Common Names

Catnip , Catmint, Catnep
Botanical Name
Nepeta cataria

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What is it?

The leaves of Catnip, or Catmint, a herb with a minty odour and a pleasant taste. Catnip plants (Nepeta cataria and other Nepeta species) are members of the mint family and the plant is popular in herb gardens and grows widely as a weed. If Catmint is unmolested by felines it will grow erect to nearly a meter with greenish-white serrated leaves with furry undersides.




How has it been used?

T. Bartram says 'Catnip makes cats frolicsome, amorous and full of fun’ and it has surely long been observed that a plant that has such a powerful impact on our feline friends causing them to 'roll upon, chew, and tear to bits any withered leaf until nothing remains' could not be destitute of medicinal value in humans.

In fact, Catnip has been used medicinally from Europe to China for at least 2000 years. Old herbals praised its ability to promote sweating help cure fevers and it was considered a cough and cold remedy and a herb to relieve chest congestion and phlegm.

Catnip was very popular in England in beverages up until Elizabethan times when it was largely replaced by the more stimulating herb that we now all call 'tea' (Camellia sinensis).

Equal parts of Catnip and Saffron were once used to treat smallpox and scarlet fever. The leaves were chewed to relieve toothache and the whole herb smoked to relieve bronchitis and asthma, as strange as that might sound to us today.

Catnip has long been used for childhood infections, fevers, aches and pains, bad-tempered moods, sleeplessness and digestive upsets.


Science on Catnip

~ German researchers report that the nepetalactone isomers that make Catnip so intoxicating for cats are similar to the natural sedatives in Valerian (the valepotriates), supporting Catmint's traditional use as a gentle relaxant.

~ An extract of catnip (Nepeta cataria) was studied for the effects of subminimum inhibitory concentrations on enzyme production in S. aureus 6538P and 44 strains of Staphylococcus aureus, some of which were resistant to methicillin. Concentrations equal to ½ and ¼ MIC inhibited DNAse, thermonuclease, and lipase, and reduced adherence in vitro (Nostro, A., Cannatelli, M. A., Crisafi, G., and Alonzo, V. The effect of Nepeta cataria extract on adherence and enzyme production of Staphylococcus aureus. Int.J.Antimicrob.Agents 2001;18(6):583-585)

~ Preliminary research shows that catnip has relaxant, sleep inducing effects (Harney, J. W., Barofsky, I. M., and Leary, J. D. Behavioral and toxicological studies of cyclopentanoid monoterpenes from Nepeta cataria. Lloydia. 1978;41(4):367-374) and also (Massoco, C. O., Silva, M. R., Gorniak, S. L., Spinosa, M. S., and Bernardi, M. M. Behavioral effects of acute and long-term administration of catnip (Nepeta cataria. Vet.Hum.Toxicol 1995;37(6):530-533) Jackson et al. have discussed the potential effect of catnip on the alteration of consciousness (Jackson, B. and Reed, A. Catnip and the alteration of consciousness. JAMA 2-17-1969;207(7):1349-1350)

~ Further information at the end on some science on how Catnip works on cats and the authors, titles and the 'where-and-when' published of about 20 further studies and articles on Catnip are listed in a PDF found here

Safety of Catnip

Catnip is an extremely safe herb that may be freely taken by young or old and during breastfeeding or pregnancy with no concern to toxicity or over-dosage.


Personal experiences

Catnip is a surprisingly powerful herb to work with in clinical practice. Like other members of the mint family it has this marvellous quality of being quite humble looking, and of course it is terribly common, but then it packs an enormous therapeutic punch when you give it to the right person at the right time.

Considering such historical uses as the deadly smallpox fever you can be sure that this was not always relegated to a curious herb for cats or a mild digestive tonic for children. I have seen in practice how it can produce a profuse sweat and so greatly allay the pain and misery that the body was enduring in its unaided efforts to mount a therapeutic fever.

Catnip is a lovely herb to give to children who are miserable with any kind of cold, flu or fever. It is gentle tasting, easy on the stomach and highly effective at helping to move the healing process along.

For a child, just one tsp of Catnip is strong enough to convey the medicinal benefit, best steeped in about half a cup of freshly boiled water for 10 minutes then strained and drunk. it is good to add some honey if this food is available and allowed.

For adults in the throes of a ghastly flu I would use 2 or 3 times the above dose but a key use of Catnip in my older patients has been modest doses, e.g. just 2 grams or so, in tea formulae that are taken over several weeks where I have found that a small amount can greatly help with the tea being easily absorbed by those who have a sensitive stomach.

Likewise, as a remedy in its own right, I am certain that Catnip makes a good difference to those who suffer from nervous stomachs and painful tight conditions such as indigestion, griping, or cramping pains in the soft tissues.

My number one use of Catnip over the years has been in a tonic called 'Gastritis Formula' that we use for people with heart-burn, indigestion and gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GORD). Combined with equal parts of Fennel tincture and then half that amount of Licorice root extract I have consistently had excellent results with this formula, more detail about it here

If you who are reading this have some Catnip growing or can get some of its dried herb then I warmly recommend you try drinking a cup of its tea sometime to feel how gentle and soothing it is on your whole system. Further to this, if you would like to learn more about the ancient art of pulse testing, a simple but powerful way to ask the intuitive intelligence of the body for its responses to a herb by feeling the pulse whilst giving a tiny dose by mouth, read here


Constitutional note

Much of the information here about the traditional uses of Catnip is consistent with the model of thinking whereby one may treat problem A with plant B. There is value in this approach, especially in how it helps us pass on useful knowledge to one another, but it falls short in one vital area; and that is that people are not all cut from the same cloth! Something that works brilliantly for one person may do less for another -- why is this?

The reason is that people vary in their constitutions as to whether they are either hotter or cooler and, at the same time, either dryer or damper. This interesting and useful subject is introduced further here

There is an old wisdom in treating the person first and the condition second and in this light Catnip can particularly offer its benefits when a relaxing action is needed in the 'cycle of healing', more about this here

Excerpt from Felter & Lloyd's Kings Dispensatory from 1898

Catnip is diaphoretic and carminative in warm infusion and tonic when cold. It is also antispasmodic, emmenagogue, and diuretic.

In warm infusion Catnip is used in febrile diseases as a diaphoretic, and to promote the action of other diaphoretics, as well as to allay spasmodic action and produce sleep; it is also given as a carminative and antispasmodic in the flatulent colic of children; and as an emmenagogue or uterine tonic.

It has proved decidedly beneficial in amenorrhoea and dysmenorrhoea, and has likewise been successfully employed in nervous headache, hysteria, and nervous irritability.

How does catnip work its magic on cats?

by Ramona Turner, a veterinarian specializing in feline care for 25 years

Cats, from our domestic companions to lions and tigers, are exquisitely susceptible to a volatile oil found in the stems and leaves of the catnip plant. When cats smell catnip they exhibit several behaviors common to queens in season (females in heat): They may rub their heads and body on the herb or jump, roll around, vocalize and salivate. This response lasts for about 10 minutes, after which the cat becomes temporarily immune to catnip's effects for roughly 30 minutes.

Response to catnip is hereditary; about 70 to 80 percent of cats exhibit this behavior in the plant's presence. In addition, catnip does not affect kittens until they are about six months old and begin to reach sexual maturity. Catnip is considered to be nonaddictive and completely harmless to cats

Science notes

Nepetalactone, one of catnip's volatile oils, enters the cat's nasal tissue, where it is believed to bind to protein receptors that stimulate sensory neurons. These cells, in turn, provoke a response in neurons in the olfactory bulb, which project to several brain regions including the amygdala (two neuronal clusters in the midbrain that mediate emotional responses to stimuli) and the hypothalamus, the brain's "master gland" that plays a role in regulating everything from hunger to emotions.

The amygdala integrates the information flow from the olfactory bulb cells and projects to areas governing behavior responses. The hypothalamus regulates neuroendocrine responses through the pituitary gland, creating a "sexual response." That is, the cat essentially reacts to an artificial cat pheromone.

Please understand that I cannot advise you, including on products or dosage, without seeing you in person in my clinic but for ideas on how you might find a good herbalist in your area read here

This living 'book' is my labour of love so, wherever you are, I wish you peace & good health!




© 2011 R.J.Whelan Ltd