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Catnip is used in fevers to promote perspiration and lower the temperature

Catnip

Nepeta cataria Lamiaceae

A richly aromatic plant, not just for cats. Catnip has a long history of use as medicine for humans.

  • How does it feel?

    Catnip should ideally be harvested when in bud and full flower and dried in a place with good airflow, out of direct sun.

    The odour of the leaves and stems is almost camphor-like with hints of thyme, sage and mint. It is redolent of other members of the Lamiaceae family such as thyme, sage or pennyroyal. The taste of the fresh plant is aromatic, slightly bitter and astringent.

    When dried it has a pleasant fresh, slightly sweet smell, the taste is aromatic and slightly bitter.

  • What can I use it for?

    It is very useful to take as a tea when with cold or fever. It induces perspiration and helps cool an overheated body. It is said to have gentle sedative activity and this may be an additional reason for using, as it can help to calm and bring about sleep when with fever. It has a long tradition of use as a child’s remedy for colds, fever and colic.  It is a great remedy for painful wind and spasm in the digestive tract, helping as it does to dispel and prevent further build-up of gas.

  • Into the heart of Catnip

    Catnip has primarily been used as a fever remedy, but also to relax and decongest in coughs and colds. The smooth muscle relaxant properties of the herb have been used to good effect for colicky conditions of the gut and these along with the tannins make it useful in cases of irritable bowel with a tendency to loose stools. It has been used as a poultice for wounds, bruises and haemorrhoids.

    Some of these uses are now evidenced by pharmacological studies on a number of the plant’s secondary metabolites and have shown antifungal, antioxidant, antibacterial, insecticidal, anti-inflammatory and spasmolytic properties.

  • Traditional uses

    Catnip has been used as a remedy for coughs, sore throats, fevers, headaches, pneumonia, diarrhoea, asthma, asthma, toothache, nervousness, colic and topically to help heal wounds.

    It is often taken in the form of a hot infusion to promote sweating and has a long history of use as a fever remedy, especially where there is a chill – bringing warmth and comfort to cold aches and cramps. Taken hot it can also help to relieve nasal congestion.

    Like some other members of the Lamiaceae family it is carminative, meaning it prevents the formation of gas in the digestive tract or assists in its release. It relaxes smooth muscle (as in the gut), and relieves the discomfort caused by excessive wind and bloating. It is the volatile oil component of the plant that has this effect. It has been used is asthma and bronchitis and as a nervine to calm.

    Before the arrival of tea from China as a beverage, catnip tea was taken as people’s daily cuppa by many folk in Britain.

    Despite its use to calm the nervous system, especially when feverish, it was said to be stimulating by some sources and Grieve states in A Modern Herbal that the root when chewed was said to make the most gentle person fierce and quarrelsome (5). The root is not used these days and is likely to contain constituents other than those in the aerial parts.

  • What practitioners say

    Respiratory system: Catnip is used to good effect in feverish conditions, inducing perspiration and lowering the temperature. It is also used to ease the symptoms of the common cold, often combined with herbs such as yarrow, elderflower and boneset for this purpose.

    Digestive system: It is an effective spasmolytic, often given to children for colic. It eases flatulence, and indigestion due to its relaxant properties and can be used to quell diarrhoea due to the gentle tannins within.

    Nervous system: It has been used in excitability and insomnia, palpitations and ‘nervous indigestion’ to good effect, for the latter it is great in combination with German chamomile and Lemon balm. It is a good remedy for a restless child with fever, gently calming the nervous system and managing the fever.

    Sensory: To have a clump growing in a garden or window box adds another dimension to Catnip’s healing properties. With its pleasant aroma and ability to attract bees and other pollinators it provides visual, tactile and olfactory pleasure. Like other members of the mint family such as lemon balm, lavender and rosemary, the foliage and flowers when brushed by or when rubbed between the fingers release pleasant aromas, and can act as a soothing balm for a troubled mind.

    Skin: It has been used topically in ointments for haemorrhoids and for cuts by crushing and moistening fresh catnip leaves and applying to the wound as a poultice.

    The essential oils from catnip have been studied in isolation for their effectiveness against bacterial and fungal infection and as an insect repellent to prevent mosquito-borne illnesses such as malaria, dengue fever, Zika virus infection and yellow fever.

  • Research

    In terms of the medicinal effects of the whole plant, there is much documented in the way of traditional use, however little has been carried out in the way of qualitative research.

    The essential oils have been studied in isolation and have been shown to possess antimicrobial effects (6). This activity is being explored within the food industry as potential for natural preservative agents (7) and also against causes of infection, including oral, where good antimicrobial effects have been demonstrated against candida species including C. albicans and certain species of Streptococcus and Staphylococcus (8).

    The polyphenols within Catnip have been assessed for their antioxidant capability and found to demonstrate free radical scavenging effects (4).

    Mosquito repellent: There is evidence that the nepetalactones within the plant’s essential oils are comparable to DEET in repelling the mosquitoes that transmit the Zika and Dengue virus, however the preparation needed to be reapplied after 2 hours (9).

  • Did you know?

    The plant produces certain compounds (amongst these the nepetalactone volatile oils) in order to deter it from being eaten. It is said to repel some insects such as flea beetles, weevils and cockroaches so could be put to good use planted amongst vegetables. It also deters mice and rats.

    Many aphids also produce nepetalactones, using them as sex pheromones, so Catnip may attract aphid predators such as the Lacewing fly in order to predate on the aphids that are attracted by the plant’s heady aroma.

    Most cats adore it of course but lions, leopards and jaguars are also susceptible to the nepetalactones within Catnip. The smell triggers a variety of behavioural responses that can range from mellowness, head-rubbing, becoming vocal and rolling around upon or eating the herb to outright aggression. This susceptibility is a hereditary trait, with around 70% of cats expressing this behaviour. It wears off after about 10 minutes, the cat becoming temporarily immune to its effects for around 30 minutes.

Additional information

  • Safety

    Catnip is generally considered to be a very safe remedy when given in therapeutic doses, often being given to children with feverish colds.

    Some traditional sources say Catnip was used as a mild emmenagogue, (a herb used to stimulate blood flow to the uterus and to bring on a delayed period due to causes other than pregnancy), so there is a theoretical risk with high doses during the first two trimesters of pregnancy.

  • Preparation

    • Tincture
    • Infusion of dried herb
  • Dosage

    Like all febrifuges it is best administered as a hot infusion for feverish colds and ‘flu with the dose at 5-10g of dried herb per dose as an infusion, taken three cups daily.

    2-5 ml per day of a 1:3 strength tincture.

  • Plant parts used

    The whole aerial parts are used, best harvested both when in bud and flowering.

  • Constituents

    • Volatile oils: including the nepetalactones, thymol, geraniol, alpha and beta pinene, beta caryophyllene (2, 3)
    • Phenolic acids including rosmarinic acid
    • Flavonoids including luteolin and apigenin
    • Tannins
  • Traditional energetics

    • Rasa (taste) bitter, aromatic
    • Virya (action) cooling
    • Vipaka (post-digestive effect) sweet
    • Guna (quality) cold, dry and heavy
    • Dosha effect: steadies vata and reduces excessive pitta and kapha
    • Dhatu (tissue) plasma, blood
    • Srotas (channels) digestive, nervous
  • Habitat

    Native to the Middle East, Central Asia, southern and eastern Europe, it has naturalised in many other places.

  • Sustainability

    According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Plants Status this plant’s population has been assessed in Europe is currently classed as ‘least concern’ as it is widespread with stable populations. However, it also states in the assessment details that the species is classed as threatened on various national red lists (12).

    Habitat loss and over harvesting from the wild are two of the biggest threats faced by medicinal plant species. There are an increasing number of well known herbal medicines at risk of extinction. We must therefore ensure that we source our medicines with sustainability in mind. 

    The herb supplement industry is growing at a rapid rate and until recent years a vast majority of medicinal plant produce in global trade was of unknown origin. There are some very real and urgent issues surrounding sustainability in the herb industry. These include environmental factors that affect the medicinal viability of herbs, the safety of the habitats that they are taken from, as well as the welfare of workers in the trade.

    The botanical supply chain efforts for improved visibility (transparency and traceability) into verifiably sustainable production sites around the world is now certificated through the emergence of credible international voluntary sustainability standards (VSS). Read our article on sustainable sourcing of herbs to learn more about what to look for and questions to ask suppliers about sustainability.

  • Quality control

    Herbal Medicines are often extremely safe to take, however it is important to buy herbal medicines from a reputed supplier. Sometimes herbs bought from unreputable sources are contaminated, adulterated or substituted with incorrect plant matter.

    Some important markers for quality to look for would be to look for certified organic labelling, ensuring that the correct scientific/botanical name is used and that suppliers can provide information about the source of ingredients used in the product.

    A supplier should be able to tell you where the herbs have come from. There is more space for contamination and adulteration when the supply chain is unknown. 

  • How to grow

    Catnip is easy to grow. It prefers to be located in a full sun, requiring free-draining soil. It can also be planted at the edge of a border, in a raised bed, or a large pot

    • Seed should be sown from spring to autumn from spring to late summer. Sprinkle thinly in a small pot or tray of moist seed compost, lightly covering the seeds with compost. 
    • Once seedlings are large enough to handle they can be transplanted into individual 9cm pots and grow on without heat until they are large enough to plant out.
    • Established clumps that are at least 3 years old can be divided, whilst dormant, in autumn or early spring.
    • Cut back dead stems during the dormant period and before new shoots start to appear in mid-spring.
    • Once established, catnip is tolerant to drought.
  • References

    1. Hawke, R. Plant Evaluation Manager. (2007) A Comparative study of Cultivated Catmints. Chicago Botanic Garden. Issue 29.
    2. Morteza-Semnani K and Saeedi M (2004): Essential oils composition of Nepeta cataria L. and Nepeta crassifolia Boiss. and Buhse from Iran. Journal of essential oil bearing plants. (7):120-124
    3. Kilic, O et al (2013) Essential oil compounds of three Nepeta L. Taxa from Turkey and their chemotaxonomy. Asian J. Chem. 25(14), 8181
    4. Reichert, W et al. (2018) Phytochemical analysis and anti-inflammatory activity of Nepeta cataria accessions. Journal of Medicinally Active Plants 7, (1):19-27.
    5. Grieve M (1931) A Modern Herbal. Tiger press. Ed 1992. ISBN 1-83-5501-249-9
    6. Adiguzel, A et al. (2009) Antimicrobial and antioxidant activity of the essential oil and methanol extract of Nepeta cataria. Polish journal of Microbiology. Vol 58: 69-76
    7. Zomorodian, K et al (2012) Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activities of Essential Oils from Nepeta cataria L. against Common Causes of Food-Borne Infections. International Scholarly Research Notices, vol 2012. Article ID 591953, 6 pages. https://doi.org/10.5402/2012/591953
    8. Zomorodian, K et al (2013) Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activities of Essential Oil of Nepeta cataria L. against Common Causes of Oral Infections. Journal of Dentistry of Tehran University Medical Sciences. 10(4): 329-337
    9. Reichert, W et al. (2019). Repellency Assessment of Nepeta cataria Essential Oils and Isolated Nepetalactones on Aedes aegypti. Sc
    10. Sharma, A etc al. (2019). Pharmacology and Toxicology or Nepeta cataria (Catmint) species of genus Nepeta. A Review. Plant and Human Health, Vol 3: Pharmacology and Therapeutic Uses (pp.285-299) Springer International Publishing.
    11. Hill JO, et al. (1976). “Species-characteristic responses to catnip by undomesticated felids”. Journal of Chemical Ecology.2 (2): 239– 253. doi:10.1007/BF00987747.Khela, S. (2013). IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Nepeta cataria. [online] IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Available at: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/203251/2762586 [Accessed 30 Nov. 2022].
Aromatic
An ‘aromatic’ remedy, high in volatile essential oils, was most often associated with calming and sometimes ‘warming’ the digestion. Most kitchen spices and herbs have this quality: they were used both as flavouring and to ease the digestion of sometimes challenging pre-industrial foods. Many aromatics are classed as ‘carminatives’ and are used to reduce colic, bloating and agitated digestion. They also often feature in respiratory remedies for colds, chest and other airway infections. They are also classic calming inhalants and massage oils, and are the basis of aromatherapy for their mental benefits.
Astringent taste
The puckering taste you get with many plants (the most familiar is black tea after being stewed too long, or some red wines) is produced by complex polyphenols such as tannins. Tannins are used in concentrated form (eg from oak bark) to make leather from animal skins. The process of ‘tanning’ involves the coagulation of relatively fluid proteins in living tissues into tight clotted fibres (similar to the process of boiling an egg). Tannins in effect turn exposed surfaces on the body into leather. In the case of the lining of mouth and upper digestive tract this is only temporary as new mucosa are replenished, but in the meantime can calm inflamed or irritated surfaces. In the case of open wounds tannins can be a life-saver – when strong (as in the bark of broadleaved trees) they can seal a damaged surface. One group of tannins, the reddish-brown ‘condensed tannins’ are procyanidins, which can reduce inflammation and oxidative damage.
Bitter
Bitters are a very complex group of phytochemicals that stimulate the bitter receptors in the mouth. They were some of the most valuable remedies in ancient medicine. They were experienced as stimulating appetite and switching on a wide range of key digestive functions, including increasing bile clearance from the liver (as bile is a key factor in bowel health this can be translated into improving bowel functions and the microbiome). Many of these reputations are being supported by new research on the role of bitter receptors in the mouth and elsewhere round the body. Bitters were also seen as ‘cooling’ reducing the intensity of some fevers and inflammatory diseases.
Blue-purple colouring
Any fruits with a blue-purple colouring contain high levels of the polyphenols known as anthocyanins. These work 1) on the walls of small blood vessels, helping to maintain capillary structure to reduce a key stage in inflammation, and improving the microcirculation to the tissues; 2) to improve retinal function and vision; 3) to support connective tissue repair around the body.
Cooling
Traditional ‘cold’ or cooling’ remedies often contain bitter phytonutrients such a iridoids (gentian), sesiquterpenes (chamomile), anthraquinones (rhubarb root), mucilages (marshmallow), some alkaloids and flavonoids. They tend to influence the digestive system, liver and kidneys. Cooling herbs do just that; they diffuse, drain and clear heat from areas of inflammation, redness and irritation. Sweet, bitter and astringent herbs tend to be cooling.
Hot
Traditional ‘hot’ or ‘heating’ remedies, often containing spice ingredients like capsaicin, the gingerols (ginger), piperine (black or long pepper), curcumin (turmeric) or the sulfurous isothiocyanates from mustard, horseradich or wasabi, generate warmth when taken. In modern times this might translate as thermogenic and circulatory stimulant effects. There is evidence of improved tissue blood flow with such remedies: this would lead to a reduction in build-up of metabolites and tissue damage. Heating remedies were used to counter the impact of cold, reducing any symptoms made worse in the cold. .
Mucilaginous
Mucilages are complex carbohydrate based plant constituents with a slimy or ‘unctuous’ feel especially when chewed or macerated in water. Their effect is due simply to their physical coating exposed surfaces. From prehistory they were most often used as wound remedies for their soothing and healing effects on damaged tissues. Nowadays they are used more for these effects on the digestive lining, from the throat to the stomach, where they can relieve irritation and inflammation such as pharyngitis and gastritis. Some of the prominent mucilaginous remedies like slippery elm, aloe vera and the seaweeds can be used as physical buffers to reduce the harm and pain caused by reflux of excess stomach acid. Mucilages are also widely used to reduce dry coughing. Here the effect seems to be by reflex through embryonic nerve connections: reduced signals from the upper digestive wall appear to translate as reduced activity of airway muscles and increased activity of airway mucus cells. Some seed mucilages, such as in psyllium seed, flaxseed (linseed) or guar bean survive digestion to provide bulking laxative effects in the bowel. These can also reduce rate of absorption of sugar and cholesterol. .
New-mown hay aroma
The familiar country odour of haymaking, of drying grass and other plants, is largely produced by coumarins (originally isolated from tonka beans – in French coumarou) and widely used in perfumery. They are chemically categorised as benzopyrone lactones and are important phytochemicals, with strong antioxidant activity in the laboratory and likely effects in modulating inflammation. They were most often associated with the calming effect linked to their use in stuffing mattresses and pillows and plants, high In coumarins were commonly used for these properties.
Resinous
Resins are most familiar as tacky discharges from pine trees (and as the substance in amber, and rosin for violin bows). They were most valued however as the basis of ancient commodities like frankincense and myrrh (two of the three gifts of the Three Wise Men to the baby Jesus) and getting access to their source was one benefit to Solomon for marrying the Queen of Sheba (now Ethiopia). Resins were the original antiseptic remedies, ground and applied as powders or pastes to wounds or inflamed tissues, and were also used for mummification. With alcohol distillation it was found that they could be dissolved in 90% alcohol and in this form they remain a most powerful mouthwash and gargle, for infected sore throats and gum disease. They never attracted much early research interest because they permanently coat expensive glassware! For use in the mouth, gums and throat hey are best combined with concentrated licorice extracts to keep the resins in suspension and add extra soothing properties. It appears that they work both as local antiseptics and by stimulating white blood cell activity under the mucosal surface. They feel extremely effective!
Salty
The salty flavour is immediately distinctive. A grain dropped onto the tongue is instantly moistening and a sprinkle on food enkindles digestion. This easily recognisable flavour has its receptors right at the front of the tongue. The salty flavor creates moisture and heat, a sinking and heavy effect which is very grounding for the nervous system and encourages stability. People who are solid and reliable become known as ‘the salt of the earth'.
Sharpness
The sharp taste of some fruits, and almost all unripe fruits, as well as vinegar and fermented foods, is produced by weak acids (the taste is generated by H+ ions from acids stimulating the sour taste buds). Sour taste buds are hard-wired to generate immediate reflex responses elsewhere in the body. Anyone who likes the refreshing taste of lemon or other citrus in the morning will know that one reflex effect is increased saliva production. Other effects are subjective rather than confirmed by research but there is a consistent view that they include increased digestive activity and contraction of the gallbladder.
Sweet
In the days when most people never tasted sugar, ‘sweetness’ was associated with the taste of basic foods: that of cooked vegetables, cereals and meat. In other words sweet was the quality of nourishment, and ‘tonic’ remedies. Describing a remedy as sweet generally led to that remedy being used in convalescence or recovery from illness. Interestingly, the plant constituents most often found in classic tonics like licorice, ginseng are plant steroids including saponins, which also have a sweet taste.

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