Mint, the fragrant, refreshing plant, is synonymous with toothpaste. And mouthwash. And dental floss. And fresh breath in general. The garden staple came to be associated with oral health in general because it contains a compound called menthol, which made an excellent addition to teeth-cleaning products. The menthol in mint stimulates our nervous system, and our body interprets the stimuli as the tingly, cooling sensation we have all come to associate with minty freshness. In other words, it just feels clean.
Mint: The Oral-Health Powerhouse
This outstanding plant is easy to grow — in fact, the flavorful plant can be invasive and should be planted in a container to avoid aggressive spreading. And a reasonable amount of mint is a boon for our taste buds and our health.
Mint is also excellent for oral health, specifically. Clinical research has verified its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its ability to stimulate saliva production, all of which play an important role in healthy mouths. Read on to find out how:
1. Provides Nutrients
Eaten in the proper quantity, plants in the mint family offer vitamins and minerals that our bodies need. The hitch is the "proper quantity" part of the equation. Spearmint, a popular member of the mint family, is a great source of vitamin A, iron and folate. Folate, vital for supporting pregnancy, is also particularly important for oral health because of its role in healthy cell growth and function.
Mint is also a powerful antioxidant, which means it can help our bodies overcome cellular damage. But you have to eat a bunch of mint to unlock the nutritive benefits: A serving size of spearmint is 1/3 cup of the minty leaves.
2. Soothes Swelling
Mint is widely attributed with anti-inflammatory properties, thanks to its strong antioxidant action. Much like chamomile and green tea, rinsing with a mint-infused solution has been found to help ease swelling and counteract bleeding gums.
Specifically, the compound menthol, found in mint, seems to help kill bacteria in the mouth and prevent gingival bleeding. You can make a mint rinse by letting mint tea cool, then rinsing with it. This isn't recommended as a replacement for mouthwash, but to reap the benefit of mint on a daily basis, look for mouthwashes that contain menthol.
How to Enjoy It: Steep mint leaves or a mint tea bag in hot (but not boiling) water for up to 5 minutes, covered. Allow the liquid to cool completely, then swish and rinse as you would with any mouthwash.
3. Assists Digestion
Ending a meal with mint is a good habit to pick up because mint can help ease indigestion. The plant is thought to help encourage digestion by stimulating bile secretion — and, as we'll discuss more in the next section, it also boosts production of digestion-starting and tooth-protecting saliva. But it also can help address digestive complaints such as gas, bloating and mild indigestion.
According to research, mint can help relax gastrointestinal (GI) tissue, making it useful for lower GI complaints, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). For the same reason, mint can actually worsen upper GI issues, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). When mint relaxes the intestine, it eases IBS complaints. But when it relaxes the muscles that separate the stomach and the esophagus, heartburn, the central complaint for GERD-sufferers, gets worse.
How to Enjoy It: A cup of mint tea or a glass of cold mint water at the end of a meal can help people without GERD or heartburn complaints to ease bloating or indigestion.
4. Kills Germs
Mint is especially oral-health friendly because it is naturally antimicrobial. That is to say, it kills bacteria in the mouth that otherwise might contribute to tooth decay. And when we chew the leaves of mint, we aren't introducing any more bacteria-feeding sugar to our mouths, which makes it even more challenging for any surviving bacteria to thrive. Chewing mint leaves has another oral-healthy friendly effect: It stimulates saliva production.
Saliva acts as a natural mouthwash, rinsing away bacteria and any bits of food that might feed bacteria. And stimulated saliva is even better for our teeth than saliva secreted sans stimulation. Saliva produced by the stimulation of chewing herbal leaves has more calcium and bicarbonate — contributing to a higher pH, as well. The additional minerals and higher pH makes the saliva even better at 1) counteracting acid attacks (that occur as a result of consuming acidic food and drink) and 2) actively remineralizing enamel.
How to Enjoy It: Chewing 5 to 6 mint leaves twice a day can help eliminate bacteria, deprive bacteria of the sugar present in so many breath mints and stimulate saliva production.
Mint for Health
Not only is mint rich in vitamins and minerals such as oral-health friendly folate, soothing to gingival tissue, helpful to boost digestion and great at killing bacteria, but the plant shows promise in many arenas.
For example, a compound in mint called rosmarinic acid may help lower blood pressure. One species, spearmint, may help protect against oxidative stress and even brain damage. And another hybrid species of mint, peppermint, has been found to help ease nausea, especially after surgery. It can also soothe anxiety and increase our pain thresholds, as well as boost exercise performance, among other possible benefits.