As a medical ethnobotanist, I’ve dedicated my career to the study of plants used in traditional systems of medicine across the globe. I’ve collected more than 600 wild species from diverse habitats in my quest to reveal the healing power of plants through scientific research undertaken in my laboratory. When I’m not exploring the globe hunting for wild plants, I spend time in my backyard garden in the Atlanta suburbs with my children growing some of my favorite herbs for use in the kitchen and in medicine making.
Here are some of my all-time favorite herbs from the Lamiaceae family—commonly known as the mint family, though many of these are not what you would traditionally think of as mint. These medicinal mints are pharmacologically powerful and can be easily grown in a home garden or even in containers on an apartment balcony.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
In addition to being a favorite herb for our feline friends, catnip is also an important medicinal mint. In the Balkans, I learned that mothers prepare the aerial parts (leaves, stems, and flowers) as teas and to make herbal baths for children suffering from nightmares or anxiety.
This medicinal mint has also been reported to have anti-inflammatory properties in traditional medical practices and demonstrates immunomodulatory effects in laboratory studies. Whenever I’m feeling anxious, I like to prepare an infusion using a blend of catnip, lemon balm, and tulsi leaves from my garden to enjoy as tea.
[Read: “The Benefits of Catnip for Humans.”]
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Who knew that a mint could smell like lemon? In addition to a variety of potent antioxidant compounds (flavonoids, phenolic acids, and triterpenoids), the medicinal mint lemon balm produces limonene, a delightfully lemony-smelling terpene compound.
Like catnip, this herb is used in traditional medicine to relieve anxiety. In clinical trials, its effects on mood and memory have shown promising results. I enjoy slicing up the fresh leaves to mix into a fruit salad or preparing the fresh or dry leaves as an aromatic tea, either alone or with other mint herbs.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Lavender is my go-to herb for getting a good night’s sleep, whether at home or on the road. The flowers can be harvested and dried, then stored in cloth sachets to stick under a pillow at night.
A randomized clinical trial on patients with diabetes and insomnia found that inhaling the smell of lavender resulted in better and more sleep.
Indeed, lavender in different forms (oral, inhaled, cream) has been shown to improve sleep quality in numerous clinical studies. It benefited patients in palliative care and with cancer, anxiety, and other conditions.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
Peppermint has a long history of use both as a food and medicine. I use the fresh leaves as a breath freshener, whenever I have an upset stomach, and as the first ingredient in homemade herbal teas!
Laboratory studies have demonstrated that the medicinal mint peppermint exhibits antimicrobial and antioxidant properties and elicits a relaxant effect on gastrointestinal tissue.
One randomized clinical trial on peppermint extract found that it reduced symptoms of nausea and vomiting for breast cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy, while another found that inhaling peppermint essential oil reduced nausea and vomiting following open-heart surgery.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
Like many of the other culinary mints, rosemary exhibits potent antioxidant, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory effects, and has a long history of use both as a food and medicine ingredient. Rosemary is one of the hardiest and easiest to grow mints in my garden. I love to use the freshly chopped leaves in recipes with roasted meats or potatoes or as a flavoring by simply sticking a fresh stem with leaves into a jar of white vinegar to soak and use in salad dressings.
In Italy, I learned about the use of rosemary leaf baths as a skin remedy, with tonic and soothing effects. When it comes to other uses, rosemary is also fabulous for the hair. Laboratory tests found that rosemary extract acts on androgen receptors important to hair growth and promoted hair growth in mice.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
The traditional uses of thyme range from culinary applications to remedies for various conditions of the respiratory (cough, bronchitis, and asthma), digestive (stomach ulcers and gas), nervous (sedative), and cardiovascular (hypertension) systems.
Most commonly, the aerial parts (the leaves, stems, and flowers) are prepared as a tea to drink. Thyme has also proven to be an exceptional antimicrobial.
The terpene compound thymol is derived from this plant. Thymol is valuable as an ingredient in cleaning products and is included in the EPA’s list of surface disinfectants for use against a number of viruses, including rhinovirus, poliovirus, and SARS-CoV-2—the virus responsible COVID-19.
Tulsi, also known as Holy Basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum)
Tulsi is an important herbal ingredient in Ayurvedic medicine and is considered to be an adaptogen, or a medicinal ingredient that enhances the body’s resilience and ability to maintain balance in the face of many types of stressors.
There have been many laboratory studies undertaken to assess its activity as a chemopreventive (or cancer-preventing) herb with relevance to many chronic diseases. Of all of the mints, this is one of my favorite herbal tea ingredients for everyday use. It
can be blended with any of the herbs discussed above.
Did you enjoy discovering medicinal mints? Keep reading: “Balance & Boost: 4 Ayurvedic Herbs for Immunity.”