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Catnip could be used as insect repellent, study finds

Experts are hopeful that this will help consumers fight off mosquitoes

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Photo (c) Thorsten Nilson EyeEm - Getty Images
As climate change creates a better global environment for mosquitoes to thrive, and the risk of insect-borne diseases increases, finding a safe and effective bug repellent will become even more important. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University has found that catnip could be a potential solution for consumers to get rid of bugs in and around their yards. 

“We discovered that catnip and its active ingredient Nepetalactone activates the irritant receptor TRPA1, an ancient pain receptor found in animals as diverse as flatworms, fruit flies, and humans,” said researcher Marco Gallio. “We now think catnip is so aversive to so many insect species because it activates this widespread irritant receptor.” 

Reducing the risk of mosquito-borne illness

The researchers put catnip to the test by exposing it to several different kinds of insects. The team paid particular attention to mosquitoes and analyzed how it affected the bugs without posing any risks to human exposure. 

The study found that when mosquitoes and other bugs came into contact with catnip, it activated the TRPA1 receptor. Humans and other animals also have this receptor, and it’s activated by foods or plants with really strong, pungent smells. Once the receptor is activated in bugs, it triggers pain or itchiness, which is what deters them from staying near the affected areas. 

“What is particularly interesting is that, unlike wasabi or garlic compounds that also activate these receptors in humans, catnip appears to selectively activate the insect receptor,” Gallio said. “This explains why humans are indifferent to it, and provides a serious advantage for its use as a repellent.” 

In terms of efficacy, the researchers found that catnip was equally as effective as products that contain DEET -- one of the most widely used active ingredients in many popular insect repellents. 

A cost-effective and safe option

These findings can be helpful to consumers because catnip is easy to come by and it’s cost-effective. While the researchers have yet to figure out how catnip can be used to ward off bugs without attracting local cats, they think it can act as a natural and safe way for consumers to protect their yards from bugs. 

“Mosquitoes, in particular those that act as a vector for disease, are becoming a bigger problem as climate change creates attractive conditions for them farther north and south of the equator,” said researcher Marcus C. Stensmyr. “Plant-derived compounds represent a new emerging approach to developing insect repellents, as plants have long known how to protect themselves from insect pests.” 

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