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Many of us longtime cat owners enjoy our cats’ antics when we sprinkle catnip on a toy. Some cats go crazy, jumping, rolling, and yowling until they curl up and spend the rest of the day sleeping off each other.
Cats seem to love catnip and seek the source of the scent or return to curl up and eat the plants.
Some have speculated that catnip can act as an aphrodisiac. It appears that when catnip is consumed, catnip has a sedative effect, causes fatigue, and acts as a sedative. Kittens less than 6 to 8 weeks old will not have these effects. Lions, leopards, and jaguars respond to catnip, but not tigers.
The historical uses of catnip ranged from a colic cure in infants to aiding female reproduction and much more. Thomas Sydenham, an English physician in the 17th century, attributed the medicinal effects to its “strong and foul smell, to remind the exorbitant and deserted spirits of their proper stations”.
He recommended the stems and leaves as a mild stimulant and for their calming effect on the nervous system. He described the roots as having the opposite effect: “When the root is chewed, the calmest person becomes wild and argumentative.”
Today, some use it as an herbal tea, which has been reported to help reduce anxiety, promote sleep, relieve sore throats, and treat upset stomach. The fresh leaves have a minty taste and can be added to soups, stews, sauces, vegetables or pasta. Smoked like marijuana in the 1960s, it can induce visual and auditory hallucinations, feelings of happiness, contentment, and high.
So what is it about catnip that gives cats a high? The plants produce a chemical called nepetalactone to repel insects. It works about as well for the plants as DEET, the active ingredient in many mosquito repellants. Nepetalactone makes up 70 to 99 percent of the essential oil in catnip.
We know that nepetalactone binds to receptors in the cat’s nose. From then on it gets a bit mysterious. When people use opioids, cocaine, and marijuana, they stimulate the release of a mood-altering neurotransmitter, dopamine, in the brain. When cats were given naloxone to block these receptors, catnip had no effect, so scientists believe that these receptors are involved.
In one study, 20 percent of cats responded to catnip with active responses such as turning over. The remaining 80 percent responded with behaviors such as sphinx posture, less meowing and noise, and decreased motor activity.
Catnip, also called catnip or nepeta cataria, originally grew in Europe and Asia, but has been brought to many other areas, including the United States. Nepeta comes from the Latin name for certain aromatic plants, named after a city north of Rome, Nepete.
Catnip is a member of the mint family, which also includes other well-known herbs such as rosemary, sage, oregano, and basil. It’s an easy-to-grow perennial that spreads quickly. If you have cats that go crazy for catnip, then you should try growing some.
Medical Discovery News will be moderated by Professors Norbert Herzog from Quinnipiac University and David Niesel from the University of Texas Medical Branch. Learn more at www.medicaldiscoverynews.com.