Marshmallow root Althaea officinalis
The consummate plant soother
Marshmallow is a perennial herb that is native to Europe, Western Asia and Northern Africa. The genus name for marshmallow is Althea, from the Greek word ‘altho’, meaning ‘to cure’ due to the plant’s healing properties. The common mallow that we find growing wild and in the garden is also called marshmallow, however, the true marshmallow has more mucilage and may be distinguished by the many divisions in the outer calyx, a feature not present in the other species. One of the most significant parts of the plant is the long, thick and tough taproot, which is also mucilaginous containing a polysaccharide that is extracted as a viscous or gelatinous substance. The medicinal benefits are mostly derived from this mucilage present in the plant that enables preparations to act as a demulcent and soothe mucous membranes in the body. The root contains 37% starch, 11% mucilage and 11% pectin and chemicals such as phenolic acids, flavonoids, sucrose and asparagine. The entire marshmallow plant is edible, from the roots to the flowers.
Eaten for 2,000 years
Marshmallow root has been used for more than 2,000 years all over the world. It was used as a poultice for external sores and wounds because it was able to prevent gangrene, which lead to its common name “mortification root”. Ancient Egyptians were said to mix the roots with nuts and honey and for them in lean times it was also considered to be a famine food. Today the mallow plant is still used as a last resort in many areas experiencing famine around the world. In France, the young tender leaves are used in raw salads and the roots are made into syrup, due to their value as a kidney tonic.
Confection still named after absent herb
Early medicinal use of marshmallow by the Ancient Egyptians, Romans and the more recent French past, resulted in the creation of a ‘medicinal confection’. It was sometimes thought that the marshmallow sweet – the sticky, sugary concoction that melts in our kids hot chocolate, got its name due to the resemblance to the large flowers of this plant. However, it is because the original ‘marshmallow’ was made from the plant itself. Originally this soft ball of emollient paste was made from the root of marshmallow and was intended for treating sore throats, cough and hoarseness. Later, French confectioners mixed in meringue and rose water. Eventually this developed into the sugar based confection that is the marshmallow we know today, made by whipping air into a mixture of sugar and protein (usually gelatine), instead of the real root. Sadly the modern version is not plant based so lacks the health benefits bestowed by the actual marshmallow plant.
Marshmallow mends myriad disorders
Today, marshmallow root is a highly effective treatment for a plethora of human ailments. Marshmallow preparations help soothe irritated mucous membranes due to: Asthma, bronchitis, common cold/sore throat, cough, inflammatory bowel diseases (such as Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis), indigestion, stomach ulcers and skin inflammation. Marshmallow has a cooling and moistening effect on the body, bringing relief from conditions causing the body to be ‘hot and dry’. Marshmallow root reduces discomforts such as swelling, burning, tenderness and irritations.
One of the main medicinal uses for marshmallow is for pain and swelling of mucous membranes that line the respiratory tract, sore throat and for a dry cough that lingers after the main infection has passed. It works by helping to form a barrier or protective layer on the membranes and contains chemicals that may decrease coughing and also heal any small wounds. Marshmallow root has antitussive properties that soothe dry coughing, reduce swollen lymph nodes, and reduce healing time. Its actives also act as an enzyme by loosening mucus and reducing bacteria. Marshmallow root both relieves discomfort and cures bacterial infections such as tonsillitis or bronchitis and provides an excellent to way to overcome a cold quickly. Cold relief is greatly enhanced if it is combined with other anti-inflammatory and antibacterial herbs. Whether the pain is a sore throat, cut, or a headache consuming marshmallow root will immediately soothe pain and reduce irritation. Salicylic acid, found in the herb, treats muscle pain and headaches.
Safe kidney and liver tonic
For anyone who suffers from UTI (urinary tract infections), other urinary concerns or kidney stones, marshmallow is a reliable healer. Its diuretic properties reduce fluid retention, which helps with overall bloating and swelling. The root will increase urination, allowing the body to remove bacteria from the urinary tract and relieving discomfort during infections. Marshmallow root is also recommended for women who retain water during hormonal changes, such as PMS and menopause.
Due to a large amount of antioxidants, marshmallow root can contribute to healing damaged liver bile ducts. It helps trigger the production of epithelial cells that line the insides of ducts and organs. In turn, a healthier bile duct helps the liver detox more efficiently. Marshmallow root’s phytonutrients can also bind to heavy metals and sweep them out of the body.
The ultimate skin soother
Marshmallow root is put to good use topically to relieve skin irritation such as bug bites, skin ulcers, burns, abscesses and more. Mucilage, a thick, gummy substance, found in marshmallow root reduces swelling and kills bacteria. The anti-inflammatory properties found in marshmallow root are a natural remedy for eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. Mucilage is a natural way to keep skin hydrated which is important with skin care because it reduces fine lines and enhances even-toned complexion.
Marshmallow root is known to reduce skin damage caused by UVA rays, to keep skin looking healthy. Skin damaged by UVA rays is more prone to wrinkles, discolorations and even skin cancers. To minimize the damaging effects, it's recommended that marshmallow root extract is applied daily and after sun exposure. Marshmallow’s polysaccharides can improve breast engorgement. A 2017 clinical study demonstrated that a compress with marshmallow root powder lessens the severity of this painful condition that occurs when lactating breasts overfill with milk. Topical marshmallow preparations also help soothe sore, cracked nipples.
A fine digestive aid
Marshmallow root becomes gooey when mixed with water and coats the oesophagus and throat, allowing the anti-inflammatory properties to soothe irritated mucous membranes and calm tense muscles. Such qualities also work very well for the digestive tract; whereby marshmallow reduces inflammation of the stomach lining, heartburn and many digestive issues such as constipation, diarrhoea, colic and ulcers. Not only will this herb provide immediate relief, but it also has long-term benefits. Consuming marshmallow root regularly significantly decreases the risk for stomach ulcers; marshmallow’s mucilage coats the inside of the digestive tract, preventing future irritation and stimulating tissue regeneration. Whether you’re looking for instant relief from acid reflux or longer-term prevention, marshmallow root will come through if it is used on a regular basis.
Marshmallow root shows potential to decrease blood sugar levels. Research suggests that it can help regulate the release of glucose and insulin, reducing the risk of dangerous fluctuations in blood glucose. People on medications for diabetes should use caution; the herb may interact with prescription medicines and cause blood sugar to drop too low.
Anyone with predisposed heart conditions could derive valid help from marshmallow root. If it is used regularly, it increases the body’s “good” cholesterol, HDL. High HDL removes bad cholesterol, reducing the risk for heart diseases. Marshmallow root reduces heart disease through its anti-inflammatory properties, which reduce acute and chronic inflammation. This herb is also known to prevent platelet aggregation, which is a clumping of platelets in the blood, also known as a blood clot.
Marshmallow root's inflammation-soothing properties may encourage healing of surgical wounds with topical use. However, as noted previously, the herb may interfere with blood sugar control during and after surgery if taken internally. The root’s mucilage coats the stomach lining, potentially hindering the absorption of surgery-related medications.