Thyme is an herb with culinary, medicinal and ornamental uses. Thyme is of the genus Thymus, the most common being Thymus vulgaris.
The flowers, leaves and oil of thyme are commonly used by people for the treatment of bedwetting, diarrhea, stomach ache, arthritis, colic, sore throat, cough (including whooping cough), bronchitis, flatulence and as a diuretic (to increase urination).
This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection on the health benefits of popular foods.
History of thyme
In Ancient Egypt thyme was used for embalming. In Ancient Greece thyme was used as an incense in temples - it was also commonly added to bathwater.
According to A Modern Herbal1, published in 1931 and written by Maud Grieve (1858-1941), the Romans, who used thyme as a cheese and alcoholic beverage flavoring, are believed to have brought it into the rest of Europe. Mrs Grieves, a Fellow of the Royal Horticultural Society with an encyclopedic knowledge of medicinal plants, founded The Whins Medicinal and Commercial Herb School and Farm at Chalfont St. Peter in Buckinghamshire, England.
According to Georgetown University Medical Center2, Hippocrates (circa 460BC - circa 370BC), known today as "the father of Western medicine", mentioned the prevalence of thyme as a culinary herb, grown in gardens and gathered in the countryside. In his documented Hippocratic Corpus, he mentioned thyme's therapeutic uses in treating respiratory diseases and conditions.
The potential health benefits of thyme
The essential oil of common thyme (Thymus vulgaris) - usually referred to as "oil of thyme" - contains 20-54% thymol.
Thymol belongs to a naturally-occurring class of compounds known as "biocides" (substances that can destroy harmful organisms). When thymus is used alongside other biocides, such as carvacrol, it has strong antimicrobial attibutes.
Below are some studies that have looked into the medical uses and potential benefits of thyme, or substances found naturally in the herb.
After testing the effects of myrrh, marigold and thyme tinctures on Propionibacterium acnes, the bacterium that causes acne, scientists at Leeds Metropolitan University in England found that thyme preparations may be more effective than acne prescription creams.
The researchers reported that while all three tinctures killed the bacterium within five minutes of exposure, thyme was by far the most effective. They also discovered that thyme tincture had a significantly greater antibacterial effect than standard concentrations of benzoyl peroxide, the active ingredient found in the majority of creams and washes aimed at people with acne.
Head investigator, Dr Margarita Gomez-Escalada, said "The plant material is steeped in alcohol for days or even weeks to prepare a tincture. This process draws out the active compounds from the plant. While thyme, marigold and myrrh are common herbal alternatives to standard antibacterial skin washes, this is the first study to demonstrate the effect they have on the bacterium that causes the infection leading to acne."
Dr. Gomez-Escalada and colleagues say further studies are now needed to test the effects of thyme preparations on human skin.
The tiger mosquito
The Tiger mosquito, known by entomologists as Aedes albopictus (Stegomyia albopicta), is native to tropical and subtropical areas of Southeast Asia. However, since the 1990s it has spread to many other parts of the world and is a vector for the transmission of West Nile virus, Yellow fever virus, St. Louis encephalitis, dengue fever, and Chikungunya fever.
A team at Chungbuk National University in South Korea reported in the Journal of the American Mosquito Control Association4 that a combination of thymol, alpha-terpinene, and carvacrol was effective in killing off the Tiger mosquito larvae.
High blood pressure (hypertension)
Researchers at the University of Belgrade, Serbia, reported in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition5 that an aqueous extract obtained from Thymus serpyllum L. (wild thyme) reduced blood pressure in an animal experiment on laboratory rats.
As rats tend to have similar responses to humans in hypertensive situations, the team is hopeful that further human trials will confirm their findings.
In an Abstract in the journal, the study authors wrote "Our results indicate that TE may protect against hypertension in experimental model of essential hypertension."
Protecting from foodborne bacterial infections
A team at the Center of Studies of Animal and Veterinary Sciences in Portugal carried out a study to determine the antimicrobial activity of essential oils extracted from a range of aromatic plants, including thyme oil.
They reported in the journal Food Science and Technology International6 that thyme oil, even at low concentrations, showed potential as a natural preservative of food products against several common foodborne bacteria that cause human illness.A Polish study published in Medicinal Chemistry7 found that thyme oil was effective against bacterial strains of Staphylococcus, Enterococcus, Escherichia and Pseudomonas genera.
Thyme oil was tested alongside lavender oil. The study authors wrote "Thyme oil demonstrated a good efficacy against antibiotics resistant strains of the tested bacteria. Lavender oil has been less active against clinical strains of Staphylococcus, Enterococcus and Escherichia genus."
A study found that extracts of Mastic Thyne (Thymus mastichina L.) may protect from colon cancers.
The scientific team, from the Universidade Nova de Lisboa in Portugal concluded in the journal Natural Product Communications8 that "The presence of these constituents identified by colon cancer cytotoxicity-guided activity indicates that extracts of Thymus mastichina L. may have a protective effect against colon cancers."
Oncologist researchers at Celal Bayar University in Turkey carried out a study to determine what effect Wild Thyme (Thymus serpyllum) might have on breast cancer activity.
They were specifically looking at the effects of Wild Thyme on apoptosis (cell death) and epigenetic events in breast cancer cells. Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms that do not involve alterations in DNA sequence.
They reported in the journal Nutrition and Cancer9 that Wild Thyme induced cell death in the breast cancer cells.
The study authors concluded that Wild Thyme "may be a promising candidate in the development of novel therapeutic drugs for breast cancer treatment."
The fungus Candida albicans is a common cause of mouth and vaginal yeast infections. Often referred to as "thrush", vaginal yeast infections are generally recurring.
Researchers at the University of Turin in Italy set out to determine what effect thyme essential oil might have on Candida albicans in the human body.
The team reported in the journal Planta Medica10 that thyme essential oil significantly enhanced intracellular killing of C. albicans.
Prolonging the stability of cooking oils
Lipid oxidation is a serious problem during food processing and storage, leading to losses of quality, stability, safety and nutritional value.
Scientists at the Institute of Agricultural and Food Biotechnology in Warsaw, Poland, carried out a study to determine whether thyme extract might prolong the stability of sunflower oil.
The team stored sunflower oils with ethanol extract of thyme at 1% level added. The oil samples were stored in darkness at 4°C, 18°C, 38°C.
The researchers concluded in the journal "Technologia Alimentaria ACTA Scientiarum Polonorum"11 that "Results show that thyme extract prolonged stability of sunflower oil and it may be a potent antioxidant for its stabilization."
Common skin problems
Dermatological (skin) problems are common in rural and urban areas of developing countries. In poorer areas of the world, traditional preparations of plant origin may be the only choice people have as an alternative to synthetic medications.
A team at the All African Leprosy and Dermatology Education and Training Center, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia, carried out a two-arm, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial to assess the therapeutic benefits of a 10% chamomile extract cream and a 3% thyme essential oil antifungal cream for eczema-like lesions.
The investigators reported in the International Journal of Dermatology12 that 66.5% of those treated with thyme essential oil fungal cream were completely healed, compared to 28.5% of those using placebo. There was no significant difference between the chamomile extract cream and placebo.