Monday, December 3, 2012

Medical Mondays: Wintergreen Party tricks, Poison, and Ben Gay!

I've been fascinated by wintergreen ever since I read this passage in Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder. 

“Under the snow on the south slopes the bright red berries were ripe among their thick green leaves. Almanzo took off his mittens and pawed away the snow with his bare hands. He found the red clusters and filled his mouth full. The cold berries crunched between his teeth, gushing out their aromatic juice.
“Nothing else was ever so good as wintergreen berries dug out of the snow.”
Later on, they'd collect the glossy wintergreen leaves and cram them into a jar, filling it with whisky. The liquid would be then be used as wintergreen flavoring, for cakes and cookies. 



Wintergreen and berries. Source: Wikipedia

Wintergreen is the plant  Gaultheria procumbens. You guys know it as a flavoring in candy, gum, chewing tobacco, confections, drinks, and toothpaste and mouthwash. Hello BenGay. (That's why achy people smell like that!)

Historically, it's been used as a topical medicine, to treat joint pain, fevers, headaches, and other symptoms. When the wintergreen oil was rubbed into the skin, it provided an immediate cooling sensation. 

The main ingredient in oil of wintergreen is methyl salicylate. Which I made in high school organic chemistry class! It was so fun. First, you take some methanol (wood alcohol--ooh, I made that in eighth grade. Set it on fire, too!) and add it to crushed aspirin tablets (acetyl salicylic acid) and then add some sulfuric acid. You cook it a while, and then...

Are you with me? Yes? No?

Well, it was fun, I tell you. At the end of it all, you get methyl salicylate. It smelled so good! Want to try? (DON'T do this at home. But DO suggest to your organic chemistry teacher that this be your next lab project when you study esters. Here's the method on making it in orgo class. Esters are THE funnest part of organic chemistry. Almost as fun as making nylon. Try making the Juicy Fruit ester! Isoamyl acetate, I love you. Okay, I'll shut up now.)

Methyl salicylate, like aspirin, can be poisonous in high doses. One single teaspoon (5ml) of methyl salicylate is the equivalent of 23 tablets of aspirin! People, particularly children, have overdosed and died from rubbing too much of a methyl salicylate muscle-pain relief cream into their bodies. 

Other factoids:

Apparently, oil of wintergreen is really useful for rust removal and degreasing machinery. Good to know, sort of.

And, the best of all, wintergreen is triboluminescent, which means it lights up when crushed. Remember this party trick? Take a Wint-o-green Lifesaver, go into the bathroom, turn out the light, and aggressively chew the Lifesaver with your mouth open (messy and not attractive. Good thing the lights are out.) And this is what you'll see: 


Neat, right? 

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43 comments:

Carrie Butler said...

Wow. How cool is that? Wrigley should sponsor this post! :)

Stephen Tremp said...

Its also good for getting rid of ants. Just use the oil liquid form and spread it around areas ants invade. Especially during the hot summer months when ants are seeking relief in the cool of your house over the heat of the outside.

Shelley Munro said...

I've seen wintergreen in relation to sweets, but I had no idea what it looked like. Gotta love science experiments. Yours sound like fun!

mooderino said...

I never did any of this fun stuff when I was in chemistry class. The nearest I got was finding old chewing gum stuck under the desk. Didn't smell good at all.


mood
Moody Writing

Shelly said...

Wow- very informative. I had NO idea oil of wintergreen had methyl salicylate in it, and that will prompt me to call my dr. today as I can't have aspirin in any form. You did a great deed for me today- thank you!

Old Kitty said...

Lydia!!! Is that you crunching away!??! Are those your teeth?!?! LOL!!!

I like how it may flavour whiskey! Yum! Take care
x

Dianne K. Salerni said...

I did not know that about Wintergreen Life Savers! I'll have to give that a try!

Connie Keller said...

Cool. Wintergreen lifesavers are now on my grocery list. And wintergreen is now on my to-buy plant list. Thanks!

Laura Pauling said...

I'll be sure to tell my husband that it can remove grease! :)

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I remember reading about a girl who died from applying too much Ben Gay to her muscles. Scary stuff.

Susan Fields said...

You remember what you made in eighth grade and in high school chemistry class? You must have been paying much better attention than I was! And I love that Laura Ingalls Wilder quote - when I read that I can almost taste it.

Sarah said...

Orgo was what made me decide to be a psychologist instead of a physician. Yet you make it sound so fun!

Matthew MacNish said...

You know the most fascinating details about all the things!

Anne Gallagher said...

Love that Life Saver. My brothers used to do that all the time.

Carol Kilgore said...

Color me out of the loop on this one. Wintergreen isn't my favorite, and now I know why. As a kid I often had bronchitis. Mom slathered my chest with BenGay, patted my flannel pjs into it, and made me lay under the covers. I hated that smell, and still do today. It's a wonder I'm still alive after such treatment.

Louise Bates said...

We used to hunt wintergreen at my grandparents' camp. Always such a thrill to find those red berries and scarf them down before anyone else stumbled on your patch! We would chew the leaves, if the berries weren't in season, or sometimes pick them, put them in a pitcher, fill the pitcher with water, and let it all set for a few hours before straining it and putting it the fridge. Wintergreen iced tea!

Karen Lange said...

I did not know this. Although I did remember the part in the Little House books (thanks for jogging my memory!). Fun stuff, thanks!

LTM said...

Hey, sistah! omg! I don't remember that part from Farmer Boy! But it's been YEARS since I read it... that one wasn't really my fave. :P You're cracking me UP with the whole cooking in chemistry part. Wintergreen... mmmm... :o) <3

Linda Gray said...

Wow, that was an amazing video! I totally missed out on that party trick when I was a kid. I love it. Also, I'm so impressed by how much fun you had in organic chemistry. . . hope all docs feel that way!

Bossy Betty said...

I've been chomping Wintergreen Lifesavers in the dark for years. My dentist urges me to continue. Hummmm....

B.E. Sanderson said...

Neat post, Lydia. I never knew there was a wintergreen plant. I guess I just figured they'd 'created' the flavor in a lab. Thanks for setting me straight. =o)

mshatch said...

Thank you for that tidbit; I am filing it away under plants that will likely come in handy at some point :)

Barbara Watson said...

I wish I'd remembered those lines from Farmer Boy, but my son probably does. He's read and re-read it many times.

lbdiamond said...

Cool! Literally, LOL!

Elizabeth Seckman said...

I loved chemistry...unfortunately, my math skills are deplorable. I had fun, but it was a tough class to maintain an A in!

vbtremper said...

I'm not known for science, but I did love Chemistry class and was good at it, but we sure didn't make methanol or methyl salicylate.

Fun post!
-Vicki

Alz said...

I used to do that with the Wint-o-Green Lifesavers! I ate like a whole roll at once because I wasn't getting the sparks at first, and after I did, I wanted to see more, again, and again, and oops, they're all gone.

Jay Noel said...

Utterly fascinating. I'm going to try the wintergreen Lifesaver thing. It's been a few decades.

Krispy said...

I learned the Wint-o-Green lifesaver trick at marine-bio camp in Elementary school. We went on a night hike and in the darkness of a grove of trees, our counselor handed out lifesavers and taught us that trick!

JEFritz said...

This should be tagged "Interesting Wintergreen Facts" :). Orgo lab would have smelled a lot better if we did that experiment. Instead we did something stupid and the lab almost caught fire.

alexia said...

Interesting. Now I know what some of your tweets were referring to!!

A Lady's Life said...

I see red berries every where but I will never try to taste any of them lol
Winter green is a good thing to know about Thanks :)

Miranda Hardy said...

My daughter has Chemistry this year. I need to let her read this post. She might get a kick out of it.

Coleen Patrick said...

Now I know how to get thru the next cocktail party--bring a roll of wintermints! ;)

Romance Book Haven said...

I heard of Wintergreen so many times and yet just now found out all it's uses! Thanks Lydia!

Nas

Dushana Yoganathan Triola said...

Yay Laura Ingalls! I used to open up the twigs from birch trees, since there was a rumor that it tastes like wintergreen mint inside. Well, I thought they were birch trees :/

David P. King said...

I used to use Ben Gay before. Not anymore. Who knew free massages would happen when you're married (well, not free, they have a cost - you have to give a massage back, but I think that's a fair trade). I've missed these posts! So glad you're still doing them. :)

Lynda R Young said...

Ha, I'd not heard of Wintergreen before. Super cool info here.

Catherine Stine said...

Who knew? I always like to read your medical posts. Personally, I love the triboluminescent aspect. Yeah!

Bathwater said...

You always have a way of making this stuff sound so interesting.

Makes you want to take the Christmas decorations down and start experimenting.

Sherrie Petersen said...

Okay, now I want to go buy a pack of Wint-o-green Lifesavers and chew them up in the dark with my kids :)

Jai Joshi said...

Holy crap, you made me want to go check out a lifesaver right now. Haha!

Jai

Eva Inka Nurmaisya said...


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