Used in traditional European medicines for more than 2,000 years
During the cold, winter months, many cold sufferers reach for something to soothe their irritated, sore throats or alleviate their persistent dry coughs. Preparations that contain extracts of the root or leaves of the marshmallow plant may provide relief. Due to its soothing properties, marshmallow root is often added to herbal throat lozenges and extracts that can be found in healing teas or syrups.
Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis)-not to be confused with the sugary marshmallow you put into your hot chocolate-is a hardy perennial herb that grows from three to six feet tall and boasts attractive pale lilac-pink flowers, as well as a large fleshy taproot. The plant is indigenous to Western Asia and Europe, but now grows widely throughout North America. In Europe it’s cultivated for both ornamental and medicinal purposes.
This herb has been used in traditional European medicines for more than 2,000 years. The genus name for marshmallow, Althaea, is derived from the Greek altha, which means “to cure,” indicating its healing properties. Marshmallow is closely related to the showy and colorful hollyhock that graces many gardens. The colorful blooms (pink, purple, yellow, or white) of hollyhock were once used to make cough syrups, but their medicinal properties are inferior to that of the less showy marshmallow. As a matter of fact, marshmallow extracts may sometimes be contaminated by hollyhock root preparations. Many uses the Romans used marshmallow root as a vegetable.
Throughout much of Europe and the Middle East, it served as a standby crop when other foods were scarce. More recently, the roots have found a home in the cosmetic and confectionery industries. Marshmallow has also provided a reliable source of fiber for coarse fabrics and rope making.
Traditionally, the peeled root was given to children to chew on as an aid for teething. The well-known marshmallow sweets were once made from root extracts of the plant. In recent times, the tender leaves and young tops, which are harvested in the spring, have been added sparingly to salads. The leaves can also be fried with onions and tossed in too.
In traditional medicine, marshmallow was successfully applied externally as a poultice to treat bruises, boils, burns, muscle aches, sprains, insect bites, and other local inflammations of the skin. It also saw service in lozenges to soothe sore throats, relieve inflamed gums, and help ameliorate dry, irritating coughs.
A tea made from the leaves can soothe sore throats and upset stomachs. It also pulls duty as an expectorant for congestion, bronchitis, and whooping cough. Marshmallow was often used in combination with licorice or horehound to address bronchial complaints.
Currently, marshmallow extracts are commonly used and recommended in Germany to alleviate mild inflammations of the mucus membranes of the mouth and throat. They can serve as a mouthwash or gargle to treat such inflammations. In addition to being useful for soothing dry coughs, the extracts can treat mild inflammations of the gastrointestinal tract.
Extracts of the dried leaves or root contain a sweet mucilage that has a soothing effect on tissues. The mucilage forms a protective film or coating on inflamed, irritated mucus membranes. Marshmallow leaves and the flowers contain about 10 percent mucilage, while the roots may contain about 25 percent of the active fiber component. Even though the leaf and the root of marshmallow can be used for medicinal purposes, it’s the root that finds greatest service.
Well-drained soils will produce a higher mucilage content than damp soils. Furthermore, roots that are harvested in the late fall give a greater yield of mucilage than when harvested in the spring or summer. Marshmallow plants should be at least two years old before harvesting the roots. Leaves should be harvested before the flowers appear.
A daily dose of about 5 grams of marshmallow root or leaf is typically recommended. The root is extracted in cold or lukewarm water (not hot water). Alternatively, four to six 500- milligram capsules of marshmallow may be consumed a day. A cup of hot tea may be made from steeping one heaping teaspoon of dried, cut leaves in a cup of hot water for 10 minutes. For external use, powdered leaves are mixed with ointments.
The use of marshmallow appears to be entirely safe. No side effects have been reported, although the mucilage in marshmallow may delay the absorption of medications taken simultaneously.
Recent animal studies suggest that marshmallow may also possess antimicrobial activity, as well as the ability to reduce blood-sugar levels. Further research is needed to verify these claims.
Winston J. Craig, Ph.D., R.D., is professor of nutrition at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.