Ginger & Peppermint

When you think about it, just about everyone has used ginger and peppermint. These two herbs are ubiquitous in human foods, and in your medicines: ginger ale, peppermint tea, mint mouthwash, spicy ginger chicken at our favorite Chinese restaurant, ginger snaps, gingerbread, peppermint flavored calcium supplements, candies, alcohol, and so on. The list could go on and on.

Just why are these herbs so popular? Is it just their flavor, or is there more to the story?

In truth, ginger is much more than a spice. Given my choice of top 10 herbs to keep around the house, I would be sure to include ginger. It is a potent plant medicinal, useful for digestive conditions, viral illness, and fevers. No home herbal medicine chest should be without it.

Ginger is a perennial. It grows on a rhizome, plant terminology for a horizontal, underground stem, loaded with nodules along the stem surface. From these nodules, roots and stems grow out, extending the plant both above and below the ground.

You've likely seen fresh ginger in the grocery store: a tan-brown and nubby root, lying in baskets in the cooler section of the produce department. Where I live, most grocers place ginger root in the more eclectic part of the produce department, along with other "oddities" that checkout clerks have trouble recognizing -- burdock, mung sprouts, and Portobello mushrooms. I must admit that, I, too, tend to store my ginger in unexpected places. In truth, there always seems to be a piece of ginger root buffed somewhere in the back of my produce drawer, along with mushrooms, arugula, and the inevitable clump of parsley I've been meaning to use for a long time.

The nice thing about ginger is that it keeps well. Nicer still, it's available in forms that don't lie forlorn in the refrigerator; easy to store forms like bottled tincture, capsules, and powder. This is good, because ginger is a medicine one will use often.
What's in it?

The so-called "pungent principles" of ginger have long been considered responsible for the herb's most identifiable medicinal effects (pharmacologic activity). Plant analysis has determined that ginger contains several plant compounds with medicinal activity, most notably volatile oils, gingerols, shogaols, diarylheptanoids (like gingerenone A and B). Most research points to ginger's help in:

* motion sickness and
* loss of appetite.

Motion sickness/seasickness

In a well-known study, published in the journal Lancet, back in 1982, subjects were given either ginger root, dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), or placebo. They were then blindfolded and placed in rotating chairs for up to 6 minutes. Ginger root recipients stayed in their chairs on average 5.5 minutes, while the dimenhydrinate group lasted 3.5 minutes, and the placebo group 1.5 minutes. In all three groups, it was motion sickness that forced participants out of their seats. Additionally, for each participant, once the nausea and vomiting began, symptoms were similar, indicating that ginger's real value, in this study anyway, was in delaying the onset of motion sickness.

Ginger has also been examined in more realistic situations. A 1988 study conducted on 80 Danish naval cadets, training on the ocean, found that ginger capsules reduced symptoms of vomiting, cold sweats, nausea, and vertigo.

Drugs like Dramamine work on the central nervous system (CNS), depressing the body's reaction to movement stimuli. Because of this, people taking Dramamine are cautioned against using other CNS depressants, like alcohol, anti-anxiety medicines, and sleeping pills. Ginger, on the other hand, affects the gastrointestinal (GI) tract directly, increasing gastric motility and reducing stomach reactions like nausea. In recommended dosage, ginger can be used safely with other CNS medications or alcohol.
Beyond motion sickness

The same way ginger slows the onset of motion sickness is the same way this herb is useful for all types of nausea. A 1991 European study of pregnant women suffering from morning sickness found that 70.4 percent of women experienced some subjective relief from 250 mg ginger taken four times daily for four days. (Please see caution below with use of ginger in pregnancy). Ginger is often used for nausea after surgery or chemotherapy, and in cases of stomach flu and food poisoning.

Ginger is a carminative, a botanical term meaning reducing the production of gas. The Eclectics, a movement of "Nature Doctors" who practiced natural medicine until the early decades of the 20th century, found ginger to be an 'admirable carminative' in patients with 'persistent flatulency and sour stomach.' They recommended small doses of ginger alone, or combined with sodium bicarbonate. I've found ginger to be particularly helpful for infants with colic, and in older people who suffer with poor digestion or diminished appetite.

Ginger is a good plant medicine to have on hand during cold-and-flu season. Not only does it warm up the GI tract, reduce nausea, and assist with digestion, ginger also has anti-viral and anti-fever properties. I routinely recommend it at the onset of colds, to help reduce mucus and fever, and to shorten the duration of symptoms.

Though ginger is in the "Generally Recognized as Safe" category of herbs, anyone who has never before taken ginger should use caution when first consuming this herb. Contraindicated for morning sickness and pregnancy, it also is not advised for people with gallstone conditions. It may cause stomach discomfort in people with acid-producing ulcer conditions, although it's thought to help in "subacidic" gastritis.

Out near my barn sits a big wooden tub containing several forlorn stalks. They are dry and stiff, with the shriveled remnants of once green leaves hanging dejectedly from their limbs. Though sad and quite dead looking at the moment, the plant is really deceiving the unwary passersby. In several months, when the snows and icy winds are gone, and a day's hard work cries out for a rewarding cool drink, this plant will have ample fresh, aromatic leaves, able to lend flavor to my iced tea.

The plant is Mentha piperita, or peppermint, common in gardens throughout the United States and in Europe. Peppermint is a member of the Labiatae family, possibly originating in Eastern Asia. The leaves of plants within this family grow in opposite pairs; their stems are square. Peppermint grows readily in a variety of soils, though if it is to retain its flavor and scent, it is best moved every two or three years to a new garden site.

Like ginger, peppermint is on my list of herbs vital to every home herbal medicine chest. The reason: peppermint can help in:

* loss of appetite
* common cold
* cough/bronchitis
* sinusitis
* fever
* nausea and vomiting
* indigestion (from an overly rich meal)

A meta-analysis and critical review of the use of peppermint oil for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) appeared in a 1998 issue of the American Journal of Gastroenterology. The authors found that eight randomized, controlled trials collectively indicated that "peppermint oil could be efficacious for symptom relief in IBS." However, due to what they labeled "methodological flaws" in the studies done to date, the writers concluded that peppermint's value in the treatment of IBS had so far "not been established beyond a reasonable doubt." More and better studies were recommended.

Since peppermint has been used for hundreds of years in the treatment of digestive complaints, it is my suggestion that IBS sufferers not wait for the results of "more and better studies" before giving peppermint a try. The plant's active principles are volatile oils, tannins and bitters, and plant constituents acknowledged to improve digestion, reduce GI spasms, and lessen nausea. Peppermint is often gentler than other digestive herbs, such as ginger and cayenne; the aroma alone has a sedating and calming effect on many. In my experience, peppermint can reduce IBS symptoms in some, but not all, patients.

Peppermint is a safe herb, when used in the recommended fashion, at recommended dose. The only problems I have encountered with patients using whole peppermint leaf is, in some rare cases, it can cause headache; and some people simply don't like the taste.

However, caution should be exercised with the use of pure peppermint oil, which should not be taken internally. Inhaling the vapors of a few drops placed in steamy water is a good treatment for bronchitis, and migraine sufferers can get pain relief by placing a drop or two on the temples. But peppermint oil can irritate the skin, and the sensitive tissue of the eyes, nose, and mouth. Avoid contact with the oil on these areas, and wash your hands thoroughly after directly touching pure peppermint oil.
Happy New Year!

During and after the Millennial Madness, these 2 herbs will help quiet our tumultuous tummies down. Have fun with these plants, and try creatively adding them to your home health repertoire. You might be surprised at how helpful they can be!

Felter, HW. The Eclectic Materia Medica, Pharmacology and Therapeutics. Portland, Oregon: Eclectic Medical Publications, 1985.

Fischer-Rasmussen, W. et al. "Ginger Treatment of hyperemesis gravidarum." Euro J Obstet, Gyn, Reprod Biol 38 (1): 19, 1991.

Mowrey, DB, et al. "Motion sickness, ginger and psychophysics." Lancet 1: 655, 1982.

Pittler, MH, et al. "Peppermint Oil for Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Critical Review and Metaanalysis." American Journal of Gastroenterology 93 (7): 1131-1135, 1998.

Sommerville, KW, et al. "Delayed Release Peppermint Oil Capsules for the Spastic Colon Syndrome: a pharmacokinetic study." British Journal of Clinical Pharmacy 18: 638-640, 1984.

Weiss, RF. Herbal Medicine. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Press, 1988.


By J. Jamison Starbuck, JD, ND

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