If you thought marshmallows were just sugary little pillows you roast over campfires and slip in your cocoa, think again. The marshmallow we're talking about is so much more than that. Intrigued? Then we invite you to read on to discover everything you need to know about the real marshmallow and all the benefits it has to offer.
Would the Real Marshmallow Please Stand Up?
Long before artificially flavored marshmallows started popping up in grocery stores, there was the marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis). This perennial plant from the mallow family (Malvaceae), which grows wild in marshy areas—hence the common name marshmallow—of Africa, Asia, and Europe, is even the inspiration behind these popular sweets.
In fact, the first marshmallows were actually invented by the ancient Egyptians over 4,000 years ago. But unlike our modern version, with its tasty combination of corn syrup, tetrasodium pyrophosphate, modified cornstarch, and blue 1, the original marshmallows were created using nuts, honey, and the sap of marshmallow roots. The confections were considered so special that they were reserved for gods and nobility. No one else was allowed to enjoy them.
It wasn't until the 19th century that the first marshmallow confections reached Europe. But they were created using the sap of marshmallow roots for only a short time before the use of gelatin replaced the marshmallow plant forever.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
But the marshmallow plant is so much more than the inspiration behind one of the world's most popular confections.
It also has a long history of use in herbal medicine.
The Traditional Use of Marshmallow: A Brief History
The marshmallow plant has been revered for its medicinal properties for at least as long as it's been used to make candy. In fact, the plant was so respected by the ancient Greeks that they referred to it as their "official healer." The genus Althea was even named after the Greek word althos, which means "healer."
While the Greeks used this medicinal herb to treat wounds and inflammation, the Egyptians (when they weren't making marshmallows) and Romans ate the plant as a vegetable and used it to ease the symptoms of coughs, colds, and skin wounds. And Arabs used poultices made from the leaves of the plant to treat skin inflammation.
The marshmallow plant was also used during the Renaissance to treat gastrointestinal issues and toothaches. Although the roots were often chewed or eaten, both the roots and leaves were sometimes steeped to extract the plant's soothing mucilage.
While the marshmallow plant is not as commonly known today—in fact, the plant is considered threatened in a number of countries—many of its traditional uses have been backed up by science.
Health Benefits of Marshmallow
Many of the health benefits of the marshmallow plant can be attributed to its high concentration of mucilage—a gelatinous substance rich in carbohydrates called polysaccharides.
This mucilaginous substance, which is found throughout the entire plant, not only acts as a soothing agent on sore and inflamed mucous membranes and tissues of the digestive tract, but it also contains a number of beneficial phytonutrients.
Many of these important plant chemicals, including sterols and polyphenols like quercetin, kaempferol, and caffeic and salicylic acid, as well as the coumarin scopoletin, have been found to possess potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer properties.
What's more, marshmallow is also rich in several important minerals, including calcium, magnesium, iron, and selenium, as well as a type of soluble fiber called pectin.
As you might imagine, all of these properties combine to form a rather powerful medicinal herb that has been found to possess a wide array of potential health benefits.
Although research into the benefits of marshmallow in preventing heart disease is limited, a number of phytochemicals in the plant are known to have positive effects on heart health.
For example, quercetin has been found in studies to lower blood pressure, while the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of kaempferol have been found to offer benefits for the treatment of coronary artery disease, elevated cholesterol, and diabetes. A study published in the journal Planta Medica also found that kaempferol may protect against the development of cardiac hypertrophy.
Another study published in the same journal found that the marshmallow plant possesses significant hypoglycemic activity, which may make it potentially useful in the treatment of both diabetes and heart disease.
And a study in the journal Pharmaceutical Biology, conducted on the flowers of the marshmallow plant, demonstrated significant increases in HDL cholesterol—the so-called good cholesterol—along with decreases in platelet aggregation. The study also found that marshmallow flowers possess significant anti-inflammatory and antiulcerogenic activity—a finding that not only provides scientific documentation of an ancient use but also leads us to our next section.
The previously mentioned study is not the only research to back up the traditional use of marshmallow. A rodent study published in the Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine also found that marshmallow extract provided significant protection against ulcers induced by indomethacin—a commonly prescribed NSAID. What's more, a study published in the journal Antioxidants showed similar findings.
As mentioned, marshmallow has a long history of use in the treatment of respiratory problems, including coughs and sore throats.
But what does the science have to say?
A study published in the journal Complementary Medicine Research found that individuals experiencing dry cough had rapid improvement in symptoms using syrup or lozenges containing marshmallow root extract.
Another study in the journal Forschende Komplementärmedizin und klassische Naturheilkunde demonstrated similar findings with respect to symptoms associated with bronchitis, the common cold, and other upper respiratory tract illnesses.
A study published in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine found that asthmatic children with cold symptoms who received an herbal medicine containing marshmallow experienced a significant decrease in both cough severity and nighttime awakenings.
Finally, a study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that marshmallow root extract has a stimulating effect on the epithelial cells of mucous membranes and actually increases cell viability and proliferation, both of which contribute to tissue regeneration.
Skin and Immune Health
If marshmallow has the ability to aid the regeneration of mucous membranes, it's not a stretch to see why the plant has been used throughout the centuries in the treatment of skin problems—even burns and stings.
Studies have borne this out as well.
A review published in the journal Advances in Dermatology and Allergology noted that ointment containing 20% marshmallow root extract has been found to be effective in reducing irritation associated with sunburn and exposure to contact irritants. The review also found that marshmallow root increases the anti-inflammatory effects of the commonly prescribed glucocorticoid dexamethasone when used together.
Multiple studies have also found significant wound healing potential with the use of marshmallow.
For example, a study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine found that ointment containing 15% mucilage extracted from marshmallow flowers was as effective as phenytoin in reducing wound healing time.
And a study in the Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine found that marshmallow leaf extract not only decreased wound healing time but was also effective against gram-positive bacteria.
How Do You Use Marshmallow?
Because marshmallow is considered threatened in many areas, we don't recommend attempting to gather your own in the wild. However, you can still purchase the plant in bulk or as tea, tincture, lozenges, syrup, or capsules—though we do recommend doing some research first to ensure the manufacturer is sourcing its marshmallow sustainably, or maybe even purchasing your own marshmallow seeds so you can grow your own.
If you decide to get your marshmallow as a prepackaged tea, tincture, lozenge, syrup, or capsule, simply follow the manufacturer's dosage guidelines.
But for those of you who decide to buy in bulk or grow your own, the following tips may be helpful.
- Tea: For marshmallow leaf tea, steep 2 teaspoons of the dried leaves in 1 cup of freshly boiled water for 10 minutes. For marshmallow root, add 1 tablespoon of the dried root to 1-1/2 cups of water, boil, and simmer for 20 minutes. Drink 2 to 3 cups a day.
- Infusion or decoction: Fill a quarter of a regular canning jar with dried marshmallow root and top off with either warm or cold water. If using warm water, let steep for 4 to 12 hours before straining. If using cold water, allow to steep for an hour. Then gently boil, reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. As with the tea method, infusions and decoctions can be drunk several times a day.
- Tincture: All parts of the plant can be added in a 1:8 ratio to 25% alcohol in water and allowed to sit in a sealed jar for approximately 6 weeks, shaking occasionally. Marshmallow tinctures can be taken in doses of a teaspoon several times a day.
- Poultice: Make a paste using crushed leaves or powdered marshmallow root and hot water and apply to the affected area, covering with cloth or plastic wrap. The poultice can be left on for several hours or overnight as needed.
Marshmallow is generally well tolerated, but because it coats the stomach lining, it may interfere with the absorption of some drugs. Therefore, anyone currently taking medications should be sure to wait several hours before using marshmallow.
While marshmallow may be the inspiration for the chewy, puffy treat we all know and love, its potential benefits for heart, skin, digestion, and even immunity may have a far greater role to play.