By Dr. Mercola
When someone decides to begin growing an herb garden, thyme is one of the most often-chosen herbs, in part because it's very useful in a number of dishes to create depth and complexity. It's becoming more and more clear how beneficial thyme is to health and, serendipitously, as a perennial thyme reappears year after year. There are several thyme varieties that are delicious in a range of dishes from soup to eggs, bruschetta and in savory sauces and salad dressings.
Recipes can be enhanced by using different thymes with recognizable foodie fragrances, such as lemon thyme, or lime, orange, balsam, nutmeg, caraway, coconut and oregano thyme. Creeping thyme is often used as a hardy ornamental ground cover or between flagstone pavers. These are designated Thymus serpyllum, with a crown of tiny white, lavender, bronze or rose-colored flowers and even tinier leaves, but they're still edible. Thymus vulgaris, however, is the type most used for cooking.
Medicinal Uses for Thyme
While thyme is considered a popular herb in today's modern world (along with the parsley, sage and rosemary mentioned in the classic Simon & Garfunkel song) it's just a continuation of the cultivation that was going on prior to its 14th century use as a treatment for diarrhea, stomach ache, arthritis, colic, sore throat, cough (including whooping cough), bronchitis and flatulence, and to increase urination, according to Medical News Today.1
It's an ancient herb, highly esteemed in many different cultures and areas of the world. Sort of like the cod liver oil of the 18th century, all of thyme's healing capabilities weren't known; people knew it had a lot of remarkable advantages, so they used it for practically everything, almost like a talisman:
"Ancient Egypt, thyme was used for embalming …The Romans used thyme as a flavoring for cheese and alcoholic beverages. They are also said to have offered it as a cure for people who were melancholic or shy. They are believed to have introduced it to the British Isles.
Hippocrates, who lived around 460 B.C. to 370 B.C., and who is known today as 'the father of Western medicine,' recommended thyme for respiratory diseases and conditions. It was grown in gardens and gathered in the countryside."2
Thyme gained a reputation for both healing and protecting; in Rome, for instance, it was thought to protect from poison, making it a safety net of sorts for royals whose thrones were coveted. Emperors and kings bathed in warm water sodden with thyme branches in case they'd been poisoned.
In Europe of the 1340s, the Black Death killed a third of the population, but millions used thyme for protection, as a garland worn around their necks to "ward off" the illness, or as a poultice applied directly to blistered skin. Centuries later, nurses soaked cloth bandages in thyme-infused water, and that was well before they had the information we have today regarding infections and sterilization. Every Green Herb adds:
"Thyme essential oil stimulates blood flow to tissues. It helps heal bruises, sprains and other injuries. The oil is antiseptic, antispasmodic, diuretic and a good decongestant. Thyme essential oil is used in the treatments of the respiratory system, the immune system and as an aid to digestion.
It is also a good home remedy when treating gout, rheumatism, wounds, sores, water retention, menstrual problems, menopausal symptoms, bad breath, body odor, fatigue, nausea, depression, colic, gas, scar tissue, oily skin, colds, poor circulation, sore throat, sinusitis, anorexia, cellulite, eczema, athlete's foot, dermatitis, insect bites, stings and laryngitis."3
The 'Active Ingredient' That Makes a Point in Thyme
According to Medical News Today, thymol, aptly called "oil of thyme," has antibacterial, antiseptic and antimicrobial properties, even standing up against such virulent bacteria as E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis and Shigella.4,5 In fact, as much as 60 percent of thyme essential oil may be made up of thymol.6 Other volatile oils in thyme include carvacrol, borneol and geraniol.
The scent thyme emits that was — and is — beneficial as a purifier is still a frequently used fragrance in relaxing aromatherapies and even helps deter moths, fleas, mosquitoes and lice, while stimulating your mind, strengthening your memory and calming your nerves.7 In one study, thyme was found to support brain health. Animal experiments supported its potency in two different ways. Mice were divided and half were given a thyme supplement while the others got a placebo.
When their brains were analyzed, scientists found that the animals receiving thyme had significantly higher antioxidant enzyme activities and total antioxidants than mice given a placebo. Secondly, the levels of healthy fats, including omega-3s, were "significantly" higher in the thyme-treated mice.8 Healthy Fellow9 reports findings from another study, which revealed:
" … [T]he addition of 5 percent of either rosemary or thyme could mitigate the ill effects of a 'Western-style high-fat diet' in a group of mice that was examined for 12 weeks. The authors theorized that the benefits were the result of positive changes relating to the 'inhibition of platelets and stimulation of endothelial cells.'"10
Thyme can even be found in popular brands of mouthwash and Vicks VapoRub, which testifies to the fact that as arguably not-so-natural as these products may be, makers chose to incorporate one of the most ancient healing remedies known in the natural world. Below are some of the ways thyme can positively impact your health, according to natural medicine expert Dr. Josh Axe11 and Medical News Today:
- Helps fight sore throat due to the carvacrol content
- Has mood-boosting effects
- Shown to fight cancer, principally colon cancer12 and breast cancer13
- Can help prevent food poisoning14
- Is a natural remedy for bronchitis15
- Lowers blood pressure and helps optimize cholesterol levels
- Kills larvae of the tiger mosquito, which spreads many serious tropical diseases16
- Heals fungal infections, eczema-like lesions,17 canker sores and acne better than prescriptions18
- Kills the fungus Candida albican, which can cause mouth and vaginal yeast infections
'Thyme' to Start Your Herb Garden
The first thing you have to decide when you bring home a small pot of thyme or seeds for backyard planting is where to place them to ensure they'll get plenty of sun. Then, besides what Rodale's Organic Life19 describes as needing "dry, gritty soil," the only other prerequisites for healthy growth are good drainage and plenty of water in the heat of summer.
If you start with a root, thyme will multiply very quickly, so you may need to keep your eye on it every few weeks to make sure it doesn't overtake other herbs and plants, according to Yolanda Vanveen,20 a sustainable gardener from Kalama, Washington. In fact, while timid gardeners may feel they need more specific information about how to grow thyme, you can relax because as the saying goes, if you plant it, it will grow.
You can also start thyme from seed indoors. In northern planting zones that are particularly harsh, covering plants with evergreen boughs is one way to help protect them so they'll return again in the spring. Beds of thyme don't require a severe cutback in the fall, either, as some plants do. Another succinct perspective worth noting comes from Every Green Herb, making a few more excellent points regarding the successful cultivation of thyme:
"It may grow to a height of 12 inches with woody twig like stems and tiny oval leaves. Creeping or wild thymes may have a more delicate appearance. Clip often to encourage new growth. Propagate by divisions, stem cuttings or root cuttings. Thyme should be harvested before and during flowering. Store dried thyme in a cool, dark, dry place."21
Harvesting the plant is easy, too: When thyme begins to flower, cut the top half off the branches and hang them in a shady place, say in the garage or barn, or place them on baking sheets in the oven or in a food dehydrator. Once they're dry, you can strip the leaves off and store them in a dark corner of your pantry until you're ready to use them.
Using Thyme for Its Medical Benefits
Thyme is a rich source of vitamin A for enhanced vision, vitamin C for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties and B6, aka pyridoxine, to help maintain brain health. Other vitamins in thyme include vitamins E and K and folic acid. Minerals, Health Beckon notes, include:
"… Potassium, calcium, iron, manganese, magnesium and selenium, potassium, being an important component of cells and body fluids, controls heart rate and blood pressure. Manganese is a co-factor for the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase. Iron is involved in red blood cell formation."22
If you've read some of the incredible clinical studies and testimonials regarding thyme and how it can be used in food to take advantage of its healing properties, you may be interested to know how much to use for different applications. According to Care2.com:
- To treat a cough, respiratory infection, bronchitis or similar problems, the flavonoids in thyme are said to relax your tracheal muscles linked to inflammation. Make a tea by adding 2 teaspoons of crushed fresh or dried thyme to a cup of boiling water, steeping for 10 to 15 minutes before straining with a mesh tea ball or even a coffee filter.
- Headaches are a common problem that author and medical anthropologist John Heinerman recommends thyme for. Besides drinking thyme tea, you can make an infusion using a teaspoon of dried thyme in a cup of hot water, soak a cloth to make a compress and place it on aching neck, shoulder or back muscles, or on your temples or forehead. A dry towel over the wet one may hold the heat in longer. Once the cloth cools and the liquid begins to dissipate, repeat.
- For fungal problems, such as toenails, doctors may prescribe the drug Lamisil, but studies say it can cause liver damage.23 Thyme oil may act as an alternative by preparing a warm foot bath with 5 drops of the essential oil and soaking for 15 minutes.24
Neal's Yard Remedies has several additional recommendations for using thyme, including sprigs and bundles in a bath: "If you are feeling a bit over-stimulated or down in the dumps, thyme is an adaptable remedy that brings immediate relief and promotes restful sleep. To enjoy a thyme bath tie around 200g of thyme sprigs together and let this steep in the hot water."25
If you're a gardener and have thyme at the ready, it literally costs nothing to try some of these and many other thyme applications. Plant-based remedies, including herbs, can provide some of the most astonishing results for healing, supported by science.