Marshmallow is best known as a sweet treat, but this treat’s origins go all the way back to ancient Egypt, where it was prized for its medicinal properties. The generic name for the marshmallow plant, Althaea officinalis, actually comes from the Greek althein, which roughly translates as “to cure”.
To discover just how marshmallow can cure your ails and to learn more about its consumption, see below.
The History of Marshmallow Treats
In the United Kingdom, marshmallows are often made from gelatine, sugar, and water, with the mixture being whipped until it is light and fluffy. Egg whites can also be used in place of gelatine—as is the case in the United States with a popular “spreadable” treat known as Marshmallow fluff, and here in the UK with the filling of chocolate teacakes—but while this alternative is suitable for vegetarians, it doesn’t quite set the same. This albumin-based recipe also formed some of the earliest marshmallow treats made in the west, ones that actually contained marshmallow, often in the form of sap obtained from the root.
These treats taste and look considerably different compared to the very first marshmallow treats, which are said to have been made by the Egyptians more than 2000 years ago. These early treats were made from marshmallow root and honey and were said to have been used to cure throat, mouth, and lung disorders.
The use of gelatine began in the late 1800s, replacing marshmallow root altogether while still keeping the name. You can still find some “old-school” preparations that include marshmallow root, but it’s much more common to see preparations of marshmallow root tea.
The Health Benefits of Marshmallow Root Tea
You can buy powdered marshmallow root from many health stores. It creates a gel-like consistency when you add it to water (this is why it was used to make spongy treats for so many years), but it’s not enough to render it undrinkable when consumed as a tea. Regular consumption (in moderation, of course) of marshmallow root tea could provide the following benefits.
1. Can Treat a Dry Cough
There are no shortage of medicines and herbal remedies designed to treat productive coughs, but the same can’t be said for a dry cough, so much so that opioid based medicines are still commonplace (from the addictive codeine to the nonaddictive pholcodine). But marshmallow root may provide some relief to sufferers of a dry cough and could be useful as a first course treatment or even as a complementary therapy.
One of the earliest uses of this remedy was in the treatment of dry and irritating coughs, and recent research, including one study from Germany, backs up many of these ancient beliefs. (1) There is also no shortage of anecdotal evidence out there, with many sufferers of chronic and irritating coughs turning to this remedy.
2. It Could Help with Digestive Issues
In addition to treating chronic coughs, marshmallow root has long been used in the treatment of sore throats, heartburn, and other throat and stomach complaints. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have used it for this purpose, and it remains the most common medicinal use of marshmallow root to this day.
It possesses antibacterial properties, discussed in more detail below, and its consistency may also play a role in providing this relief. Marshmallow root is often recommended as a complementary herbal remedy for colds, coughs, and other such issues. It’s not going to cure these conditions outright, nothing is, but in addition to soothing teas like peppermint and immune-supporting teas like sideritis, it could provide a complete herbal substitute to OTC medications.
In fact, one of the most promising studies to have been conducted on the effects of marshmallow root actually used it in combination with other beneficial herbs, including aniseed and thyme, and noted improvements in symptoms comparable to commonly prescribed remedies.
3. It is an Antibacterial
Marshmallow root can help inhibit the growth of potentially deadly bacteria and has shown to be effective combating cultures like streptococcus. Early reports suggest that it is not as effective as popular prescription remedies and it also seems to fall short of antibacterial extracts of thyme and other herbs, but it’s promising nonetheless and could lend credence to the use of marshmallow root in treating certain bacterial conditions. (2)
How to Make Marshmallow Root Tea
You can make a cup of marshmallow root tea using about 0.75 to 1 tbsp of the dried root and a cup of water. Bring to the boil, simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, sweeten to taste, and then drink. Begin with no more than 1 cup of tea a day and keep an eye on potential side effects, as listed below.
If the flavour doesn’t agree with you or you simply want to brew a tea with more punch, then try mixing a few other herbs or flavourings in. There are a number that can aid with digestive issues, as discussed in the many tea guides in our blog and under the Discover link in the menu above.
Side Effects of Marshmallow Root
Marshmallow root acts as a mild diuretic, which means it helps flush water out of the body by increasing urination. This is perfectly safe in moderation, but it becomes more of a risk if it is consumed to excess by someone who isn’t adequately hydrated. It’s worth noting, however, that marshmallow root is a mild diuretic at best and will not flush the body as much as herbs like dandelion leaf/root or liquorice root.
Some sites have recommended marshmallow root for consumption during pregnancy, claiming it can help with chronic heartburn. But it’s important to be extra cautious during this stage, because while herbal remedies like marshmallow root are generally safe and well tolerated, there hasn’t been enough evidence to suggest that same will be true while pregnant or nursing.
It’s a similar story for anyone with a preexisting medical condition and anyone about to undergo surgery. There is usually nothing to worry about, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry, especially when you’re looking to consume large amounts on a regular basis. Marshmallow root may also interfere with some medications by limiting their absorption, something that can be particularly worrisome with users of lithium and drugs for diabetes and heart and blood conditions.
As always, excessive consumption should always be avoided, as it can lead to nausea and other unpleasant side effects.