Does Catnip Make You Purr? The Truth About How Catnip Affects Humans

It’s well known that catnip drives cats crazy – making them roll around, rub, and even sometimes hallucinate. But what does catnip actually do to cats? And why doesn’t it have the same effect on humans?

Catnip contains an essential oil called nepetalactone that binds to receptors in a cat’s nose and mouth. This creates a stimulating and euphoric effect on cats. However, nepetalactone does not bind to receptors in humans in the same way. While humans can smell the volatile oil, we do not experience the intoxicating effects cats do.

What is Catnip?

Catnip, scientifically known as Nepeta cataria, is a mint family plant. According to Britannica, catnip is a short-lived perennial herb with square stems and oppositely arranged toothed leaves[1]. Catnip is native to parts of Europe and Asia but now grows wild in many parts of the world.

Catnip is a leafy and flowering plant, featuring small lavender flowers and heart-shaped leaves that give off a minty scent. All parts of the catnip plant contain an essential oil called nepetalactone, which is the active chemical that causes the response in cats[2].

[1] https://www.britannica.com/plant/catnip

[2] https://www.treehugger.com/things-to-know-about-catnip-4863828

Active Chemical in Catnip

The active chemical compound in catnip that causes a euphoric effect in cats is called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is an organic compound that is part of the class of chemicals known as terpenes. It is found in the essential oil of catnip plants and acts as a cat attractant [1].

chemical structure of nepetalactone molecule

When cats inhale nepetalactone, it binds to receptors in their vomeronasal organ, which is a special sensory organ located between a cat’s nose and mouth. This organ detects pheromones and triggers a response that researchers believe mimics a cat’s response to cat pheromones. As such, nepetalactone acts like a cat pheromone and induces a temporary euphoric state [2].

Catnip’s Effects on Cats

Catnip contains an active chemical called nepetalactone that stimulates a response in most cats when they smell it. The effects typically last between 5-15 minutes before wearing off.

Common stimulating effects of catnip on cats include:

  • Rolling around
  • cat rolling in catnip with euphoric expression

  • Rubbing against and flipping around with catnip toys
  • Becoming very playful and energetic
  • Meowing or growling while playing

These hyperactive behaviors are part of the euphoric experience induced by catnip. While the precise mechanism behind catnip’s effects isn’t fully understood, researchers believe nepetalactone is chemically similar to pheromones and acts on receptors in a cat’s nose and mouth, triggering a temporary stimulating high [1].

Catnip’s Effects on Humans

Catnip does not induce the same stimulating effects in humans that it does in cats. This is because humans lack the feline “happy” receptor that the nepetalactone in catnip binds to. However, some people do report mild sedative effects from catnip. One study found that when consumed as a tea, catnip can promote relaxation and reduce anxiety in humans (https://www.healthline.com/health/smoking-catnip). The sedative effect is likely due to catnip’s ability to stimulate the natural chemical sesquiterpenes, which can have a calming influence.

While catnip does not provide a marijuana-like high in people, some individuals use it for recreational purposes to try and induce a buzz or mellow mood. However, the effects tend to be quite mild. Attempting to smoke or ingest very large quantities of catnip can potentially cause headaches, nausea, or vomiting in some. So catnip is not an effective or safe recreational herb for humans.

Possible Explanations

One of the main reasons catnip affects cats but not humans is because of differences in their anatomy. Cats have an organ called the vomeronasal organ (also known as Jacobson’s organ) that detects pheromones. This organ is located in the roof of the mouth behind the front teeth in cats. When catnip is smelled or eaten, its chemical called nepetalactone binds to receptors in the vomeronasal organ, which triggers a response in the brain producing a euphoric effect. Humans lack this specialized sensory organ, so catnip does not produce a high or euphoric effect in people.

Additionally, the manner in which catnip is ingested plays a role. Catnip needs to be smelled or eaten by cats in order for them to experience effects. The nepetalactone chemical binds to olfactory receptors when inhaled. Humans typically do not sniff or eat catnip, therefore the active chemical does not bind to any receptors to produce effects. Even drinking catnip tea does not provide effects for humans like it does in cats. Research shows catnip has to enter the bloodstream to cause a high, and this does not occur in humans through casual exposure or consumption (Source).

Other Catnip Uses

Catnip has been used for various medicinal purposes in addition to its effects on cats. Some of the most common uses of catnip for humans include:

Natural Insect/Mosquito Repellant: Catnip contains nepetalactone which can help repel mosquitoes and other insects when applied to the skin. Studies show catnip oil can be as effective as DEET at repelling mosquitoes without the harsh chemicals.[1]

person drinking a cup of catnip tea

Headache and Cramp Relief: Catnip has traditionally been used to provide relief from headaches, cramps, and other pain. The compound nepetalactone is thought to have pain relieving properties when consumed as a tea or extract.[2]

Aid for Insomnia: As a mild sedative, catnip has been used to promote sleep and relieve restlessness. Drinking catnip tea before bed may help induce a calm, relaxed state to overcome insomnia.

Overall, catnip’s natural medicinal properties have been utilized for centuries to help alleviate various minor ailments in humans as well as provide an insect repellant alternative to harsh chemical options.

[1] https://www.webmd.com/diet/catnip-tea-health-benefits
[2] https://www.drugs.com/npc/catnip.html

Risks of Catnip for Humans

While catnip is generally safe for human consumption, there are some potential side effects to be aware of when taking large doses. The primary risks associated with catnip tea or supplements include:

Headaches – Consuming large amounts of catnip can sometimes cause headaches or migraine symptoms in sensitive individuals. The exact mechanisms are unclear, but catnip contains certain volatile oils and compounds that may affect neurotransmitters or blood vessels in the brain when taken in excess.

Upset stomach – Catnip has a relaxing effect on the digestive system and may cause stomach upset or diarrhea when too much is consumed. The herb has a natural laxative effect which could lead to loose stools or gastrointestinal discomfort.

According to Medical News Today, catnip tea is not recommended for pregnant women as it can potentially stimulate menstrual flow or uterine contractions. There is not extensive research on catnip’s effects during pregnancy, but many healthcare providers advise avoiding it to stay safe.

Overall catnip does not have serious known adverse effects in humans when used occasionally in small amounts. But higher doses may cause headaches, nausea, or diarrhea in some cases. It’s best to start with small quantities of catnip tea or supplements to assess individual tolerance.

Catnip for Cats vs. Humans

Catnip affects cats and humans very differently. For cats, catnip acts as a stimulant that activates the vomeronasal organ in their nose and triggers a euphoric reaction. Cats will often roll around, meow, jump, and play after exposure to catnip. However, humans lack the vomeronasal organ that allows cats to experience this stimulant effect.

Instead, catnip has the opposite effect on humans, acting as a mild sedative and relaxant. The active chemical nepetalactone in catnip can help relieve stress, anxiety, insomnia and headaches in people. Catnip has also been used for treating colds, cramps, and migraines. So while catnip drives cats wild, it can have a calming effect for humans.

cat playing excitedly with catnip filled toy

The reason for the very different reaction is because catnip contains nepetalactone which binds to the vomeronasal organ located in a cat’s mouth, nose and sinus cavities. This organ detects pheromones and triggers a response. However, humans lack this specialized sensory organ, so catnip does not stimulate humans in the same euphoric way it does for cats.

In summary, catnip stimulates cats by activating their vomeronasal organ which humans do not possess. As a result, catnip induces a sense of euphoria in cats but acts as a sedative for humans.

Conclusion

In conclusion, catnip has very different effects on cats compared to humans. Catnip contains an oil called nepetalactone that binds to cat’s olfactory receptors, causing a euphoric effect. When cats smell or ingest catnip, it triggers a response that can make them playful, affectionate, excited, and relaxed. However, catnip does not produce the same neurological response in humans due to differences in brain chemistry. At most, catnip tea may offer mild sedative effects in humans when consumed in large quantities. While catnip intoxicates cats, it does not cause the same recreational high in people. Ultimately, catnip affects cats and humans very differently due to variations in brain wiring across species.

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