The Power of Peppermint
Originally published in the January 2017 issue of the Northstar Monthly
The vault of the sky is a deep blue black, filled with stars. Snow glows blue in the moonlight. Everything is still. Silent. A neighbor's lights twinkle red and green in the distance. The holidays are pressed into this first kiss of winter. It is an invigorating time, full of the frenzy of friends, family, and food. Snow is still magical and the bitter cold of deep winter has yet to arrive. While peppermint is entwined with Christmas via the ubiquitous candy cane, it is a medicinal ally for all of us, regardless of what holidays we do, or do not, celebrate this time of year. Versatile, common, safe, and affordable, peppermint is one of the most important herbs to stock in your kitchen pantry.
Herbs have the safest track record of any human activity (statistically safer than eating, sleeping, and driving). They are also surprisingly effective for a wide range of common health complaints that are usually treated with over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. But most importantly, to be human is to eat and drink a diversity of plants.
Our bodies need herbs and wild plants to function optimally. Just as we evolved in certain biomes (the greater environment), our organs evolved in certain internal biomes (called the xenobiome). The xenobiome is the sea of chemicals that washed our cells through eating and drinking a wide range of plants. Our livers, nervous and cardiovascular systems, and even our DNA, are effected by plant compounds. Vermont herbalist and author, Guido Mase, says that most Americans are suffering from “Plant Deficiency Syndrome”. You would not plop a koala in your living room and feed him candy bars and expect him to thrive (or even survive). And yet, in the United States, we have done a good job at stripping most of the traditional spices and herbs out of our diet and limited our palette to only a few vegetables.
Are Herbs Safe?
Yes. Most herbs are safe in most circumstances. Herbs that are deadly in low doses are generally unavailable (some you will only find in your perennial flower garden like Lily of the Valley and Monkshood). In fact, the most poisonous herb still commonly used by herbalists (Lobelia) is safe enough that I serve it to all my beginner herb students. But you can harm yourself with the improper use of herbs (including Lobelia), so it is important to be well informed. If you take pharmaceutical medication or are pregnant or breast feeding, it is particularly important to consult an herbalist or health care professional before taking herbs at medicinal doses (which are much higher than culinary doses).
In the United States, our holiday traditions are often marked by an over indulgence in food. As an Italian American, my family takes this to an extreme. Perhaps the most wondrous use for peppermint is as a post-gluttony tea. There is nothing comparable to the sweet relief of peppermint tea after binging on your Aunt Bridgette's cookies or your mama's antipast. Peppermint is a carminative (a very fancy way of saying that it relieves gas). This is no small thing as carminatives can cure wool block (which kills most domestic rabbits) and gas pain can sometimes be mistaken for the pain of a heart attack. Most culinary herbs (sage, fennel, anise, etc.) are carminative, too.
Hot peppermint tea has diaphoretic properties. This means that it helps you break a sweat and is particularly good for colds, flus and fevers. The following tea is a simple and tasty way to ward off colds and flus.
Elderberry Infusion (Tastes like Chocolate)
1 part elderberries
1 part peppermint
An herbal infusion is a really strong tea. Use 1 tablespoon of dried herb to 1 cup of water. Pour boiling water over the herbs, cover, and let steep for at least 10 to 15 minutes (the longer the steep the stronger the tea). When you see “parts” in a recipe, rather than a measurement like cups or teaspoons, it is giving you a ratio that you can use whether you want to make one cup or one gallon of infusion. So for example, if you want to make only one cup, you would use 1 tablespoon of herb, which would be 1.5 teaspoons of elderberry and 1.5 teaspoons of peppermint.
This formula is particularly good for hot and feverish colds and flus or hot and fiery personalities because it utilizes the cooling and diaphoretic powers of peppermint. It also tastes like dark chocolate and peppermint so who can argue with that?
You would drink 2 to 4 cups daily as a cold/flu preventative. If you are already sick, ideally you would drink ½ cup every hour and a half to two hours for the first day and 4 cups daily until the cold is kicked.