Herb News

Meet the Mints!
Four old-fashioned herbs that soothe jangled nerves, coughs, and more

People often ask me about the real value of some of the herbs that don't make the headlines. Maybe you've read about them in an old herb book, or you know someone who uses them. While some forgotten herbs have great reputations for being useful for lots of conditions, scientific evidence is scant or absent for many of them. That holds true for these four herbs, all members of the mint family. But does scant evidence mean that these herbs are useless? Not necessarily. Read on.
Catnip: Not for Kitty Only

Cat lovers are all familiar with catnip, the leaves and flowers of that common wayside mint, Nepeta cataria. It literally drives kitties wild, but its effect on humans is just the opposite. Incidentally, this same oddity is observed with valerian (Valeriana officinalis). It excites cats but calms humans. Structurally similar chemicals in the two plants are apparently responsible.

No human clinical trials have ever been carried out on catnip to verify its sedative action. However, pharmacological studies in baby chickens have reported such effects. Some years ago, Ron Rosenbaum, a writer for Esquire magazine, tried every natural downer he could get his hands on to compare their effects. Among the sedative herbs he tried were valerian, passionflower, hops, and catnip. His conclusion? "I'm willing to give catnip an endorsement as the only effective herbal tranquilizing ingredient that I've been able to find so far." Not very scientific-but very interesting.

Years ago, I collected a large number of recipes for folk medicines that were later published in my book Hoosier Home Remedies (Purdue University Press, 1985). I received more recommendations for catnip as a treatment for nervousness and insomnia than for any other product. That's also interesting.

Reports of catnip toxicity are probably due to very large overdoses or herb misidentification. One famous episode involved a paper published by physicians claiming that catnip had hallucinogenic properties when smoked. It turned out that the botanically challenged physicians had mistaken marijuana for catnip. An infant was also reported to look "drugged" after eating raisins soaked in catnip tea and chewing on the tea bag. However, the exact contents of the tea bag were never verified. Authorities now agree that moderate consumption of the tea is not harmful.
Horehound Eases Coughs

During the Depression, when even nickel boxes of cough drops seemed expensive, mothers could buy enough horehound candy to treat their children's coughs all winter. Since then, the cost of cough drops and candy has ballooned considerably, but horehound is still a good buy for coughs.

Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) yields a compound named marrubiin that has been found to be an effective expectorant. It stimulates bronchial secretions and breaks up the congestion associated with coughs and colds. Other activities of the herb are somewhat questionable, but German Commission E (the world's leading authority on herbs) did approve its use as a choleretic, an agent that stimulates excretion of bile from the liver. That accounts for the laxative effect of large doses (more than a heaping teaspoonful) of the herb.

Although the FDA remains unconvinced of the efficacy of horehound as an expectorant, more than 400 years of use testify otherwise. There is no question as to its safety; the FDA has approved it as a food additive. Horehound cough drops can be found in most health food stores.
Try a Hyssop Gargle for Sore Throats

The name hyssop is one of the most confusing in the herbal field. In modern usage, it does not apply to the Biblical hyssop, which has been variously identified as some 18 different species. Nor is it giant hyssop, hedge hyssop, prairie hyssop, or wild hyssop. Instead, the well-known garden hyssop is technically Hyssopus officinalis, a perennial shrub whose leaves and flowers have an odor reminiscent of camphor.

Its bitter taste has made hyssop a valued flavoring ingredient in several French liqueurs, including Benedictine and Chartreuse. Medicinally, it is used as a gargle or may be drunk (after sweetening with honey) as a tea; use 1 to 2 teaspoons of the herb per cup of water for the treatment of coughs, colds, and sore throats. Hyssop contains marrubiin, the same active expectorant found in horehound, as well as a mixture of tannins.

Hyssop is recognized as a safe food additive by the FDA, and German Commission E has noted that there are no known risks associated with use of the herb.
Don't Bet on Betony

In Roman times, it was considered a cure for 47 different diseases. In the Middle Ages, its fabled magical properties were used against evil spirits. It's betony (Stachys officinalis), the leaves, stems, and flowers of a perennial mint. What do we really know about this obscure herb?

The plant is about 15% astringent tannin, making betony tea an effective mouthwash or gargle for treating sore throat and mouth sores. It is also useful for diarrhea. Though the Russian study identifying a mixture of hypotensive (blood pressure-lowering) glycosides in betony needs to be confirmed, it could partially explain the plant's supposed use in treating anxiety and headache.

Still, all we know for sure is that betony is a useful astringent. That's pretty prosaic stuff compared to the herb's reputation as a cure-all.
Four Forgotten Mints at a Glance

common name scientific name best use

betony Stachys officinalis Astringent for sore throat,
diarrhea

catnip Nepeta cataria Nervousness, insomnia

horehound Marrubium vulgare Coughs, colds, constipation

hyssop Hyssopus officinalis Coughs, colds, sore throat

PHOTO (COLOR): Calm Down--have a little nip.

PHOTO (COLOR): Try growing catnip in your garden.

PHOTO (COLOR): Old-fashioned horehound soothes coughs.

PHOTO (COLOR): Tender throat? Bitter hyssop can help.

PHOTO (COLOR): Research may reveal betony's secrets.

PHOTO (COLOR): Varro E. Tyler

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By Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD

Adapted by PhD, ScD

Varro E. Tyler, PhD, ScD, is America's foremost expert on herbs and plant-derived medicine. He is dean emeritus of the Purdue University School of Pharmacy and Pharmacal Sciences in West Lafayette, IN, and distinguished professor emeritus of pharmacognosy. He is also the author of more than 300 scientific articles and 18 books, including a new edition of Tyler's Honest Herbal, written with herbalist Steven Foster (Haworth Herbal Press, 1999).

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