As a doctor of modern medicine, I have great respect for the physicians and healers who paved the way to make medicine what it is today. There’s a certain nostalgia in medicine’s history; I love reading antiquated tales of the trials and tribulations of doctors and healers; of physicians’ attempts to treat patients with garden-grown remedies whose recipes were passed down through the generations.
Now more than ever, there is a general trend moving away from modern medical treatments and toward more natural remedies. Perhaps it’s because they are seen to be safer than chemical pharmaceuticals or freer from the influence of lobbyists and big pharma. Either way, natural and herbal remedies have come once again to the forefront of medicine. But there is an overwhelming amount of information available, and often it’s conflicting — where do you head for advice?
Many naturopaths are well-studied in herbs, but they can be hard to come by in less well-served areas, and out-of-pocket costs can be prohibitive when provincial drug plans don’t foot the bill. Yet, herbs and natural remedies are beyond the comfort level of many physicians. Why? There is little herbalism training in Western medical schools, and it can also be difficult to find information about evidence-based benefits, safety and interactions.
So, as your own best advocate, it’s time to get informed. Part evidence and part anecdote; here’s the down-low on a personal favourite of mine to get you started: peppermint. I’ve covered its most effective uses, with some practical tips to help you integrate it into your modern medicine cabinet.
Please read important information on use of essential oil in children at the end of this article prior to utilizing on your wee ones.
For Headaches: Better Than Tylenol?
Peppermint’s best claim to fame is probably its use in headache and migraine relief. Research on tension headaches compared a 10% peppermint tincture to the temples and forehead in 15 minute intervals, up to one hour. Peppermint performed gallantly, in a draw with Acetaminophen (Tylenol), and with a safer overall side-effect profile. Score one for the plants. Similar evidence exists for migraine relief.
Practical tip: Use ready-made, or make your own tincture by adding 1 part peppermint oil to 9 parts pure grain alcohol, then dab across the forehead and temples. Or, mix 1-2 drops peppermint oil with a teaspoon of a carrier (eg. coconut oil) then massage across the forehead, temples and base of the neck.
Digestive Aid and Treatment for Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
Peppermint oil has also been proven to be a useful aid for stomach upset and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in both adults and children. It works by relaxing smooth muscles in the gut, thereby improving pain, bloating and flatulence. However, peppermint also relaxes the sphincter between your stomach and esophagus, which can predispose to acid reflux. So, if your upset tummy is due to heartburn or reflux, peppermint will likely worsen your symptoms. Keep this in mind!
Practical tip: For a DIY herbal tea for use as an occasional digestive aid, steep 1 tsp of dried peppermint leaves in 1 cup of boiling water for 10 minutes, then strain and cool. For more frequent use, such as treatment during IBS flares, enteric-coated (EC) capsules are used to decrease the likelihood of acid reflux symptoms. Dosing for adults is 0.2-0.4mL EC capsules three times daily as needed.
Topical Tonic for Painful Muscles and Joints
Medical students learn the “Gate Theory” of pain, which in essence tells us that pain, touch and other sensations travel along similar nerves to reach the brain. Thus, you can distract your brain from pain by allowing other sensations to travel up the nerves instead. Peppermint oil is thought to work in this fashion for muscle and joint pain by causing a distracting cooling sensation. This is why menthol, which is extracted from peppermint oil, is used in many over-the-counter (OTC) topical pain remedies.
Practical tip: Add a few drops of peppermint oil to a carrier oil and massage into affected muscles or joints. My personal east meets west favourite? Add a few drops of peppermint oil to XS Voltaren gel (this contains a topical-type Advil, so ensure it’s safe for you to take before trying) and rub in. Ahhh, relief.
Sinus and Chest Congestion Relief
Peppermint oil does not actually decrease resistance in the airways and allow you to breathe easy; but, it makes you feel like it does. Herbal magic? Placebo effect? Embrace it. Drug companies do: menthol extracted from peppermint oil is used to make OTC chest rubs and nasal sprays for congestion.
Practical tip: Check out this recipe for homemade natural vapor rub by Dr. Axe and apply liberally to the chest and back for relief of congestion.
Although peppermint oil is a natural remedy, it can still interact with prescription and OTC medications, so check with your pharmacist prior to using with other drugs. Rarely, peppermint oil can also contribute to kidney problems and toxicity can occur at higher doses. Finally, if you suffer from hiatus hernia, severe reflux or gallbladder disease, it’s not the herb for you.
Science Experiments Should be Done BY Kids, not ON Kids
Information on the use of herbal remedies for children is sparse, but I think they’re an important group to mention. Those of us who don’t love taking medications ourselves are likely to go out looking for more natural remedies for our children. So, know the risks and benefits, and when in doubt, consult a doctor trained in the use of herbs. Here are general rules on herbal remedies in children, safety, and practical tips for peppermint oil in kids.
1. Dose appropriately. Never apply essential oils directly to a child’s skin. Always use a carrier oil and dilute at a higher ratio than you would for application in adults: as low as 1 drop of essential oil to 4 tsp of carrier oil in children under the age of six.
2. For headaches in children (over three years of age), mix peppermint oil with a carrier, such as coconut oil, and massage into the temples or base of the neck. Never apply peppermint oil to the face of infants, or too close to the nose or mouth in any child, as it can cause breathing difficulty.
3. As a treatment for IBS, dosing for children (over eight years of age) is 0.1mL of peppermint oil in an EC capsule, three times daily as needed.
4. For muscle pain (or growing pains) and sinus or chest congestion, use as you would in adults, with appropriate dilution (see #1). Again, avoid use in infants, and steer clear of the mouth and nose. Never have a child inhale peppermint oil and do not add to a diffuser.
5. Keep out of reach. Kids are interested in small bottles with yummy smells, which has resulted in accidental ingestions and very sick children.
Incorporating herbal and natural remedies into your modern medical armament should be fun. Experiment (safely), embrace what works and discard what doesn’t. Share your experiences and read widely. Unleash your inner herbalist!