Catnip (Nepeta cataria), an aromatic member of the mint family also known as catmint, produces heart-shaped gray-green leaves and whorls of small white flowers with purple spots. Native to Europe and naturalized in many areas of North America, the catnip herb grows along roadsides and in mountainous areas. The herb is harvested in fall for use in a variety of different natural remedies. People have used this humble plant for at least 2,000 years; it’s benefits were well known to ancient Roman cooks and doctors. Although most popular today for its attractiveness to cats, catnip was considered strong medicine throughout the Middle Ages and beyond – particularly for coughs, colds, tension, insomnia and stomach upsets.
The catnip plant was introduced to American soil by the early pioneers, and the country’s first geographer listed it as a commercial crop in 1796. It was likely during this time that the plant escaped cultivation and invaded the surrounding landscape. Today, catnip herbs are most often marketed towards the pet industry because of their unusual effect on our feline friends. However, catnip also has a healing effect on humans, and it cannot be discounted as a powerful medicinal herb. In fact, the dried leaves and flowering tops of catnip were included in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia from 1842 to 1882.
Catnip Health Benefits
Although catnip has a stimulating effect on cats, it often has the opposite effect on humans. Traditionally, the herb has been used a sleep aid and is safe enough to use on children. The major component of catnip’s volatile oil, nepetalactone, has a chemical structure similar to the proven sedatives found in valerian root. Little other scientific evidence exists to prove the herb’s effectiveness for treating insomnia, but hundreds of years worth of anecdotal evidence supports its use for this purpose. It was once commonly used to calm small children and infants, and to promote sleep in nervous adults. Other catnip herb uses include:
- Treating Gas and Digestive Upsets – Catnip is a carminative, or substance that helps expel gas, and it’s also considered a gastric stimulant in humans. It aids the movement of material out of the digestive system, including food and infection, while reducing muscle tightness and inducing overall relaxation.
- Treating Hives, Measles and Chickenpox – The catnip herb is a traditional medicine in central Europe for treating and preventing hives in children. It’s also known to reduce the eruption of measles and chickenpox, as well as reduce any accompanying fever.
- Reducing Influenza Symptoms – Catnip is believed to have antimicrobial properties, which may help reduce the symptoms of the flu, especially those related to the digestive tract.
Preparation and Dosage
The catnip herb is most often taken as a tea, but it can also be ground into powder and encapsulated or taken as a liquid extract. For treating insomnia and nervousness, catnip tea is the preferred medicinal preparation. To make catnip tea, steep 1 to 2 teaspoons of the dried herb in 1 cup boiling water for 10 to 15 minutes, strain, sweeten with honey if desired and drink up to 3 cups daily. In capsule form, the dosage of catnip is typically 1 to 2 capsules up to three times per day. Because dosages may vary, however, always read the manufacturer’s instructions for the best results. As a liquid tincture, combine about ½ tsp. with 1 cup water, and drink up to three times per day.
Although comprehensive safety studies have not been performed in a clinical setting, very few side effects have been reported from taking catnip. In fact, catnip tea is generally considered safe for children and adults if taken in moderation. Pregnant women should avoid consuming catnip, however, as it may stimulate the uterus. The safety of the herb for very young children or individuals with severe kidney or liver disease has not been established. It’s always a good idea to speak with your doctor before taking any new herbal supplement to make sure it’s safe for you, especially if you currently take prescription drugs.
Catnip Tea Recipe for Fevers
Rosemary Gladstar, author of Rosemary Gladstar’s Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, recommends making a tea from the catnip herb and elder blossoms for reducing fever. The tea is gentle enough to use on children and strong enough to work on adults. The tea reportedly works well for any illness that involves stress or fever, and I suspect it would also benefit individuals suffering from digestive ailments.
- 2 parts dried catnip herb
- 2 parts dried elder blossoms
- 1 part echinacea root
- 1 part dried peppermint leaves
- Combine all ingredients and store them in an airtight container.
- To make the tea, place 1 tsp. of the mixture in a heat-proof container and cover with 1 cup boiling water. Allow the mixture to steep for 1 hour; strain. Drink ¼ to ½ cup every 30 minutes until the fever subsides.
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