Curious About Catnip? Here’s What Happens When Humans Eat It

Catnip is an herb from the mint family that has a strong effect on cats, eliciting several behaviors from them including pawing, rubbing, rolling, and languishing. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines catnip as “a strong-scented perennial herb (Nepeta cataria) of the mint family that has whorls of small pale bluish flowers in terminal spikes and contains a chemical irritant attractive especially to cats.” For centuries, catnip’s effects on domestic cats have been well-known – when cats smell or ingest catnip, it triggers a euphoric state and animated behavior lasting around 5-15 minutes.

While catnip’s effects on cats are well-documented, less is known about how this herb affects humans. In this article, we will explore what happens when a human consumes or otherwise ingests catnip. Topics covered include: catnip’s active chemicals and medicinal properties, safety precautions for human use, potential benefits and side effects, and different methods for consuming catnip.

Catnip’s Effects on Cats

cat rolling in catnip

Catnip contains a chemical compound called nepetalactone that is thought to mimic feline pheromones and trigger a pleasurable response when cats detect it (Source). When cats smell or ingest catnip, the nepetalactone binds to receptors in their noses and stimulates their central nervous system, inducing a temporary euphoric state.

Typical cat behaviors caused by catnip include rolling around, flipping over, rubbing against surfaces, jumping, vocalizing, and playing more actively. The effects usually last between 5-15 minutes before wearing off. Some cats may become overly excited or aggressive when exposed to catnip. Most are not harmed by catnip but it’s best to limit their exposure.

Not all cats respond to catnip – around 30% lack the gene that enables them to detect nepetalactone (Source). Kittens also do not respond to catnip until they are around 3-6 months old and have developed the necessary scent receptors.

Catnip’s Effects on Humans

Catnip does not have the same intoxicating effects on humans as it does on cats. The chemical nepetalactone that causes the euphoric reaction in cats has little to no effect on the human nervous system.

Some people report feeling a mild sedative effect after consuming catnip tea, similar to the effects of chamomile tea. The relaxing effect is likely caused by additional active compounds in catnip beyond nepetalactone.

While catnip is generally considered safe for human consumption, there is limited research on potential medicinal uses. Some proponents claim catnip tea can help relieve anxiety, insomnia, headaches and digestive issues. However, more studies are needed to substantiate these uses.

Overall, catnip does not produce an intoxicating high in humans like it does in cats. The mild sedative effect some people experience may impart minor therapeutic benefits, but claims of significant medicinal properties require further scientific investigation.


Active Chemicals in Catnip

The main active chemical compound in catnip that causes a euphoric reaction in cats is called nepetalactone. Nepetalactone is an organic compound that is classified as a bicyclic monoterpenoid (ScienceDaily, 2018). When cats detect nepetalactone, it binds to receptors in their noses and stimulates a response that affects their brains and triggers playful behavior. Nepetalactone occurs naturally in the leaves and stems of the catnip plant (JIC, 2018).

catnip plant

In addition to nepetalactone, catnip contains other terpenoids like citral and nerol, as well as volatile oils like citronellyl acetate and geraniol. While nepetalactone is known to be the main driver of cats’ attraction to catnip, some of the other terpenoids and volatile compounds may also play a role in stimulating cats (JIC, 2018). However, more research is needed to understand the specific effects and mechanisms of these other chemicals in catnip.

Other Uses for Catnip

Besides being a favorite treat for cats, catnip has a variety of other traditional and modern uses for humans as well. Some of the most common alternative uses for catnip include:

Repelling insects – Catnip contains nepetalactone which can help repel mosquitos, flies, and other insects when applied topically or burned as an incense. Crushed catnip leaves can be rubbed on the skin or catnip essential oil can be diluted and sprayed as an insect repellant. Catnip sachets can also help repel insects when placed around the home.

Relief for headaches/stress – Catnip has been used for centuries as a folk remedy for relieving tension headaches and stress when made into a tea or tincture. According to some studies like this one by WebMD, catnip may have mild sedative effects that can ease headaches and relax the mind when consumed. However, larger human studies are still needed.

Tea/tinctures – Dried catnip leaves can be steeped to make a soothing, minty herbal tea. Catnip tinctures made by soaking the leaves in alcohol can also be taken in small amounts as an herbal remedy. Many people find catnip tea or tinctures useful for promoting sleep and relaxation.

Culinary uses – Young catnip shoots and leaves have a minty flavor and can be used as an herb in various foods and beverages. The essence from catnip leaves is sometimes used as a flavoring ingredient in sauces, soups, and even alcoholic drinks.

Growing and Preparing Catnip

Catnip is a perennial herb that grows easily in most climates. Catnip grows best in soil with a pH between 6.0-7.0 and full sun exposure. It can thrive in both outdoor gardens and indoor containers. Catnip can grow to around 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide when planted outdoors. It has green leaves and produces small white or pale purple flower clusters in late summer.

harvesting catnip

Catnip can be grown from seed, transplants, or root divisions. Sow seeds indoors 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost. Transplant seedlings or purchased plants into the garden after the threat of frost has passed. Space plants 18-24 inches apart. Once established, catnip is drought tolerant and requires little care beyond occasional watering and weeding.

The leaves and flowers of catnip can be harvested as soon as the plant reaches 6 inches in height. To dry, cut stems just above ground level and hang bundles upside down in a dark, dry location for 1-2 weeks. Once dried, leaves easily crumble off stems. Store dried leaves in sealed containers away from light and moisture. Dried catnip retains its potency for up to 2 years.

Catnip can also be frozen or preserved in salt, sugar, syrup, alcohol, or oil. Freezing maintains the aromatic oils better than drying. To freeze, place leaves in a single layer on a baking sheet and put in the freezer. Once frozen, transfer to airtight bags or containers. Freeze for up to one year.

When harvesting catnip, leave at least one third of each plant intact to enable regrowth. Established catnip readily re-grows after cutting. Harvest 2-3 times per growing season by cutting stems to within an inch or two of the ground. Regular harvesting encourages growth and higher essential oil production.

Safety Precautions

While catnip is generally considered safe for human consumption, there are some potential side effects and precautions to be aware of:

Possible side effects in humans: Consuming catnip may cause headaches, nausea, or dizziness in some people. The active chemical nepetalactone is a stimulant and can have similar effects to caffeine. Catnip should be consumed in moderation.

Unsafe for pregnant women: According to this research paper Food-Borne Chemical Carcinogens and the Evidence for Their Role in the Etiology of Cancers in Humans, pregnant women should avoid consuming catnip as its safety has not been established during pregnancy. Catnip may stimulate uterine contractions.

Interactions with medications: Catnip can act as a stimulant, so it may interact with sedative medications. Those taking any medications should consult their doctor before consuming catnip.

Possible Benefits of Catnip for Humans

Despite catnip’s reputation for driving cats wild, it may actually have a calming effect when consumed by humans. Catnip contains compounds like nepetalactone that can act as mild sedatives and relaxants when ingested as a tea or supplement.

There is also some evidence that catnip has potential antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and immune-boosting properties that may benefit human health:

Anti-inflammatory Effects

Catnip has been shown to reduce inflammation in animal studies. The active compounds may inhibit inflammatory signaling pathways and lower production of inflammatory markers like nitric oxide and tumor necrosis factor-alpha (1).

Antioxidant Content

Catnip contains polyphenols and flavonoids that act as antioxidants in the body. These compounds can help neutralize free radicals and may protect cells against damage (2).

Immune System Benefits

Some research suggests catnip may help stimulate the immune system. Compounds in catnip may increase immune cell activity and enhance the body’s defenses against illness and infection (3).

More research is still needed, but catnip shows promise as a beneficial supplement for humans when consumed in moderation.

How to Consume Catnip

Catnip can be consumed in several ways by humans. The most common methods include drinking catnip tea, taking a catnip tincture, smoking the leaves, or using it as an ingredient in foods or drinks.

When consuming catnip, it’s important to start with a low dosage. The recommended dosage is 1-2 grams of dried catnip leaves to make a cup of tea, or 15-30 drops of catnip tincture. Some sources suggest limiting catnip consumption to 1-2 times per day for adults.

drinking catnip tea

To make catnip tea, steep 1-2 grams of dried catnip leaves in 8 ounces of hot (not boiling) water for 5-10 minutes. You can add honey or lemon for flavor. Catnip tinctures can be found at some health food stores and online. Place 15-30 drops under the tongue or mix into water.

Smoking catnip leaves is possible, but not recommended as a primary method of consumption. Only a small amount is needed when smoking. Culinary uses of catnip include incorporating it into sauces, salads, soups and meats. Start with 1 teaspoon per recipe and adjust to taste.

When trying catnip for the first time, it’s wise to start with a lower dosage to assess your individual tolerance and response. Consume small amounts slowly over time, rather than all at once. Avoid operating heavy machinery or driving after consuming catnip until you understand its effects.


In summary, while catnip does not have the same intoxicating effects on humans as it does on cats, some people do choose to consume it. The active chemical compound that causes a high in cats, nepetalactone, does not appear to have the same effects in people. However, some individuals report feeling relaxed or even euphoric after drinking catnip tea or eating the leaves. There is also some evidence that catnip may have anti-inflammatory and anti-anxiety properties when consumed. Like with any herbal supplement though, moderation is key.

Overall, occasional catnip consumption appears to be safe for most people, but more research is still needed on its effects. Some people may experience side effects like upset stomach or headache. As with any new substance, it’s recommended to start with a small amount and discontinue use if any negative effects occur. While catnip can be an interesting novelty, it does not produce an intense high or recreational benefit for humans like it does for cats. The enjoyment seems to come more from the experience itself rather than any potent psychoactive properties in people. However, catnip remains a beloved treat and stimulant for cats and a curiosity for some adventurous humans.

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