Although catnip has a stimulating effect on virtually all felines, in humans it is traditionally used as a sleep aid. It has also been used for digestive and menstrual problems, as a uterine stimulant in childbirth, and as a symptomatic treatment for colds. Publications from the late 1960s suggested that the plant, when smoked, produced a psychedelic high not unlike marijuana, but it was later discovered that the researchers had, in fact, mixed up the two plants.1,2
Catnip is primarily used by today's herbalists as a treatment for insomnia, as well as for mild stomach upset, especially when caused by stress. One ingredient of catnip, trans-cis-nepetalactone, is the active ingredient so far as cats are concerned. Most (but not all) cats respond to this substance with a complex reaction called the "catnip response" that can go on for about an hour.
Nepetalactone is similar to a class of substances called valepotriates, found in the sedative herb valerian.3 This has attracted some attention, as valerian also is used for insomnia and stomach discomfort. However, as valepotriates are no longer considered to be the active ingredients in valerian, it is not clear that this relationship has any significance.
As yet, there is no real evidence that catnip produces any effect at all in humans. Tests conducted on chicks and rats have produced conflicting results, although high doses of essential oil of catnip have increased sleeping times in the latter.4,5
Catnip tea is most commonly made by mixing 1 to 2 teaspoons (1 to 2 g) of the dried herb, or half that amount of the liquid extract, per cup of water (240 ml),6 and can be consumed up to 3 times a day.
Although comprehensive safety studies have not been performed, catnip tea is generally regarded as safe. However, due to its traditional use as a uterine stimulant, pregnant women should probably avoid catnip. Safety for young children or individuals with severe liver or kidney disease has not been established.
1. Jackson B, Reed A. Catnip and the alteration of consciousness. JAMA. 1969;207:1349–1350.
2. Petersik JT, Poundstone J, Estes JW, et al. Of cats, catnip, and Cannabis [letter]. JAMA. 1969;208:360.
3. Review of Natural Products. St. Louis, Mo: Facts and Comparisons; 1991: Catnip monograph.
4. Sherry CJ, Mitchell JP. The behavioral effects of the "lactone-free" hot water extract of catnip ( Nepeta cataria) on the young chick. Int J Crude Drug Res. 1983;21:89–92.
5. Harney JW, Barofsky IM, Leary JD. Behavioral and toxicological studies of cyclopentanoid monoterpenes from Nepeta cataria. Lloydia. 1978;41:367–374.
6. McGuffin M, ed. American Herbal Products Association's Botanical Safety Handbook. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press; 1997:169–170.
Last reviewed December 2015 by EBSCO CAM Review Board Last Updated: 12/15/2015