Catnip Essential Oil

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One of the most versatile natural pesticides for the household is the catnip essential oil. It is effective at repelling mosquitoes, fleas, ticks and cockroaches. Catnip oil, just like the catnip plant, is very much liked by most cats. They display signs of affection towards a catnip plant and feel relaxed upon smelling it. They wag their tail and roll about in presence of catnip oil too. Catnip oil acts as a stimulant and an antispasmodic for humans, besides its other therapeutic effects.



Source

Catnip is a flowering plant which resembles mint. It has leaves that look like mint, a stalk that resembles basil with small and cute white flowers on the top of its stalks. Its biological name is Nepeta cataria. While it is native to the lower latitudes of southern Europe and Middle East, it is now widely grown in higher latitudes of northern Europe and North America. Catnip was known in the medieval times and it was used as a nervous tonic to calm anxiety and even serious mental issues like insanity. Its tea is popular as an herbal remedy to relieve colic pain in infants. Women take the tea to bring about a period.

It is aptly called catmint because cats love to smell it and be around it. After inhaling catnip, they tend to go crazy. They roll on the ground, play with the plant and then tend to go jumping about. After some playing around for fifteen minutes or so, they go to sleep.

Essential oil of catnip is created by steam distillation of its volatile constituents. This is much different from the oil prepared by infusing it in any vegetable oil. Essential oil of catnip is one of the most difficult oils to extract because of the peculiar arrangement of volatile compounds in it. A thorough extraction requires precise knowledge of chemistry and a sophisticated setup. Home based distillation units do not produce the complete array of constituents to be considered pure catnip essential oil.



Color and Aroma

Catnip oil is pale yellow in color with an orange shade at the meniscus. Its aroma is mostly herbaceous, kind of like grass. There is a mild hint of woody and minty tones. It is unpleasant to smell for most humans, but cats absolutely adore it.

Properties

Most of what we know about catnip essential oil’s therapeutic effects is based on the anecdotal evidence and experience of aromatherapists. There is not much research to corroborate these effects. Some of the benefits of catnip oil are found to be similar to the herb because the principal agent of its activity is a volatile compound known as nepetalactone.

  • Diaphoretic – Catnip and its essential oil induce sweating and help to cool the body.
  • Astringent – It tends to dry out the skin and clog pores.
  • Carminative – It helps in release of intestinal gas when its aroma is inhaled. Passing out excess intestinal gas subsides a bloated belly and provides relief from discomfort. Catnip herb also exerts a similar effect. Catnip leaves crushed or finely chopped are put in grain alcohol to create a tonic that is used to relieve stomach troubles in adults.
  • Antispasmodic and myorelaxant – In aromatherapy, it is used to relieve colic. It also helps to relieve pain in asthma and coughing by relaxing the muscles that induce constriction of respiratory passage and cough reflex.
  • Sedative – It exerts a mild sleep-inducing effect on humans, but the effect is visible prominently among cats.
  • Analgesic – The essential oil can be made use of to extract pain relieving chemicals for formulation of new medicine.
  • Nervine – Catnip is used as an herbal remedy to calm ruffled nerves. Its essential oil inherits this property.
  • Antibacterial – Catnip essential oil exerts powerful killing action against food borne bacteria which makes it promising for use in preservation of processed food products. [1]
  • Antifungal – it selectively kills a few species of fungi. Most notable is its action against candida albicans, which is a fungus that is responsible for oral and vaginal thrush. [2]
  • Insect repellant – It has been proven by studies to drive out certain kinds of mosquitoes, ticks and flies. Since insects are vectors for several tropical diseases, using essential oils can reduce the chances of catching such infections. [3]
  • Insect attractant – It exerts exactly the opposite effect on certain other insects.

What is peculiar to note is that catnip essential oil has poor antioxidant activity in comparison to other commonly used essential oils. Since essential oils of plants and spices are highly concentrated, they usually have very powerful antioxidant potentials. But surprisingly, this is not the case with catnip essential oil.

Health Benefits and Uses

Aromatherapy

Catnip essential oil holds benefits for us humans too. We can make the best use of catnip essential oil by spreading it in the air using a diffuser. Its aroma possesses strength only for a few hours after diffusion is done. Catnip aroma calms the nerves and alleviates symptoms of anxiety. Mild perspiration may occur, leading to cooling sensations. Digestive problems like bloating and distension produced by intestinal gas are relieved as excess gas is slowly expelled.

It blends well with citrus essential oils like lemon, orange and grapefruit. They add a zesty quality to the blend, which enriches the prevalent herbaceous and minty aroma of catnip. Another essential oil that blends beautifully with catnip is that of rosemary. Some people like to blend it with lavender and chamomile as an aid for sleep.

Catnip Essential Oil and Cats

Cats have a strong sense of smell. If pure catnip essential oil is being diffused, they can easily detect its powerful aroma. This smell is much stronger than catnip infused toys or even the actual herb. A single drop of essential oil requires extraction from many pounds of leaves and fresh flowers of catnip herb. Cats are mostly reticent, somewhat distant and they always try to maintain their elite feline status. But when catnip oil is being diffused, they become active and love to be around the diffuser. They start to sniff and display signs of insensibility, rolling on the ground, or rubbing their cheeks.

One should not use undiluted essential oils directly on cats at all costs. Many essential oils are highly toxic to our feline buddies, because their bodies cannot process the volatile compounds in these essential oils. You can find a list of plants that are particularly toxic to cats on this page. [4] A detailed list of essential oils toxic to a cat is mentioned here. [11] Catnip essential oil is not among these. But, as with any essential oil, high doses can be harmful to cats, more so than humans because of two reasons. The bodies of cats are not adapted to process many of the volatile compounds. Secondly, they have smaller masses than us. A dosage that is safe for us may be bordering on the dangerous for cats.



It is advised to use catnip essential oil sparingly in presence of cats. One should keep the room well ventilated and always provide the cat a clear access to leave. Care should be taken that they do not go near the diffuser to smell directly from the vent because concentration is higher in its vicinity. Catnip essential oil should not be diffused at high strengths for long periods at a time.

A study was conducted at Oklahoma State University where they studied the response of cats to small doses of nepetalactone, the principal volatile in catnip essential oil. They found that cats are able to tolerate small doses well. [10] But catnip essential oil contains many more volatile compounds other than nepetalactones. Therefore, one must exercise caution.

Note – Do not use water or witch hazel for diluting catnip essential oil for a cat. Witch hazel is one of the things that cats don’t tolerate well and it may even be poisonous according to the San Francisco SPCA. They have a list of all the common plants and oils that should not be used on cats, which is incredibly helpful to know. [4]

Natural Insect Repellent

Catnip essential oil demonstrated repelling action against a few species of mosquito, namely the African malaria mosquito and the Southern house mosquito. It also drives away brown ear ticks. It also drives out the Aedes aegypti mosquito more effectively than DEET.  It can be combined with versatile natural insect repelling essential oils wherein it complements their action. We know that many insect repellants available on the market use toxic chemicals. It is safer to use natural substances that act as effective repellants. We can use essential oils to formulate such a mixture for application on our skin. Here is presented a formulation for a Natural Homemade Oil Based Insect Repellent Cream.

Ingredients

Essential oils of

  • Citronella (Cymbopogan nardus)– 2 drops
  • Lemon eucalyptus (Corymbia citriodoa) – 2 drops
  • Lemongrass essential oil (Cymbopogan citratus) – 1 drop
  • Catnip essential oil (Nepeta cataria) – 1 drop
  • Thyme essential oil (Thymus vulgaris) – 2 drops
  • Geranium oil (Pelargonium graveolens) – 6 drops
  • Peppermint oil (Mentha piperita) – 2 drops
  • Vanilla oil (flat leaved vanilla, that is Vanilla planifolia) – 6 drops

Base oil for the repellent should be coconut oil as it spreads nicely on our skin but doesn’t dry out very quickly. Apart from the cocktail of essential oils being used, a superpower ingredient is vanilla oil. It is nothing but vanilla extract prepared in a carrier oil. This special ingredient has been proven in studies to increase the repellant action of essential oils from about 2 hours to a remarkable 6 to 8 hours. This is incredibly beneficial as one would not have to apply the natural insect repellent every now and again. [5]

How to make?

Take a broad and thick pan and heat water in it. Take about half cup of coconut oil (should be about 100 grams) and put it in a glass bottle. Place this bottle over heated water. Solid coconut oil should melt if it is not already. Put out the flame when oil is melted. Now add the above-mentioned number of drops to coconut oil while stirring it with a steel stirrer. Do not use aluminum utensil to stir the oil. Stirring ensures essential oils are properly dissolved into the carrier. Then the coconut oil should be allowed to cool itself back to room temperature. This essential oil-based formulation becomes a natural insect repellent against many species of mosquitoes, household flies, fleas, ticks and bugs, like cockroaches. It should be applied only onto the exposed area of skin during those hours when you are going outside. A word of caution here is that essential oil-based formulation should not be used for children and also not for pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Anti-Termite treatment for Wood Furniture

Termites are a massive nuisance, especially in tropical and sub-tropical climates. They are so adept at chewing up wood and turning it into dust. One can use essential oils to drive away termites and keep them away for long periods. Adding a few drops of essential oils of vetiver, clove and catnip to linseed oil makes a powerful termite repellent. This oil should then be used to coat the wood from outside.  Clove oil kills the existing termites and the other two, vetiver oil and catnip oil keep them off. Linseed oil is the number one choice as a base oil for wood conditioning. [6]

Nutritional and Medicinal Information

Chemical composition of an essential oil holds the key to its prospective medicinal effects. In that respect, catnip essential oil is truly unique. It contains a lactone compound known as nepetalactone and its isomeric forms that are responsible for cats being attracted to catnip in the first place. These lactone compounds are not found in such high amounts (more than 80% in catnip oil) in any other known essential oil.

Complete chemical composition of catnip essential oil when it has flowered is mentioned in the table below.

Constituent Percentage in essential oil
EZ – nepetalactone 55.03%
ZE – nepetalactone 31.2%
α-Pinene 4.6%
β-Pinene 1.64%
Thymol 0.4%
Trans-caryophyllene 2.1

Source: 7

Nepetalactone isomers are aromatic compounds belonging to a chemical class known as iridoids. They were first isolated from catnip. Nepetalactones were later found to be responsible for the repellent activity of catnip against mosquitoes and cockroaches. Its activity against certain kinds of bacteria is also believed to be because of nepetalactone.

Alpha-pinene and beta-pinene are monoterpenes commonly found in small amounts in many essential oils and are known for their anti-tumor effects. Thymol is found in large concentration in thyme essential oil, hence its name. Thymol is the chief agent behind efficacy of thyme in respiratory conditions. It is also used to kill candida fungi residing in the mouth and is used ubiquitously in mouthwash products. However, thymol content in catnip essential oil is too low to exhibit this effect.

Trans caryophyllene has anti-inflammatory action and most notably, it opens up the respiratory tract by causing relaxation of the smooth muscles of our trachea (wind pipe) [8]. Catnip oil can therefore be useful for people suffering from conditions like allergic rhinitis, bronchitis and infections of the respiratory tract.

Effects of catnip essential oil on blood pressure are not known. Secondly, catnip essential oil does help to relieve nervousness, but it is not known to be a neuroprotective. As such, its health benefits do not extend to protecting us from neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. There are only a few neuroprotective oils. For example, pomegranate seed oil is one of them. It is a general observation that only some edible vegetable and nut oils show nerve protection effects.

Catnip herbal tea was used to relieve symptoms associated with PMS and to induce a period in medieval times. It is not known whether catnip essential oil exerts a similar effect.

Catnip essential oil can also contain small amounts of other active volatile compounds like iridodial (an antifungal) [9], piperitone, hexenyl benzoate and humulene oxide.

Its relative weakness in antioxidant power is because of low amount of phenols in it. That is why it is currently not of much use in skin care applications. However, further evaluation of its antibacterial action against bacteria that cause skin diseases may help to reveal its uses for skincare.

Side Effects, Safe Dosage and Toxicity Issues

Catnip essential oil is relatively safer for cats in comparison to other essential oils, but the dosage is crucial. Proper number of drops to be used in formulation should be adhered to and a veterinarian should be consulted. Although most cats tolerate catnip oil very well at low dosage in the diffuser, some cats do not like it at all. Some people dilute catnip essential oil in a base oil, say coconut oil and rub it into the cat’s fur. It keeps the ticks and fleas off. But this can be dangerous as we know cats clean themselves off by licking. With each cleansing, they are ingesting pure catnip essential oil which their body may not be able to metabolize completely.

For us humans, catnip essential oil is generally regarded as safe for inhalation. It is not safe to be ingested. If you plan on trying it on the skin, then it should be diluted in a carrier oil. Even after dilution, one should do a patch test because catnip essential oil can sensitize the spot where it lands. General safety should be exercised, which means it should not be used by or in the vicinity of children, pregnant women and lactating mothers.

Buying and Storage

There are few sellers of catnip essential oil as compared to other essential oils. Even though choices are limited, one can find a good product online. One should prefer to buy from firms which are transparent about the chemical composition, origin of the herb and storage procedures followed. Essential oils get damaged if they are kept in plastic. They should ideally be kept in glass bottles that are tinted.  One should beware of sellers labelling the product with outrageous health benefits.

Catnip essential oil has a poor shelf life because of a lesser number of antioxidants in it. Some firms sell long lasting catnip oil (say 3 years) which is not feasible without the addition of artificial preservatives.

References

  1. Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activities of Essential Oils from Nepeta cataria L. against Common Causes of Food-Borne Infections. Zomorodian K. et al, ISRN Pharmaceutics.
  2. Antimicrobial and antioxidant activity of the essential oil and methanol extract of Nepeta cataria. Adiguzel A. et al, Polish Journal of Microbiology.
  3. Repellent activity of catmint, Nepeta cataria, and iridoid nepetalactone isomers against Afro-tropical mosquitoes, ixodid ticks and red poultry mites. Birkett M.A. et al, Phytochemistry 2011.
  4. https://www.sfspca.org/sites/default/files/cat_common-household-poisons.pdf
  5. Plant-based insect repellents: a review of their efficacy, development and testing. Marta Ferreira Maia and Sarah J Moore. Malaria Journal.
  6. Evaluation of vetiver oil and seven insect-active essential oils against the Formosan subterranean termite. Zhu B.C. et al, Journal of Chemical Ecology.
  7. Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activities of Essential Oils from Nepeta cataria L. against Common Causes of Food-Borne Infections. Kamiar Zomorodian et al, ISRN Pharmaceutics.
  8. trans-Caryophyllene, a natural sesquiterpene, causes tracheal smooth muscle relaxation through blockade of voltage-dependent Ca²⁺ channels. Pinho Da Silva L. et al, Molecules 2012.
  9. Iridodial – Pubchem.
  10. Feline Attractant, cis,trans-Nepetalactone: Metabolism in the Domestic Cat. G.R. Wallace, G.H. Price and E.D. Mitchell at Oklahoma State University.
  11. https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/cats-and-essential-oils

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