By Dr. Mercola
You may already know that oregano is the "secret" herb that takes tomato sauce to a new level of savory and can even put flavor in butter sauces and chicken dishes that have people begging you for your recipes.
Oregano is an ancient, perennial herb, being an integral cooking ingredient in what is now known as Eurasia for thousands of years. The entire Mediterranean is well acquainted with this food-enhancing spice, but it's probably no surprise that Greece and Italy are noted as the regions where it most likely originated.
Because it's related to mint, which is from the menthe family of plants, you may detect a similarly cool but distinctive essence when you crush a leaf from the oregano plant between your fingers. Oregano has many of the same therapeutic qualities as mint, and the scent may also remind you of thyme.
Strolling through a garden that includes oregano, you may not be overwhelmed by the scent and aroma nearly as much as when the herb is dried. Greek oregano, or Origanum heracleoticum, is the variety recommended for your culinary endeavors.
As an herb, it makes sense that oregano provides health benefits. You might be surprised how many there are, though, and that the powerful properties extend throughout your whole body. Organic farm Floral Encounters offers a succinct account of the traditional uses for oregano:
"The leaves and flowering stems have a strong antiseptic effect and a tincture of tea is used to treat colds, influenza, mild feverish illnesses, indigestion, stomach upsets and painful menstruation.
It is also a sedative and should not be taken in large doses although mild teas have a restful soothing effect and can help with sleep. A liniment using the herb is used to treat bronchitis, asthma, arthritis and muscular pain. The essential oil can be used to relieve toothache."1
But first, here's some good information about how to include this easy-to-grow, must-have herb in your own garden. As always, organic seeds or seedlings from a reputable source are preferred to ensure they're not tainted by harmful chemicals.
From Seeds or From Cuttings, Oregano Is Easy to Grow
Cooks all over the world happily report how easy it is to cultivate this herb in their gardens, patio containers and inside on window sills. It's bushy, low-growing and attractive, with tender, oval leaves and woody stems. Oregano loves sunshine and is easily grown from seed or propagated from cuttings placed in water in a sunny spot.
It's the "sun-lover" aspect of oregano that makes it grow best when it's warm. Many gardeners wait until the soil is 70 degrees F before planting the seed and do so in well-drained soil as opposed to clay that's tightly packed. Similar to basil, oregano plants grow more dense when their branches are snipped or pinched back after they've reached about 4 inches in length. This also prevents a tendency toward undesirable "legginess," which could eventually threaten the health of the plant.
Additionally, it's best to thin seedlings to about 8 inches apart, and trim occasionally so they don't begin to flower, which can weaken the strong essence of the leaves. Heirloom Organics advises:
"Trim plants back before flowering (approximately [five] to [six] weeks after planting) to stimulate a dense growth habit. If you allow some of the flowers to produce and drop their seed, you can keep your oregano patch fresh and vigorous. Remove 3- to 4-year-old plants to keep the bed quality high."2
Every four years or so and in early spring, thin out oregano plants for optimal hardiness. They're lovely for landscaping, especially with their tiny lavender blossoms. According to Farmer's Almanac,3 water your oregano plants well, but maybe not as often as some other herbs.
To dry, cut the stems before the buds open and hang or lay them flat on wire racks. When the leaves are completely dry (as damp leaves will almost certainly mold) harvest them, place them in a tightly sealed glass jar and don't forget to label them. Saved seed heads placed in a paper bag will keep for around five years.
Herbal Assets for Your Whole Body
As an herb, oregano contains a number of interesting phytonutrients that help give this genre of plants such a well-deserved reputation for healing.
• Immune health. Strengthening your immune system is one area oregano targets due to its high rosmarinic acid and thymol content. Both of these compounds are powerful antioxidants, which studies have shown lower oxidative stress in your body caused by free radicals.
Organic Facts describes free radicals as "the destructive byproducts of cellular metabolism that can cause cancer and other chronic diseases." One study tested the antioxidant activity of 39 commonly used herbs, and oregano had three to 20 times higher antioxidant activity than the other herbs studied.4
As for rosmarinic acid, a 2015 study showed it to help prevent aberrant crypt foci (which form before colorectal polyps) in rats, as well as to significantly reduce DNA damage.5
• Improved digestion. You may not think of herbs in terms of having much fiber, but oregano does. Besides helping food to move through your system faster, decreasing the time it spends hanging around in your colon, fiber also helps increase the rate at which your system absorbs nutrients.
• Heart health. One of the most advantageous aspects of oregano is that it's a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of fat that improves, rather than degrades, your heart health as an excess amount of omega-6 fatty acids can do. Omega-3s help reduce heart inflammation, rebalance your cholesterol and prevent heart-related diseases such as atherosclerosis, strokes and heart attacks.
• Detoxification. Toxins in your food, water and the air you breathe can make you feel run down and even cause illness and disease, but compounds such as B vitamins in oregano tackle these, too, improving your metabolism as well as your energy levels.
• Antibacterial properties. Carvacrol, as well as thymol, give oregano antibacterial benefits, particularly useful in your gut, as well as your skin and other areas. As a stimulating agent, it can speed up your metabolism, stimulate your white blood cells and help you recover from illness more rapidly.
One study reports that carvacrol "possess[es] a variety of biological and pharmacological properties including antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, anticancer, anti-inflammatory, hepatoprotective (liver protective), spasmolytic and vasorelaxant (reduces tension in your blood vessels)."6
Cooking With Oregano
There are different schools of thought regarding whether or not you should use fresh or dried oregano for cooking. As is so often the case, it depends. The City Cook explains:
"It's not often that I'd choose a dried herb over fresh. The flavor difference between fresh and dried thyme is huge, with fresh thyme being softer and more complex; dried can be bitter … But dried oregano adds a flavor that both compliments and complements, without dominating other ingredients. Dried oregano also adds that this-is-Italian flavor that we insist upon in our [favorite Italian dishes]."7
To help you experiment with this herb, here are a few things to note:
- Rubbing dried oregano between your fingers releases the most flavor into your dishes as you're cooking, but you also want to add it toward the end of cooking.
- Red peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and green beans are good all by themselves, but they become delicious with a little oregano added!
- When seasoning your grass fed burgers (or even veggie burgers) the flavor you get from fresh oregano is brighter and more flavorful, according to thekitchn.com.8 Just mix 1 or 2 tablespoons into the mix with a pound or so of meat mixture, and you'll love the result.
- Although they have a similar taste, Mediterranean oregano and Mexican oregano are from two different plants. Mexican oregano is actually related to lemon verbena and is much more pungent, while Mediterranean oregano is slightly sweeter.
Oregano Oil: Benefits and Uses
Of course, there are many vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in oregano that your body can make great use of on your journey of health. These include vitamins A, C and E, providing vision and cell protection; vitamin K to help keep your blood at the right consistency; folate to help form RNA and DNA building blocks and lots of iron, which helps prevent anemia.
Additionally, it contains magnesium and calcium for bone metabolization; vitamin B6 for optimal brain function; potassium to maintain your heart rate and blood pressure; and manganese and copper, both important for your body's optimal use of the enzyme superoxide dismutase. Oregano oil is extremely versatile, as it's used in everything from meat dishes to salads. As a medicinal, however, it should always be diluted, because it's very potent.
Oregano oil has some fantastic capabilities for healing. One study showed it to be rich in antioxidant phytochemical flavonoids and phenolic acids, able to eradicate bacteria in biofilms (cells that stick together and can form bacteria-laden plaque) with higher efficiency than lab-concocted drugs.9 Other therapeutic uses for oregano oil include:
✓ Sinus infections and colds
✓ Athlete's foot and nail fungus
✓ Yeast infections
Another study noted that carnosol, another phytochemical in oregano, was "evaluated for anticancer property in prostate, breast, skin, leukemia, and colon cancers with promising results."10