What is mullein?
Mullein tea is an old herbal remedy for coughs, colds, digestive issues, and other problems. The mullein plant is rich in compounds that might have some health benefits.
Mullein is a weed native to Europe, Africa, and Asia. It was first introduced to the United States in the early to mid-1800s as a medicinal plant, but it now grows across North America and around the world.
There are many mullein species1, but the most popular in North America is Verbascum thapsus, known as great mullein or common mullein. It grows in meadows, roadsides, forest edges and openings, or gardens.
Mullein is a perennial plant that can quickly take over your garden. It grows close to the ground in the first year and then grows a large stalk with flowers, about 5 to 10 feet tall. Thick hairs cover the underside of the leaves, making it look wooly.
Traditional cultures used mullein root, leaves, and flowers for different remedies. Some cultures boiled the leaves and roots to make strong extractions called decoctions for sore throats, stomach pain, or coughs and colds.
Others used mullein leaves in pastes to heal the skin, as a muscle or joint rub, or as a chest rub. Some also smoked mullein leaves like tobacco for relaxation and steeped them as a tea or tisane for coughs and colds. Mullein creams, extracts, tablets, and teas are still common today.
Health benefits of mullein tea
Mullein is rich in active plant compounds, including saponins, flavonoids, glycosides, and iridoids. Mullein tea might have some health benefits, but more research is necessary to confirm its usefulness.
Antioxidants are vitamins and compounds that neutralize unstable molecules called free radicals. These unstable molecules are a byproduct of your normal metabolic activities, but they can cause damage if they build up in your body. Your body also makes antioxidants to help neutralize these compounds, but you can add extra antioxidants through your diet, especially plants.
Mullein is rich in antioxidant compounds called flavonoids, including apigenin, luteolin, quercetin, and others. Eating foods rich in flavonoids and other antioxidants might protect against disease. These compounds are strong and effective in fighting free radicals in test tubes, but they might be much weaker in humans.
The compounds apigenin and luteolin in mullein might interact with proteins called enzymes that are involved in the inflammation process. These compounds can interfere with the process and stop your body from making chemicals that cause inflammation. Some studies indicate that mullein is anti-inflammatory, but others suggest it only has weak anti-inflammatory activity.
Mullein is rich in nutrients, including carbohydrates, fatty acids, healthy fats, vitamin C and minerals like potassium, magnesium, sodium, and zinc. You probably won’t get the fatty acids and healthy fats in a cup of mullein tea. Still, you might get lots of vitamin C.
Vitamin C is water-soluble, which means it dissolves in water, so steeping the leaves can bring out the vitamin content. However, vitamin C is sensitive to heat and light, so shorter steeping times might preserve some of it.
In test tubes, mullein shows antiviral and antibacterial activity. Mullein extracts are active against the Herpes simplex virus and influenza. The strongest antiviral activity comes from the flower extract. One lab dish study also found that combining mullein extract with amantadine hydrochloride had stronger antiviral action against influenza.
Extracts are different from teas. While there’s probably no harm in drinking mullein tea to rehydrate when you have the flu, it likely won’t get rid of a virus.
Might soothe hemorrhoids
You could steep a strong mullein tea and use it as an antiseptic, astringent wash, or add it to a sitz bath to soothe irritated hemorrhoids. There isn’t enough information to know if these are helpful. Also, try eating more fiber to help with bowel movements, cleaning the area with plain water, and using a hemorrhoid cream.
Might ease toothaches and gum disease
People traditionally boil mullein and steep it for long periods to extract the plant compounds. Then they use it as a mouthwash to treat toothaches and abscesses.
Modern research shows mullein might help, as one study reports that mullein root extract eased toothache. Mullein also contains a compound called cynaroside, which might protect against gum disease.
Mullein might help because of its anti-inflammatory or antioxidant activities, but it can also relieve pain and kill some types of bacteria. It’s not clear that it’s effective in defeating bacteria that cause cavities or gum infections, though.
You could steep a strong mullein tea and then use it as a mouthwash or gargle to help with sore gums and teeth. Toothaches can be a sign of infection, so you’ll want to see your dentist right away, though.
Mullein is traditionally used to help ease diarrhea from a gut infection called dysentery and as an enema to relieve constipation. An enema is where you inject a liquid into your rectum to flush out waste.
Some early research found that mullein is antimicrobial and can kill parasites and bacteria. In test tubes, mullein extract had the most action against bacteria that commonly cause food poisoning. It’s unlikely that mullein tea treats a gut infection, but it might help ease some of the side effects of symptoms. Other research shows that mullein is antispasmodic, so it might reduce cramping.
For constipation, experts think the mullein saponins might help when it’s used as an enema. Saponins make a soapy solution when they’re combined with water, so using them to flush the rectum might add to constipation relief. But enemas are best as a last resort, so it’s best to talk to your doctor before you attempt one.
Might soothe skin
Traditional cultures often use mullein for healing wounds and minor skin irritations, like bug bites, ulcers, wounds, and pimples. Today, studies report that mullein could help heal wounds. In one animal study, mullein extract on the skin led to greater connective tissue and skin growth than the placebo.
Experts also tested how well mullein cream heals a procedure on the skin between the vagina and anus called an episiotomy. After ten days, those who had the mullein cream had no redness, swelling, discharge, or wound opening.
Mullein cream differs from mullein tea. Creams have different concentrations of compounds and other ingredients that will protect your skin. Still, you could steep a strong tea and use it as a wash to soothe irritated skin.
Might help coughs
People have used mullein as a remedy for coughs and colds for a long time. The antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory effects of mullein might help relax your airways and the muscles of your lungs and ease coughing. Mullein is also an expectorant, which means it helps clear mucus from your lungs. Mullein tea can be a soothing drink for coughs and colds.
Side effects of mullein tea
Mullein is generally seen as safe. People have been drinking and using mullein for a long time, and there are no reports of toxicity. There are other possible side effects, though.
Mullein can cause an itchy, allergic rash called contact dermatitis. These side effects are likely because the tiny hairs on the leaves can cause skin irritation. These hairs might also irritate your throat and mouth if you drink mullein leaf tea.
Some people still suggest mullein tea enemas, like coffee enemas, but this is unsafe. While tea might soothe your digestive system, using it in your rectum is not helpful. It’s also not a good idea to do enemas unless nothing else works and your doctor recommends it.
You can accidentally tear your rectum tissue or cause a severe infection by doing an enema wrong. Enemas can also lead to electrolyte imbalance and cause imbalances with the bacteria in your gut.
Your doctor might recommend an enema when lifestyle changes, diet changes, or other treatments don’t help your constipation. A proper enema is often done with a medical solution that contains salts, not tea.
While herbal mullein tea is usually safe, herbs can interact with your medication. If you’re thinking about using mullein extracts for your health, talk to your doctor first. There isn’t enough information about mullein extracts or mullein tea during pregnancy, so it’s best to check with your doctor before taking it.
Bottom line: Extracts may be better
Mullein extracts might have promising benefits for your health, but tea is not a medical treatment. Mullein tea is unlikely to treat skin conditions or other health problems. If you’re worried about your health, talk to your doctor.
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Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Antioxidants," "Vitamin C."
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Pharmaceutical Biology: "Correlation between polyphenol content and anti-inflammatory activity of Verbascum phlomoides (mullein)."
Phytotherapy Research: "Combined antiinfluenza virus activity of Flos verbasci infusion and amantadine derivatives," "Health-promoting and disease-mitigating potential of Verbascum thapsus L. (common mullein): A review."
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