The similarity in name between the herb marshmallow and the sweet treat is more than a coincidence, although the modern sugar puff ball no longer bears much relationship to the old-fashioned candy flavored with marshmallow herb.
Besides inspiring makers of campfire food, the marshmallow has also been used medicinally since ancient Greece. Hippocrates spoke of it as a treatment for bruises and blood loss, and subsequent Roman physicians recommended marshmallow for toothaches, insect bites, chilblains, and irritated skin. In medieval Europe, herbalists used marshmallow to soothe toothaches, coughs, sore throats, chapped skin, indigestion, and diarrhea.
Marshmallow contains contains large sugar molecules called mucilage, which are thought to exert a soothing effect on mucous membranes, and this is the basis of most proposed uses of the herb. However, only double-blind, placebo-controlled studies can prove a treatment effective, and no such studies of marshmallow have been reported at this time. (For information on why double-blind studies are so important, see Why Does This Database Rely on Double-blind Studies?)
On the basis of its supposed soothing properties, tea or lozenges containing marshmallow tea are often recommended for asthma, cough, colds, and sore throat. Marshmallow taken as tea or in capsules is sometimes recommended for Crohn's disease or ulcers, on the theory that mucilage might sooth the lining of the digestive tract. Finally, marshmallow ointment is sometimes recommended for irritated skin.
Marshmallow can be made into a soothing tea by steeping roots overnight in water and diluting to taste. This tea can be drunk as desired for symptomatic relief. Alternatively, you can take marshmallow in capsules (5 to 6 g daily) or in tincture according to label directions.
Marshmallow ointments can be applied directly to soothe inflamed or irritated skin.
Marshmallow is believed to be entirely safe. It is approved for use in foods, and its chemical makeup does not suggest any but benign effects.1 However, detailed safety studies have not been performed. One study suggests that marshmallow can slightly lower blood sugar levels.2 For this reason, people with diabetes should use caution when taking marshmallow. Safety in young children, pregnant or nursing women, or those with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
1. Newall CA, Anderson LA, Phillipson JD. Herbal Medicines: A Guide for Health-Care Professionals. London, England: Pharmaceutical Press; 1996:188.
2. Tomoda M, Shimizu N, Oshima Y, et al. Hypoglycemic activity of twenty plant mucilages and three modified products. Planta Med.1987;53:8–12.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board
Last Updated: 12/15/2015