When in Rome: The History of Peppermint

sprig of fresh mint

Peppermint, like many of our other favorite flavors, is an enduring and global staple and that would not be true unless the benefits it provided were significant enough to warrant lasting attention. From Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Year’s Eve, nothing says celebration quite like that minty dessert or delicious candy cane. With all it has to offer, peppermint can add that extra pop of something to your life. 

So how did peppermint come to hold such a special place in our hearts and our stomachs? From Persephone to Aristotle, and Pliny the Elder all the way to the vast peppermint fields growing in Washington State today, here’s the story behind this beloved holiday treat, and why it’s here to stay. 

Divine Origins

Much of the early history and folklore surrounding peppermint comes from the early Greeks and Romans, and this is in part why it’s believed that peppermint (Mentha piperita) originated in the Mediterranean. The truth is, this plant is so old, and capable of growing so ubiquitously, that scientists aren’t totally sure where it came from. There is some evidence that the Egyptians also cultivated peppermint, thanks to dried leaves that have been discovered in several pyramids—but trade between the two major regions was common enough that it is hard to pinpoint a true source.

Nonetheless, so important was peppermint to the Greeks that the plant has its own origin story in their mythology. Persephone, wife of Hades and daughter of Zeus, discovered that her husband had fallen in love with a nymph named Menthe. In her rage, she cursed Menthe and as a punishment, turned her into a lowly plant to be trod upon for eternity. Unable to reverse the curse, Pluto bestowed Menthe with the sweet scent of peppermint we know today, so she could at least perfume the air and bring joy to the world. The genus name Mentha comes from this story, and the species name piperita is loosely translated to “peppery,” distinguishing peppermint from other forms of mint.

Ancient Stories, Modern Solutions

Plants don’t get mythical origin stories unless they’re culturally significant, and the role of mint in Greek and Roman society was no exception. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD), famous Roman scientist and historian, wrote his own mint history and documented that the Greeks and Romans loved to flavor their sauces and wines with mint. Sprigs of mint plants commonly adorned their tables, and early Greeks believed that mint could clear the voice and cure hiccups. It was also standard practice to serve mint after meals to aid digestion—a tradition that many restaurants continue today in the form of mint-flavored candies. 

Are these stories just ancient quirks, or does their logic indeed hold up to modern science? More often than not, science has confirmed what people have long known to be true: peppermint isn’t just delicious, it has tangible therapeutic benefits, too. 

Cough & Congestion

When it comes to the common cold or flu, treatment is generally less about finding a cure and more focused on easing symptoms, since it’s often a matter of waiting the virus out. This usually involves reducing pain, preventing coughs, and clearing airways for easier breathing. The high menthol content of peppermint creates a cooling effect in the nose and lungs, and improves the nasal sensation of airflow, in turn increasing comfort during the worst of symptoms. 

Peppermint is also a known muscle relaxant, helping to reduce cough symptoms and other irritating muscle spasms. While the effect of peppermint on hiccups has not been studied specifically, the known ability of peppermint to reduce painful muscle contractions in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract makes it a viable potential treatment, and probably explains why ancient Greeks used it as such. In the case of a bad cough, a 2013 study showed that Peppermint Essential Oil can effectively relax the bronchial muscles.

To make the most of this powerful remedy the next time a bug is in the air, try diffusing it with Eucalyptus Essential Oil. Packed with compounds known as cineole and eucalyptol, eucalyptus oil has been shown to reduce recovery times for sinusitis and bronchitis. Paired with peppermint, these oils have been shown to greatly improve symptoms of upper respiratory infections.

Digestive Relief & Bad Breath

One of the most common uses for peppermint, in ancient times and today, is to relieve digestive pain and discomfort. Some of the most extensive research on peppermint essential oil has focused on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), which is a common GI condition that affects the large intestine. The precise cause is unknown, but common symptoms include chronic cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, and gas.

A recent meta-analysis of 12 different trials studying the effectiveness of peppermint oil in treating IBS confirmed that peppermint is a safe and effective treatment for common symptoms. Whether it’s relaxing internal muscles of the GI tract, peppermint’s anti-inflammatory properties, or its antibacterial and anesthetic qualities—it appears that the ancient Greeks and Romans were on to something when they served peppermint after meals. 

Besides relieving potential stomach pain, serving mint after dinner (à la the ancient Greek and Romans) is also a great way to prevent and treat bad breath. Dental plaque is a common cause of bad breath, and the antibacterial properties of peppermint oil have been shown to inhibit the common oral microbes that contribute to plaque. It is also an effective way to treat bad breath—both in the short term, and with prolonged use. It’s no accident that many toothpastes and mouthwash formulas still contain peppermint today. In the era before these commercial dental products existed, it’s easy to see why people turned to this plant for some assistance with oral care.

Focus & Energy

Another common ancient refrain about peppermint? Many believed it was an aphrodisiac. Indeed, Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE) forbade his troops from consuming peppermint because he believed it promoted erotic thoughts and would distract his men from the desire to fight. Aristotle (384-322 BCE), himself, referenced peppermint in his writings as an aphrodisiac. It wasn’t just the Romans and Greeks who believed this, either. Ancient Arabs were known to add peppermint to their cocktails as a virility stimulant. 

While evidence suggesting peppermint is an effective aphrodisiac is lacking, studies have shown it to be effective at reducing fatigue and improving energy, which is perhaps how the rumors started a millennia ago. In a recent study, healthy young people experienced less fatigue during a test after inhalation of peppermint oil, and another study showed that peppermint oil aromatherapy was an effective way to reduce daytime sleepiness. Unfortunately for Alexander the Great, it’s also been shown to improve athletic performance. Perhaps if his army had been eating peppermint all along, they would have had enough energy to carry out their last campaign.

The right essential oil pairings can mutually improve the qualities of the other, and for focus and energy, there is no better duo than peppermint and rosemary. Rosemary Essential Oil has known stimulatory effects on the nervous system, and studies have shown that it can help with focus and memory in school children. There is no better way to start the day than diffusing these two oils together.

Peppermint Today

Peppermint has come a long way since the dawn of civilization, and its many uses have earned it a permanent residency in kitchen pantries, medicine cabinets, and cleaning cupboards alike—seriously, is there anything this plant can’t do? Today the annual commercial production of peppermint amounts to more than 4000 tons per year, with over 90% of that coming from the United States. More specifically, over 90% of that comes from the Pacific Northwest, where Mentha piperita has been grown in large quantities since the early 1900s.

Whether your stomach is upset from all that holiday comfort food, or the long nights leave you dragging every morning, Peppermint Essential Oil is the perfect pick-me-up in your diffuser to keep the good times rollin’ this winter. Diffused in the morning with coffee and chocolate, during workouts, and even for sick days in bed, we’re hard-pressed to think of anything peppermint doesn’t go with. So next time you need that little something extra, give this age-old plant a try—your entire body will thank you.

Categories: Essential Oils

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