Menthol, one of nature’s most effective natural pain relievers, can already be found in products throughout your medicine cabinet, purse, and even your pocket.
Fully 3,000 tons of menthol are manufactured every year for products like mouthwash, toothpaste, breath-mints, gum, lip balms and on the list goes. Yet menthol really shines when used in pain relief creams.
What is menthol?
Menthol is the powerful organic compound found in the plant family ‘genus Mentha’, more commonly known as the mint and peppermint plants. While mint and peppermint are found world-wide, menthol is extracted in crystallized form from the oils of the wild mint or corn mint plant native to India, western and central Asia, the Himalaya, Siberia and North America.
How does menthol help relieve pain?
You may know from experience rubbing on a pain relief cream with menthol instantly brings cool, soothing pain relief to aching muscles. What you may not know is how menthol actually tackles pain in three different ways all at once.
Menthol has a natural analgesic (pain reliever) attribute when used in lotion, gel, or cream form. As the lotion is applied, molecules called ligands attach themselves to receptors in your cell triggering a change. The menthol ligand attaches to the kappa Opioid receptor, which produces a numbing effect.
Another reason menthol works so well when you rub it on those aching muscles is because it triggers a process called vasodilation. Blood vessels in the area widen, increasing blood flow to the area and reducing the skin barrier function. As a result, other medicinal ingredients typically found in that lotion along with the menthol get to work faster while the increased blood flow itself bring nutrients necessary for cellular repair and carry away waste.
Finally, one of the biggest culprits behind muscle aches and pains is inflammation. The Latin word for inflammation is inflammare which means “to set on fire.” Menthol brings a wonderful cooling sensation by stimulating thermoreceptors in the skin cells which help your body recognize temperature changes. Your skin doesn’t actually change temperature. Instead, menthol causes a signal to be sent which your brain interprets as cold, relieving the uncomfortable heat of inflammation. That’s why many first aid products use menthol for cooling in place of ice.
Clearly the mint plant gives us much more than good flavoring. It provides one of nature’s most effective natural pain relievers which even speeds up healing.
Leffingwell, J.C. & R.E. Shackelford, Laevo-Menthol – Syntheses and organoleptic properties, Cosmetics and Perfumery, 89(6), 69-89, 1974
Ting, Lillian. Publication on neurons, cellular reaction, medicinal qualities of menthol. Science Creative Quarterly
Galeottia, N., Mannellia, L.D.C., Mazzantib, G., Bartolinia, A., Ghelardini, C. (2002). “Menthol: a natural analgesic compound”. Neuroscience Letters 322 (3): 145–148. doi:10.1016/S0304-3940(01)02527-7.
Braina, K.R., Greena, D.M., Dykesb, P.J., Marksb, R., Bola, T.S., The Role of Menthol in Skin Penetration from Topical Formulations of Ibuprofen 5% in vivo, Skin Pharmacol Physiol, 2006;19:17-21 
PDR for Herbal Medicines, 4th Edition, Thomson Healthcare, page 640. ISBN 978-1563636783
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