Menthol

An organic compound, menthol has a chemical formula C10H20O, which is naturally found in mint as well as a number of other plants. Menthol is extracted from the leaves of these plants via a process known as distillation. However, these days menthol is more commonly prepared by synthesizing various artificial substances.

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In its pure form, menthol is found as a crystalline solid. However, it is usually used as peppermint oil. When taken internally, it causes a cool sensation in the mouth. On the other hand, topical application of this organic compound to the skin works in the form of a mild anesthetic. This organic compound is extensively used in various medications meant for treating cold and cough, as it has a soothing effect. In addition, menthol is used in the form of a flavoring agent in chewing gum, candy, cigarettes and various medical products.

This organic compound is synthesized by mint plants in their leaves, perhaps in the form of a natural insecticide or maybe to dissuade predators, several of which apparently loathe the smell of menthol. In 1771, menthol was isolated for the first time from peppermint leaves in Europe. However, people in Japan have been using this organic compound much before this. Menthol for industrial purposes can be obtained from the leaves of the mint plant through a process known as steam distillation. However, these days most of the menthol is produced synthetically via a more intricate, but cost-effective process. Amateurs who are enthusiastic about essential oils can also obtain impure peppermint oil from the mint plant leaves by using vodka or grain alcohol and then separate the oil by freezing. However, this impure oil needs to be processed further to isolate the unadulterated organic compound.

While menthol remains in a solid form when stored at room temperature, it can melt when put in warm water and quickly produces a vapour having a potent smell. Menthol is somewhat soluble in water, but easily dissolves in several organic solvents, counting alcohol. While menthol is not very toxic, it causes several notable effects on our body. These effects have led the use of menthol for various therapeutic purposes.

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It has been found that menthol invigorates the cold receptors of our body, thereby producing a cooling feeling. A similar sensation is experienced when menthol is applied topically to the skin or inhaled in the form of a vapour. Similar to capsaicin, the chemical present in chili peppers and invigorates the heat receptors, menthol actually does not bring about any change in the temperature of the skin. It just makes us feel cold. Menthol possesses anesthetic properties which are possibly owing to the fact that this organic compound attaches itself to kappa opioid receptors, which are basically a type of cells present in our brain, neurons and spinal cord. They have a number of functions, including helping to regulate the sensitivity to pain.

This organic compound also possesses the property to work as a counter-irritant. In other words, when we experience pain anywhere in the body, menthol causes a mild irritation or inflammation in some other part of our body to divert our attention from the pain. At the same time, menthol also works to enhance the penetration of various medications applied topically to the skin. Use of menthol also holds back the impulse to cough, thereby making us feel that the nasal passages are more open, especially in people who suffer from congestion of the nasal passages. However, apparently menthol does not help to actually decongest the nasal passages.

Health benefits

Menthol produces a cooling sensation, in addition to possessing anesthetic as well as counter-irritant properties. Consequently, this organic compound is used in several products meant for alleviating skin irritation, nasal congestion and/ or sore throats. In addition, menthol can also be employed for treating muscle aches, fever and sunburn. In fact, majority of the products that are meant to alleviate these conditions contain a very small quantity of menthol. On the other hand, you can use pure menthol crystals in warm water to provide relief from symptoms related to cold. In such cases, the vapour released by the menthol water is inhaled. However, this organic compound should be used very cautiously, because inhaling too much of menthol may result in pain inside the nasal passages.

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Menthol is occasionally used in traditional Asian medicine for treating nausea, headache, indigestion, diarrhea, sore throat and cold. When this organic compound is employed in the form of a supplement for therapeutic purposes, it is usually taken as peppermint oil. Several products like cough drops, toothpaste, mouthwash, lip balm and chewing gum generally contain menthol.

Occasionally, menthol is added to cigarettes with a view to enhance their flavour and also offer a cool sensation. There is sufficient evidence that shows that people smoking cigarettes containing menthol are prone to suffer from various acute health disorders. However, generally people believe that these ailments/ health conditions are not a direct result of inhaling the organic compound. Many people argue that flavoring cigarettes actually help to make them more pleasant for people, especially the younger generation. Findings of a study undertaken in 2012 hinted that young people smoking menthol cigarette are 80 percent more at risk of becoming addicted. At the same time, it is likely that people smoking menthol cigarettes may inhale the smoke further deeply and also keep the smoke in their lungs for relatively longer periods. As a result, it may result in absorption of more amounts of toxic as well as carcinogenic substances in the lungs.

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In recent times, menthol is also being used in the form of a natural pesticide. Menthol is an active constituent of a number of products that are employed to infestation of mite on honeybees. Provided this organic compound is used in the appropriate concentration, it will kill the mites effectively, but not cause any harm to the honeybees.

Menthol is also used for treating irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This organic compound is very popular because it possesses the aptitude to prevent as well as treat gas and bloating. In addition, menthol also helps to unwind the intestinal muscles, thereby preventing spasms.

Besides the above mentioned properties, menthol is also effective in alleviating pain and inflammation. At the same time, refreshing aroma of menthol helps to provide relief from symptoms related to nausea. This organic compound also helps to neutralize heartburn, nausea and stomach cramps.

Menthol is also widely employed to treat conditions like flu, colds and bronchitis. This organic compound possesses expectorant properties, which entails thinning as well as loosening mucus congestion. Many people also take this organic compound orally to cure colds, bronchitis, asthma, flu and many other respiratory conditions.

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Sometimes menthol is also applied topically with a view to alleviate itching and inflammation cause by contact dermatitis as well as hives. Menthol is used in some medicines meant for treating sunburns, since it offers a cooling sensation. Men also use this organic compound for relief from razor burns. Since menthol possesses local anesthetic properties, it can also be employed to numb pain.

Add menthol to a bowl of hot water and inhale the steam to refresh your mind as well as alleviate mental exhaustion. Menthol has a calming and cooling effect, which proves to be a boon for people suffering from migraines.

Side effects and cautions

Although menthol offers many health benefits, it is highly warned that you should never apply it or any product containing menthol to the sensitive skin parts. As these products have a cooling effect, it will become intense and subsequently be uncomforting. At the same time, when you select cough drops to help suppressing cough you should be careful to avoid products that contain excessive sugars, as such products may be detrimental for your overall health. Here is a word of caution: never swallow undiluted or pure menthol, because it may result in dangerous overdose.

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