By Dr. Mercola
Closely related to mint and oregano, thyme is an evergreen herb that's had scores of uses over millennia, stemming most often from adding zest to foods and as an ancient medicinal.
Traditional therapies often involved thyme in different forms to relieve chest congestion and coughs. Greeks and Romans consumed it both as an antidote for poison and to prevent the plague.
In the Middle Ages, people placed thyme under pillows to inhibit nightmares and in their baths to purify themselves for religious rites. The Romans believed it could impart energy and valor, even sprinkling it in cheese and alcohol to prevent the doldrums.
In some early cultures, thyme was tucked in hats and pockets to help overcome fear, prior to battle or asking a father for his daughter's hand, and exchanged by Roman soldiers as a token of respect. That's how thyme came to be associated with courage and bravery.
As it turns out, there are good reasons for all these uses. Today, clinical studies indicate there's a long list of highly effective uses for health, including:
✓ Pain relief of cramps, headaches and body aches
✓ Respiratory ailments
✓ Food contamination prevention and remediation
✓ Antibacterial and wound healer
✓ Oral health
✓ Microbial and food preservative
From the Beginning: Thyme
To explore the word's origins, we need to go back — literally — to its southern Mediterranean roots.
The Oxford Dictionary says the Latin form of "thyme" was derived from the Greek word "thumon," associated with the words "burn" and "sacrifice." Then again, an ancient Greek form, "thumus," denotes courage. The Old French "thym," circa the 1400s, is closer to the Middle English pronunciation we use today.
From Native American sacred herb-burning rituals called smudging to the Greek and Roman tradition of leaving smoking bundles of thyme in homes and temples for purification, this herb was close to every aspect of life and death. Greeks believed its incense could ward off evil. In fact, one of its original meanings was "to fumigate."
Egyptians, for whom the word "tham" meant "fragrant," used it for mummification, completely unaware that thyme contains the compound thymol, which has strong bactericidal and fungicidal properties.
Regarding the purification rites that took place long before there were any studies available, it's interesting that the Sumerians who lived in the first Mesopotamian civilization in around 2700 B.C. used thyme as an antiseptic.
We'll probably never know how many of our ancestors' lives were saved because, during the Black Death that swept through Europe, Scandinavia, Asia and Africa in the mid-1300s, killing around 75 million, people used thyme for both relief and protection.
Garlands of thyme and other herbs were worn around the neck, and poultices were effective for easing blisters. These measures must have been effective. Clear through the Victorian era, nurses soaked used cloth bandages in a solution of thyme, which disinfected them.
Thymus Vulgaris: What Thyme Is It?
Botanically, there are more than 400 types of Thymus vulgaris, but few are suitable for culinary use. Most are ornamental, but they appear very similar. Pleasantly fragrant thyme varieties for the kitchen are French, caraway and lemon.
One of the best aspects for herbal gardeners (if you'll pardon yet another pun) is that thyme literally takes care of itself.
Other than removing dried leaves that may be nestling around it, springtime demands only sunshine and nearly any amount of water for perennial herbal bounty. Only when the soil is thoroughly dry do you need to worry about giving it a good drink.
At its seasonal peak, thyme has elongated teardrop-shaped leaves in shades of olive, silvery green or even bronze. Left to themselves (because you should harvest beforehand) they also bear a sprinkling of tiny, delicate, pink, lavender or white blossoms.
Gardeners love thyme for its ability to thrive between rocks and flagstone, or in containers, creeping, climbing or spraying in lush profusion. It grows quickly, so allow for that — 12 to 24 inches apart is good — if you're setting it among other garden vegetables or herbs.
'A Thyme for Every Purpose Under Heaven'
As the song goes, there's a time for everything. But no matter the era or culture, health inevitably takes top priority for optimal quality of life. That's why thyme and other herbs had a revered place in medicine troves from Native Americans to primordial Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
Although ancient civilizations may not have known why, thyme has a powerful and diverse set of nutrients that explains its value in treating and preventing disease. One study reported:
"It was (shown) that the essential oil of thyme and the compound thymol have antimicrobial activity in vitro against E. coli strains … (and) also highlights the potential use of the essential oil of thyme as a substitute for artificial inhibitors of food spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms."1
Another study noted that thyme essential oil and its compounds thymol and carvacrol were used as antimicrobial agents that strongly inhibited Staphalococcus aureus and Bacillus subtilis.2
A team of microbiologists published findings from another trial revealing thyme's effectiveness on a MRSA superbug, which annihilated the bacteria within two hours with no effect to surrounding skin.3
Reviews have also noted that herbal preparations of thyme may be a more effective treatment for acne than prescription creams, with greater antibacterial effect than benzoyl peroxide but, again, without the skin irritation.
Regarding the use of thyme to treat depression or Alzheimer's, a Science Daily study reported:
"Apigenin, a substance found in parsley, thyme, chamomile and red pepper, improves neuron formation and strengthens the connections between brain cells, new lab research demonstrates …
Apigenin works by binding to estrogen receptors, which affect the development, maturation, function, and plasticity of the nervous system.
This group of hormones is known to delay the onset of psychiatric and neurodegenerative disorders such as schizophrenia, depression, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease."4
Nutritional attributes of thyme include impressive amounts of vitamin C and K, as well as vitamin A, fiber, riboflavin, iron, copper and manganese. You'll also find calcium, manganese, vitamin B6, folate, phosphorus, potassium and zinc. You'll note several of those ingredients as helpful for colds, sore throats and coughs.
Germany's Commission E, a governmental agency that oversees the use of herbs used for medicine, has approved the use of thyme for respiratory tract infections, including whooping cough and bronchitis.
In fact, the Swiss "herb drop" company at ricola.com5 has designated thyme as the "strongest" of its top 10 "magic" herbs. Here's one reason why:
"Thymol, the main component of Thyme, is regarded as a very effective disinfectant. This is presumably the reason why it is still used to clean patients' rooms or old buildings.
The bitters have an astringent action. Legend has it that this harnesses strength and courage. The tannins additionally repair injured mucous membrane, so that strengths are not drained."
The site also reveals:
"Renowned herbalist and pioneer of folk remedies, Pfarrer Künzle, described the plant as follows, 'An excellent herb in teas to treat stomach complaints and cleanse the lungs of mucous. Let the steam an infusion of Thyme run through the ears and nasal passages to strengthen the nerves of the ears, nose and brain and prevent fainting and strokes. A compress of Thyme also helps you get a good night's sleep.'"
It's About Thyme
A site dedicated to cancer prevention, called Eat to Beat Cancer,6 states:
"The essential oils of thyme contain up to 54 [percent] thymol, a natural phenol, which is very aromatic. Some thyme varieties have hints of oregano because they also contain carvacrol which is the essential oil of oregano. In addition to its pleasant aroma and distinct flavor, thymol is a biocide, with antiseptic and medicinal properties."
Studies show that thyme increases the omega-3 fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) in the brains of animals in studies, which may mean thyme can heighten brain function in the elderly as well as in children with attention deficit disorder. Eat to Beat Cancer adds:
"Thyme is rich in anrtiangiogenic phenol content, including apigenin, luteolin, eriodictyol, rosmarinic acid and quercetin. Luteolin is the primary phenolic compound in thyme that confers anti-angiogenic and anti-cancer properties. In an epidemiological study including over 66,000 women, women in the highest quintile of luteolin consumption were found to have a 34 [percent] decrease in ovarian cancer incidence compared to those in the lowest quintile.
In laboratory studies, luteolin inhibited human ovarian cancer cell proliferation and decreased the expression of the angiogenic growth factor, VEGF. Other studies suggest this VEGF-inhibiting activity is dependent on the particular aromatic ring structure of luteolin and other similar phenolic compounds. In both skin cancer cells and mouse models, luteolin inhibited ultraviolet radiation-induced skin cancers."
Thyme in a Bottle for Culinary Diversity
Of course thyme is a versatile herb used all by itself or in combination with other aromatic plants to enhance specific dishes. Bouquet garni of French origin, for instance, is created by tying sprigs of fresh thyme together with parsley and bay leaves for flavorful stews and soup stock.
Ground rosemary and fennel seeds combined with thyme, oregano, marjoram, lavender, basil, parsley and tarragon make the classic Herbs de Provence for savory fish, chicken, beef and pork dishes and roasted vegetables.
An easy salad dressing recipe featuring thyme is 1 tablespoon of freshly chopped thyme leaves with 3 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 tablespoon of white wine vinegar and a sprinkle of salt and pepper over your greens. As a variation, 1 teaspoon of honey and 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese adds extra dimension. You can also simply sprinkle it in soups, scrambled eggs and sautéed vegetables for delicious variety.
In fact, research shows it's a good idea to include thyme and other herbs with antimicrobial constituents in your salads. One study7 reported that thyme essential oil decontaminated lettuce inoculated with the infectious organism Shigella, which causes intestinal damage and diarrhea.
Researchers said even the low concentration of 1 percent lowered the number of Shigella bacteria to undetectable levels, and concluded that adding fresh thyme to dressing enhances the flavor but also allows you to eat your fresh produce without worrying.
Saving Thyme — Otherwise Known as Propagation
How serendipitous is it that this herb can be more than just attractive, but incorporated as part of your plan, like Hippocrates said, to consider "food as your medicine and medicine as your food?" The best part is that you can easily grow it yourself. Even if space is an issue, you can grow it in a container and set it in a window for fresh clippings or drying.
Once it's established, there are a few different ways of "spreading the love" of thyme, depending on your climate. These are best done in the spring a few weeks after the last frost, or when the soil reaches around 70 degrees.
- One — Propagate from cuttings. Snip a 3- or 4-inch sprig of thyme, douse it in rooting hormone (available at nearly any garden center) and plant in vermiculite or clean sand. In about six weeks, you can transfer it to a small pot for a root ball to form before transferring to its final resting place in your garden or large pot.
- Two — Propagate by layering. After cutting a long tendril from the stem, position it on the soil where you want it to grow using U-shaped metal stakes that resemble long, sturdy staples to hold it close to the earth and allowing 4 inches at the tip to grow at will. In about four weeks, roots will form along the stem. At this point, cut the stem away from the "mother" plant for transfer.
Just in Thyme Chicken Salad
- 2 cups dark-meat chicken, cooked & chopped
- 1/2 cup raw cashews
- 2 stalks organic celery, chopped
- Small handful organic fresh Italian parsley, chopped (may also use curly parsley)
- 2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
- 1/3 cup red onion, chopped
- 1/2 cup to 1 cup fresh, raw cream
- 1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard
- Splash of organic olive oil
- Juice of 1/2 lemon
Place chicken, cashews, celery, parsley, thyme and onion in medium-sized bowl. Add lemon juice, raw cream and mustard (the secret ingredient). Add a splash of organic olive oil and mix well.