Catnip Leaf (Nepeta cataria)
The flowering perennial known commonly as catnip, catmint, or catswort actually has the scientific name of Nepeta cataria, and although most people don’t realize, this treat so commonly reserved for its sedative, calming effects on cats, also has extensive benefits for human beings. It’s native range is quite extensive, stretching across much of Europe and parts of Asia, including China, but it has since become a global export and can be found throughout the world. It is primarily potent due to a certain terpenoid, called nepetelactone, but various other chemical constituents and nutrients also affect various aspects of human health.
Nepeta cataria is a short-lived perennial, herbaceous plant that grows to be 50–100 cm (20–39 in) tall and wide, which blooms from late-spring to the autumn. In appearance, N. cataria resembles a typical member of the mint family of plants, featuring brown-green foliage with the characteristic square stem of the Lamiaceae family of plants. The coarse-toothed leaves are triangular to elliptical in shape. The small, bilabiate flowers of N. cataria are showy and fragrant, and are either pink in colour or white with fine spots of pale purple.
Catnip can be applied topically via the leaves or the essential oil, while catnip tea brewed from the leaves is also popular. The extracts and essential oils are also quite popular. The historical range of catnip uses include teas, juices, tinctures, extracts, salves, and even as an herb to be smoked, in addition to its culinary applications. The various forms of catnip have been used for generations in alternative medicine, and modern research has also shown it to be a reliable treatment for some common maladies.
Health benefits of catnip for humans include:
Stress Relief: The same quality that makes catnip so attractive to cats, namely because it makes them slightly “high” and sedates them, can also apply to humans in a more controlled way. Catnip can provide stress relief and reduce chronic anxiety as an herbal remedy when eaten, consumed in the form of a juice or tea, or when smoked as an herb. This can also help to reduce the secondary symptoms of chronic stress and strengthen your immune system.
Swallowed Emotions: A favorite use for this plant is to address the specific kind of stress and anxiety created in the body when people can’t express their emotions. This is perfect for someone who isn’t able to tell the boss or the in-law just what they’d like to say because it wouldn’t be polite, or good for the family budget.
Sleep Aid: Catnip has been used by people with insomnia or sleep restlessness for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The sedative nature helps to slow down the body’s natural cycles and induce a calm, relaxed state. People are better able to sleep through the night for undisturbed, restful sleep. Many people choose to drink a cup of catnip tea before bed to ensure a refreshing sleep.
Reduces Digestive Issues: Catnip is particularly effective in clearing up digestive issues, especially constipation, excess flatulence, cramping, and bloating. The relaxing, anti-inflammatory effects of catnip’s organic compounds can ease the knots and inflammation in your gastrointestinal system and relieve tightness and discomfort.
Colic: Catnip is a digestive herb. The scent that we get when we rub its leaves between our fingers is evidence of a high amount of volatile oils. This plant chemical is responsible for its ability to calm the stomach of an adult or a nursing child with colic.
Menstrual Cramps: For women suffering from particularly painful menstrual cramps, catnip tea is often recommended as an alternative treatment, because it can quickly relieve those cramps and stresses on the body. Furthermore, the sedative, calming effects of catnip can also soothe other symptoms of menstruation, such as mood swings and depression.
Headache Reliever: Although the exact mechanism isn’t completely understood, catnip has proven to be very effective in the treatment of headaches, even chronic migraines. Rubbing the essential oil on the affected area can work, but drinking catnip tea or rubbing a catnip leaf salve on the temples can also offer quick relief.
Fever: This is one of the most popular herbs for reducing a fever. It is part of a class of herbs called febrifuges. These herbs have the ability to cool the body by inducing a sweat. It is almost never a good idea to interrupt a fever. For the rare times that a fever has been particularly prolonged (your patient is becoming dehydrated and listless) or too high (over 102° for a typically healthy adult, around 104° for a typically healthy child) it can be helpful to have a fever tincture around.
Speeds-up Healing: In terms of colds and flus, one of the fastest ways to clean out the body is to induce sweating and get the toxins flushed from the system. This is particularly true in the case of fevers, when the lack of sweating before the fever breaks is only keeping those toxins and pathogens in the body. Catnip induces sweating, so is often recommended by alternative practitioners for treating the common cold.
Anti-inflammatory Activity: As mentioned above, the chemical constituents of catnip are particularly effective as anti-inflammatory agents. This means that catnip can be effective in the treatment of arthritis, gout, sprained muscles, aching joints, and even hemorrhoids. Topical application or normal consumption of leaves, juice, or tea can be effective for all of these situations.
Treats Skin Conditions: The natural repellent quality of catnip makes it ideal for keeping bugs away from gardens when kept as an ornamental plant, but the organic compounds in the plant make it ideal for soothing bug bites and relieving irritation on the skin. Applying salves or extracts to irritated or broken skin can speed the healing process and reduce inflammation quickly.
Complete Nutrient: Although eating catnip leaves is the least common form of consumption for human beings, catnip actually has a rather impressive collection of nutrients, from beneficial chemicals and unique organic compounds to essential acids, minerals, and vitamins that our bodies need. In other words, the plant can do a lot more than knock out a cat!
Cautions: For people suffering from liver or kidney disorders, the use of catnip may be risky, particularly if you are regularly consuming the tea. Furthermore, pregnant women should avoid catnip, as it can prematurely induce labor. Other than those specific concerns, catnip is generally considered non-allergenic and harmless to users. The high potency of the essential oil should be considered, however, and extracts should always be mixed with carrier oils.
Catnip for Cats
Catnip contains the feline attractant nepetalactone. Nepeta cataria (and some other species within the genus Nepeta) are known for their behavioral effects on the cat family, not only on domestic cats but also other species of cats. Several tests showed that leopards, cougars, servals, and lynxes often reacted strongly to catnip in a manner similar to domestic cats and while lions and tigers can react strongly as well, they do not react as consistently.
With domestic cats, N. cataria is used as a recreational substance for pet cats’ enjoyment, and catnip and catnip-laced products designed for use with domesticated cats are available to consumers. Common behaviors cats display when they sense the bruised leaves or stems of catnip are rubbing on the plant, rolling on the ground, pawing at it, licking it, and chewing it. Consuming much of the plant is followed by drooling, sleepiness, anxiety, leaping about and purring. Some growl, meow, scratch or bite at the hand holding it. The main response period after exposure is generally between five and fifteen minutes, after which olfactory fatigue usually sets in.
Cats detect nepetalactone through their olfactory epithelium, not through their vomeronasal organ. At the olfactory epithelium, the nepetalactone binds to one or more olfactory receptors.
Not all cats are affected by catnip; roughly 33% are not affected by the plant. The behavior is hereditary. An early 1962 pedigree analysis of 26 cats in a Siamese breeding colony suggested that the catnip response was caused by a Mendelian dominant gene; however, a 2011 pedigree analysis of 210 cats in 2 breeding colonies (taking into account measurement error by repeated testing) showed no evidence for Mendelian patterns of inheritance, and instead demonstrated heritabilities of h2=0.51–0.89 for catnip response behavior, indicating a polygenic liability threshold model.
Other plants that also have this effect on cats include valerian (Valeriana officinalis) root, silver vine (Actinidia polygama) and Tatarian honeysuckle (Lonicera tatarica) wood. It has been shown that many cats who do not respond to catnip do respond to one or more of these three alternatives.
Health benefits of catnip for cats include:
- The chemical compound in the plant that attracts and affects cats is called nepetalactone. It is found in the leaves and stems.
- Nepetalactone is a stimulant when sniffed by a cat, producing a “high” that is described as being similar to either marijuana or LSD. (How this was determined, I do not know.) And the effects last for about 10 minutes before wearing off and the cat going back to normal.
- When a cat eats catnip, it acts as a sedative, but when smelled, it causes the cat to go crazy. It is thought to mimic feline pheremones and trigger those receptors.
- Cats may react to the plant by rolling around, flipping over, and generally being hyperactive.
- About 50 percent of cats seem to be affected by catnip, and the behavior that results varies widely between individuals, and it is believed to be an inherited sensitivity.
- And if your cat does have the sensitivity, it will not emerge until your cat is several months old, young kittens are not affected by the chemicals in the plant.
- Cats may rub against and chew on catnip to bruise the leaves and stems, which then release more nepetalactone.
- Catnip is safe for cats. If they eat a lot, they may vomit and have diarrhea, but will return to normal given time (and no more catnip).
- It is also known to help humans, it has been used for its sedative properties in humans for centuries, having similar properties to chamomile and is a very potent mosquito repellent
- If cats are exposed to catnip frequently, they may no longer respond to it. Some people recommend that it shouldn’t be given more than once every two or three weeks to prevent habituation.
- Schultz, Gretchen; Peterson, Chris; Coats, Joel (25 May 2006). “Natural Insect Repellents: Activity against Mosquitoes and Cockroaches” (PDF). In Rimando, Agnes M.; Duke, Stephen O. Natural Products for Pest Management. ACS Symposium Series. American Chemical Society.
- “Termites Repelled by Catnip Oil”. Southern Research Station, United States Department of Agriculture – Forest Service. 26 March 2003.
- “Catnip Repels Mosquitoes More Effectively Than DEET”. www.sciencedaily.com.
- Wilson, Julia. “Catnip (Nepeta cataria) – Everything You Need to Know About Catnip! | General Cat Articles”. www.cat-world.com.au. Retrieved 6 October 2015.
- “How Does Catnip Affect Humans?”. RealClearScience.