Thyme isn’t just one of the most popular culinary herbs today — it also has a long history of use as a medicinal healer and protector. For example, back in the Roman era, it was consumed to prevent and treat poisoning.
In the days before refrigeration and food safety laws, including thyme in recipes gave you at least some protection against spoiled meat and food-borne illness. And prior to modern antibiotics coming on the scene, thyme oil was used to medicate bandages.
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve likely used this herb medicinally before — since thymol, thyme’s most active ingredient, is found in Listerine mouthwash and Vicks VapoRub, due to its antibacterial and antifungal properties. The fact that these classic, although not very natural, products choose to use thymol speaks to the medicinal benefits of this versatile herb.
What Is Thyme?
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is an herb that belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae). The plant is a relative of the oregano genus Origanum.
Is thyme a vegetable? It’s considered an herb rather a vegetable, since herbs are something that mostly flavor food (and supply nutrients too) where as vegetables are plants that can be eaten as a main ingredient. In other words, herbs tend to be consumed in smaller quantities than vegetables.
Thyme plants are currently cultivated throughout the world, and the fresh leaves are commonly dried and used as culinary seasoning. This herb comes in dozens of varieties, but French thyme is considered the most common.
What is thyme good for? According to a 2018 report, thyme “exhibits antimicrobial, antioxidant, anticarcinogenesis, anti-inflammatory, and antispasmodic activities.”
In general, it’s excellent at supporting the immune and respiratory systems, as well as the digestive, nervous and other body systems. For example, thyme uses include helping to kill a variety of germs and preventing infections, as well as scavenging free radicals that contribute to the aging process.
The principal component of thymus vulgaris extract and essential oil is thymol, which gives it its antiseptic properties. For this reason, thyme oil is commonly used in mouthwashes and toothpastes. Thymol also kills fungi and is commercially added to hand sanitizers and antifungal creams.
Additionally, thyme contains another bacteria fighter known as carvacrol and also has a variety of flavonoids — including apigenin, naringenin, luteolin and thymonin. These flavonoids increase the herb’s antioxidant capacity and other health-promoting effects.
One tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves contains about:
- 3 calories
- 1 grams carbohydrates
- less than 1 gram protein, fiber or fat
- 3.6 milligrams vitamin C (6 percent DV)
- 105 IU vitamin A (3 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligrams iron (3 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram manganese (3 percent DV)
1. Helps Fight Sore Throats
Studies have demonstrated that thyme oil is a strong natural antimicrobial, making it a serious weapon against sore throats. Its carvacrol content is a major reason why it’s one of the top essential oils for sore throat relief.
One recent study tested thyme oil’s response to 120 different strains of bacteria isolated from patients with infections of the oral cavity, respiratory tract and genitourinary tract.
The results of the experiments showed that the oil from the thyme plant exhibited extremely strong activity against all of the clinical strains. It even demonstrated a good efficacy against antibiotic-resistant strains.
Next time you have a sore throat, make sure to add this herb to your soup and/or sip on some germ-killing thyme tea.
2. May Help Lower Blood Pressure and Cholesterol Levels
The ingestion of thyme has been shown to produce antihypertensive activity, which makes it a great herbal choice for anyone suffering from high blood pressure symptoms.
A recent animal study found that thymus vulgaris extract was able to significantly reduce the heart rate of subjects with hypertension. The extract was also shown to reduce cholesterol, triglyceride and LDL levels while increasing HDL cholesterol levels.
Instead of overdoing it on salt, try adding beneficial herbs like thyme to your meals to boost both the flavor and nutrient content.
3. Can Help Prevent Food Poisoning
Thyme has the ability not only to help prevent food contamination, but to decontaminate previously contaminated foods as well.
In several studies published in Food Microbiology, researchers found that the herb’s essential oil is able to extend the shelf-life of meat and baked goods and decontaminate lettuce inoculated with Shigella, an infectious organism that causes diarrhea and can lead to major intestinal damage.
In one study, washing produce in a solution containing just 1 percent of the oil decreased the number of Shigella bacteria below the point of detection. This suggests that by adding it to your next meal, such as raw greens or salad, you may actually help decrease your likelihood of a foodborne illness.
4. May Boost Your Mood
The compound called carvacrol that’s found in this medicinal herb has been shown to have some very positive mood-boosting effects.
Research published in 2013 showed that when carvacrol was administered for seven consecutive days to animals, it was able to increase both dopamine and serotonin levels in the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus. Dopamine and serotonin are two key neurotransmitters when it comes to your mood.
The data from this study suggests that carvacrol is a brain-active molecule that can influence cognitive activity through the modulation of neurotransmitters. If thyme is regularly ingested in low concentrations, it might improve feelings of well-being. Other studies, mostly conducted on rats, show that it particularly has anxiolytic properties, meaning it fights anxiety.
5. Supports The Immune System and May Help Fight Cancer
Active constituents in this herb may be able to fight against development of tumors that can become cancerous. More specifically, carvacrol is a major component of the essential oil that has displayed antitumor properties, making this beneficial plant a potential cancer-fighting food.
One recent study published in Anti-Cancer Drugs found that carvacrol inhibited the proliferation and migration of the two colon cancer cell lines. Overall, research shows that carvacrol has therapeutic potential for both the prevention and treatment of colon cancer.
Thyme also has immunomodulatory effects and may be able to help treat autoimmune conditions, according to recent animal studies. It’s been found to have not only antioxidant effects, but the ability to lower production of some pro-inflammatory cytokines that can contribute to chronic diseases.
6. Naturally Protects Against Bronchitis
For centuries, some of the most common thyme uses have been naturally treating coughs, bronchitis and other respiratory issues.
One study used it within an oral treatment made with a combination of thyme and ivy. The group treated with this combination had a 50 percent reduction in coughing fits that was achieved two days earlier than the placebo group. In addition, the same group reported no more adverse events than the placebo group and no serious adverse events at all.
7. Protects Oral/Dental Health
As mentioned above, extracts derived from this herb are used in dental products like toothpastes and mouthwashes. Compounds in this herb can help to prevent infections from developing in the mouth, and keep teeth healthy by decreasing plaque and decay.
Thyme vs. Oregano
Thyme is a cousin of another common, versatile herb: oregano. While there are some similarities between the two, there are also a few differences. Here’s how these two spices compare:
- Has more vitamin A and vitamin C
- Commonly taken by mouth for bronchitis, whooping cough, sore throat, colic, arthritis, upset stomach, stomach pain (gastritis), diarrhea, bedwetting, intestinal gas (flatulence), parasitic worm infections and skin disorders
- Natural diuretic
- Appetite stimulant
- Has more potassium, iron and calcium
- Shared many of the health benefits of thyme; is used for respiratory tract disorders, such as coughs, asthma, croup and bronchitis
- Also used for GI disorders, such as heartburn and bloating
- Can help treat menstrual cramps, rheumatoid arthritis, UTIs, headaches and heart conditions
- Contain thymol and carvacrol, both of which have been shown to inhibit the growth of bacteria
- Potent antioxidants
What is the meaning of the name thyme? The name has origins in Middle English and Old French. It originated from the Latin and Greek words thumon and thuein, which mean to burn and sacrifice.
Back in ancient times, it was associated with courage, bravery and strength. Roman soldiers exchanged sprigs of the herb as a sign of respect. Both Greeks and Romans burned bundles of thyme to purify their homes and temples. They also commonly used it medicinally in their bathwater.
In the European Middle Ages, the herb was nestled under pillows to encourage restful sleep. It was also placed on coffins during funerals because it was believed that this would assure passage into the next life.
Long ago, the Egyptians even cleverly used thyme for embalming. It made a perfect embalming agent since its high thymol content kills off bacteria and fungus.
How can you eat thyme? This herb is readily available both fresh and dried year-round.
When consumed fresh, thyme herbs will be more flavorful, however this may also be less convenient and will not last as long. If you purchase it fresh, it can last a week or two in the refrigerator. Dried thyme should be stored in a cool, dark place and ideally used within six months.
The dried version can be substituted for the fresh kind in most recipes. One teaspoon of dried leaves is equivalent to one tablespoon of chopped thyme leaves.
For medicinal purposes, it can also be purchased in the form of thyme tea, tinctures, powdered supplements or thyme oil.
What does thyme taste like? Its taste is described as being earthy, lemony and minty.
When it comes to using it in your kitchen and daily life, thyme makes a tasty addition to chicken, fish, beef, lamb, vegetables (especially green beans, eggplant, carrots and zucchini), cheese (especially goat cheese), pasta dishes, soups, stocks, sauces, dressings and marinades for starters.
If you’re used to using rosemary in recipes, try thyme instead, or use rosemary and thyme together for even more flavor.
Try thyme in these recipes:
- Grilled Honey Glazed Salmon
- Roasted Red Pepper Sauce with Chicken
- Potato Leek Soup Recipe
- Fennel Apple Soup Recipe
- Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Apples & Pecans Recipe
You can also use is to make homemade beauty products such as this Homemade Hormone Balance Serum, and even all natural medicine alternatives.
Risks and Side Effects
Thyme is considered safe when consumed in normal food amounts. When taken in larger quantities for medicinal purposes, it’s possibly safe for short durations of time — however, it can possibly cause digestive issues when taken in large amounts.
For pregnant or nursing women, it’s best to consume this herb in normal food amounts, not medicinal quantities. It’s not a common food allergen, but if you’re allergic to oregano or other Lamiaceae species then you might also be allergic to thyme.
For women who have hormone-sensitive conditions like breast cancer, ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, uterine fibroids or endometriosis, it might act like estrogen in the body. Avoid it if you have any condition that might be made worse by exposure to estrogen.
When used in large amounts, this spice might possibly slow blood clotting, so be especially careful if you have any clotting disorders and/or are currently taking blood thinners. For the same reason, it’s best not to take it two weeks before surgery.
- Thyme (thymus vulgaris) is an herb that can be consumed fresh or dried. Like other herbs and spices, it’s packed with disease-fighting nutrients and antioxidants.
- This herb has a long history of use in natural medicine and a proven track record as a natural medicine that can fight off bacteria. Thyme uses include fighting infections that affect the mouth, teeth, digestive system and respiratory system.
- Other health benefits of thyme include helping to lower blood pressure, improve your immune system, boost your mood, and to support oral/dental health.
- The easiest way to make this common herb a part of your regular diet to make sure you keep some dried thyme in your kitchen. You can also consume it in tea, tincture or essential oil forms.