Have you ever watched a cat playing with a catnip toy and wondered what the experience was like? An estimated 70-90% of domestic cats have some reaction to this member of the mint family, and it's hard not to be curious. After all, who wouldn't want to share in the giddy frenzy or blissful relaxation of a playtime session with their feline friend? Throughout history many cultures have experimented with Nepeta cataria, commonly known as catnip, the extent of which might surprise you.
For felines, the main attractant in catnip is a chemical called nepetalactone. This oil is metabolized in the cat's body and passes harmlessly through urine. How humans discovered the effect that the herb had on animals is unclear. It is also unclear when humans began using it for themselves. However, there are countless records of humans using catnip for medicinal purposes. Its use in the treatment of illnesses was prominent enough for catnip to be included in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1840-1890. Catnip has been used to treat nervousness, menstrual cramps, digestive tract irritation, colds, and the flu. It was only a matter of time before curiosity got the best of people and they decided to explore even more applications. Eventually there surfaced yet another potential use of catnip: as an intoxicant.
The intoxicating effect of catnip has long since been the stuff of urban legends. According to one paper on catnip, it was used as a "filler" in (or even in place of) marijuana in the 1960's. Today, an Internet search for "catnip human intoxicant" yields more than 10,000 results. Despite this number, the vast majority of published experiences have come from individuals, not research groups. Most indicate the ingestion of catnip via drinking tea or smoking, either by itself or mixed with tobacco. And the effects are…reportedly, nothing like Fluffy's.
Most people indicate mild feelings of relaxation or drowsiness, coupled with complaints of foul taste or smell. At higher doses, some users feel nauseous. Some have suggested that the lightheaded feeling sometimes caused by smoking catnip is due to simple lack of oxygen in the body. Notably lacking are the euphoric or hallucinogenic experiences suggested by feline reactions to the herb.
In short, catnip has a long history of human use and is still included today in many natural remedy compendiums. Although it might help quell a stomachache or calm frazzled nerves, humans experience few, if any, intoxicating effects from catnip. So when it comes to "feelin' groovy", it's best to leave the toy mice to the cats.