading to learn more about mint — its uses, benefits and how you can grow it at home.
Mint 101: Basic Facts About This Herb
Also known as mentha, mint refers to a genus or group of around 15 to 20 perennial plant species, with the most popular types being peppermint and spearmint.2 Known to have originated in Asia and the Mediterranean region,3 this versatile herb has been valued for centuries not only for its elegant fragrance, but also for its many medicinal benefits. There are several different types of mint, most of which you've probably used at least once. Some of the most common varieties include:4
- Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) — This hearty herb emulates a classic minty fragrance when you rub its leaves. Peppermint can be used dried or fresh.
- Spearmint (Mentha spicata) — You'll find it in backyard gardens or growing wild all over North America. This variety is popular because of the flavor it adds to chewing gums and toothpaste. When used raw, spearmint makes a great flavor enhancer for salads.
- Catnip (Nepeta cataria) — Kitty lovers can definitely attest to the allure that this plant has on cats. Also known as catmint, while it doesn't have any culinary uses, it may be helpful for different ailments.
- Bergamot (Mentha x piperita citrate) — If you've tried using bergamot oil for aromatherapy, then you know that this mint plant is unique because of its invigorating citrus fragrance. It's also known as lemon mint.
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) — The delicate lemon flavor of lemon balm makes it a well-loved garnish for drinks, and also adds a delicate flavor to tangy dishes.
Most mint plants can be identified through their toothed leaves, squared stems and small lipped flowers (either purple, pink or white).5,6 Try rubbing a leaf between your fingers and you'll immediately notice the distinct minty smell that the plant is famous for. But aside from its distinct fragrance, mint offers a host of uses for your health and home.
Mint Leaves Offer Benefits for Your Health
Its high antioxidant content is just one of the many distinct characteristics that make mint so beneficial for your well-being. This herb actually contains vitamins A, B2 and C, as well as minerals like zinc, calcium, copper and magnesium.7
Menthol, the compound in mint leaves that gives them their distinct aroma, also has analgesic, local anesthetic and counterirritant properties.8 With its impressive array of nutrients and health-promoting properties, it's no wonder that mint is one of the most beneficial herbs there is today. Here are just some of the potential benefits that you can be provided from using mint leaves:9
• Helps alleviate allergy symptoms. Rosmarinic acid, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent in mint, has been studied for its potential in helping to relieve seasonal allergy and asthma symptoms.10 This antioxidant works by inhibiting COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes.
According to a study published in Biofactors journal, taking 50 milligrams of rosmarinic acid daily helped reduce the levels of inflammatory molecules and eosinophils or allergy-related white blood cells, leading to significantly decreased symptoms.11
• Eases digestive problems. This herb has been used for thousands of years as a remedy for stomachache and indigestion, as it helps increase bile secretion and encourages bile flow, leading to easier and speedier digestion. Peppermint in particular has been found to relieve pain and discomfort caused by gas and bloating. It may also help alleviate gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
• Helps relieve nausea and headache. The refreshing scent of mint provides quick relief for nausea and, in fact, it is even added to soothing balms intended for nausea. However, simply crushing (and inhaling) fresh mint leaves may provide the same effect. Mint may also soothe the inflammation and temperature rise associated with headaches and migraines.12
• Helps clear up congestion and other respiratory disorders. Mint cools and soothes the throat, nose and other parts of the respiratory system and helps alleviate congestion brought on by coughs and colds.
• Promotes relief from pain and fatigue. If you are feeling depressed, anxious, sluggish or exhausted, mint may be useful. It was also found to help increase pain threshold in humans.
If used topically, mint can provide a number of benefits because of its calming and cooling properties. It may aid in relieving insect bites, rashes, sunburn and other skin ailments. It also works as a breath freshener — chew a few mint leaves and you'll notice the difference immediately.
However, certain groups of people should take caution when using this herb. For example, mint may exacerbate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) symptoms, so people who suffer from this ailment should refrain from taking mint. Those who have experienced gallstones should also be cautious not to consume this herb.13 Nevertheless, there are plenty of ways to use mint without ingesting it.
Uses for Mint Inside (and Outside) Your Home
Mint is loved by many because of its astounding health benefits and refreshing fragrance, but there's a lot more you can do with this herb. Ancient civilizations have found plenty of uses for it — the Greeks, for example, used it to clean their banqueting tables or added it to their baths.14 Meanwhile, the Romans believed that its scent can prevent people from being angry, and that eating it would boost their intelligence.15
Today, products like toothpaste, inhalers, soothing balms, chewing gum, breath fresheners and candy use mint as their base element. Nevertheless, there are plenty of uses for plain fresh mint leaves or mint essential oil inside or outside your home, such as:
- Flea and tick repellent. Mix two parts fresh spearmint, one part fresh thyme and one part fresh wormwood, and tuck it inside a small pillow. Place the pillow near your pet's favorite resting place or in his bed.16
- Foot scrub. Mix a cup of Himalayan salt, one-third cup of olive oil and six drops of peppermint essential oil, and scrub all over your feet. The salt exfoliates your skin while the menthol soothes sore muscles.17
- Room freshener and floor cleaner. Add a few drops of mint essential oil to your homemade cleaner. You can also dilute three to five drops of mint essential oil in a cup of white vinegar, and add it to a gallon of water. This solution works for wood, concrete or tile floors.
- Mint tea. Instead of carbonated sugary drinks, use mint to make a batch of peppermint tea. Organic Authority lists some of mint tea's benefits,18 a beverage that you can whip up in five minutes or less.
While there are mint alternatives available like marjoram, basil and lavender, which all have their own set of health benefits, you can't deny that the flavor and aroma that mint provides is highly unique. So to ensure that you have a steady supply of this versatile herb, why not grow your own mint at home?
Simple Tips to Grow Mint at Home
According to The Old Farmer's Almanac,19 mint thrives best when grown in light soil, in moist but well-drained sites. Good drainage is necessary for this plant, and you must make sure to provide protection from direct sunlight. Most varieties require some shade.
If planting several mint plants in your garden, keep them about 2 feet apart as they will easily cover the ground. Most mint plants grow up to 1 or 2 feet tall and do not require extensive care. Nevertheless, mint benefits from pruning and picking, as the plant tends to produce horizontal runners that may take over your garden space.
If you do not have a backyard, don't fret — you can grow this herb indoors. Use containers or pots with adequate drainage, and place it in an area with indirect light. Since mint thrives best in moist soil, make sure you water it regularly (but not too much). Humidity is also crucial, so make sure to mist the plant between watering, or place the container on a tray with pebbles and water.20
It may take a bit of work and some patience, but once you have a healthy mint plant growing at home, then you can enjoy all the health and culinary benefits of this fresh herb.
Cooking With Mint: ExperiMINTing in the Kitchen
The combined sweetness and astringency of mint makes it a must-have herb for your kitchen. It suits a variety of dishes: From appetizers to main courses to dessert, you can surely find ways to use a fresh sprig of mint. Throw it in a salad for a much needed flavor boost or add it to your smoothies or lemonade.
You can even make delicious mint water — a simple yet delightful way to perk up your usual drink. Just add sprigs of fresh mint to a pitcher of water, let sit for 30 minutes and serve in a glassful of ice. This drink is perfect for hot days.21 When cooking with mint or mint leaves, remember that different varieties can add different flavors to your food. Peppermint has a mild peppery flavor, while lemon mint has a slight minty flavor and a refreshing citrus scent.
The Vegetable Gardener22 offers a helpful guide on how to choose the best mint variety for your dishes. For example, peppermint's strong flavor holds well in cooked dishes and in desserts or drinks where you want the menthol flavor to stand out. Meanwhile, spearmint's milder and sweeter taste is great for making mint tea, sauces and jellies. Orange mint (Mentha aquatica), on the other hand, combines well with fruits like nectarines, peaches, plums and apricots.
One unique recipe that features mint is my Healthy Apple Energy Soup. Not only is it quick and easy to prepare, but it's made with raw ingredients — meaning all the nutrients from the foods are in their natural state. The mint effectively blends well with the sweetness of apple and avocado, making this an invigorating yet appetizing dish. Check out the recipe here.
If you don't have fresh mint growing at home, you can easily find it in your local farmers markets. Make sure you select mints that are evenly colored and do not have any signs of wilting.23 Remember that while fresh mint is preferable to dried mint, knowing how to store it is crucial to ensure it doesn't lose its taste and fragrance.
Here's How to Store Fresh Mint
If not stored properly, fresh mint can easily wilt and lose its flavor. According to Delish Plan, you should treat mint like a flower — place it in a container with water. Here's what to do:24
- Once you remove the rubber bands holding the mint together, trim the end of the stems by cutting off the leaves. This allows some space at the cut ends.
- Stick the mint stems in a tall container (a jar or mug will do), and add enough water to cover the cut ends.
- Cover loosely with a plastic bag and keep it in your fridge. Make sure to change the water every two to three days.
Another technique is to wrap fresh mint in a damp paper towel, and then seal it in a plastic bag. Make sure that the leaves are not being crushed and the mint stays intact. Place it in your fridge. If stored properly, fresh mint can stay fresh for several weeks, and may be used for a wide variety of applications inside and outside your kitchen.
Types of Mint Oil: Peppermint Oil and Spearmint Oil
The two most popular varieties of mint oil are peppermint and spearmint oil. These two essential oils both offer their own unique set of uses and benefits.
Peppermint oil is well-known for potentially easing muscle pain, headaches and stomach problems.25 It can also be used as a decongestant and an expectorant, helping clear up phlegm in your respiratory tract. Peppermint oil has potential benefits for skin, hair and dental health as well.26, 27
However, many people find peppermint oil a bit too strong, so they instead opt for spearmint oil. Spearmint essential oil is gentler than peppermint oil, and better recommended for children. Although its properties are similar to peppermint, spearmint has significantly lower amounts of menthol. It can help alleviate muscle spasms, digestive issues like flatulence, and respiratory issues like colds, nasal congestion and flu.28
However, you should take caution if you're using either of these two mint essential oils, because if not diluted in a safe carrier oil prior to use, they can cause skin irritations and other side effects. Before using, dilute mint oil with a carrier oil and apply to a small part of your skin to see if any allergic reactions occur. I also advise pregnant women and nursing mothers to avoid these essential oils without their physician's approval.
Storing the oils properly is also important. For example, peppermint oil is sensitive to light and heat damage, and should be kept in a tightly sealed bottle and placed in a cool dark place.
You Can't Go Wrong With a Sprig of Mint!
Sweet-smelling, refreshing and invigorating — these words probably best describe mint. With its many different varieties, this herb has definitely gained a much-deserved reputation in the culinary world because it can add fragrance and flavor to a wide array of dishes.
And let's not forget to mention mint's health uses. This herb can help alleviate nausea and headaches, allergies and even respiratory congestion. Even the essential oil obtained from this herb (peppermint oil and spearmint oil being the most popular) can offer a multitude of benefits. So if you've got room to spare in your garden, go ahead and plant some mint! You surely won't regret it.