How does it feel?
Most of us are familiar with the flavour of thyme in cooking. To be reminded of this take a leaf of fresh of dried thyme and chew it. The strong sharp hit of the essential oil, especially the thymol and carvacrol constituents is immediately apparent, an almost chemical antiseptic sensation, reminding us that fresh thyme is a great antiseptic for inflamed gums, mouth and sore throat. The flavour otherwise is rather bitter and there is a noticeable astringency (linked to the high tannin levels). The familiar thyme flavour is actually a lingering aftertaste.
Distilling these traditional characteristics we can see that thyme has quite a powerful presence, though overall effect is relaxing, with significant extra support for digestion.
What can I use it for?
Thyme comes into its own as a remedy for coughs and tightness in the chest. It is a first choice to calm the dry irritating cough of children, and for any cough associated with airway tightness or wheezing. It is even worth trying to relieve ongoing symptoms of asthma.
It may also help with more productive coughs where there is infection in the lungs. Old herbals used to recommend thyme to “purge phlegm” and it was said to “causeth easy expectorations of tough phlegm“.
This is also of course a familiar culinary herb originally used to help digestion as well as flavouring food. It can be relied upon to settle upset digestion in various forms: dyspepsia, colic and irritable bowel in particular.
It is likely to support a healthy microbiome too and can be used as part of a prebiotic/probiotic regime to correct gut dysbiosis problems.
In its most immediate effect the fresh herb makes a great refreshing and antiseptic mouth cleanser if chewed.
Into the heart of Thyme
The essential oil of thyme is the major influence in the antispasmodic action of the herb, seen in relaxing airway spasm and nervous coughing, and as a carminative effect in the digestive tract. The oil’s most notable constituents are thymol and carvacrol which are both notably antiseptic.
In the form of the whole herb this effect is most likely to contribute to probiotic benefits in the gut, and locally in the mouth, rather than being seen as a substitute antibiotic. The oil as a whole does however contribute to the expectorant action of the herb, helping to clear the passages as it is expelled through the airways.
As well as the immediate reflex hit from the taste buds of the strong essential oil content, the bitters in thyme stimulate digestive activity, while the tannins provide an appreciable local astringent effect.
Thyme has been a popular calming cough remedy, often used as a cough syrup. Thyme tea, sweetened with honey or sugar, would be prescribed for whooping cough, sore throats and catarrh. Again as a tea it was used as a settle colic and irritable bowel, to treat dyspepsia and to control fever in common colds.
Thyme is used in France for liver disease and there are wider traditions of its use for digestive problems.
Antimicrobials are herbs that interfere with the proliferation and life-cycle of microbes; bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Examples include Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris), Echinacea (Echinacea species), Elderberry (Sambucus nigra).Expectorants
Expectorants are herbs that assist the body in expelling mucus from the upper respiratory tract. Examples include Licorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabra), Elecampane root (Inula helenium) and Thyme leaf (Thymus vulgaris).
What practitioners say
Respiratory: Thyme is particularly effective at relieving spasmodic coughing and is also indicated in any respiratory conditions characterised by excess levels of mucus, phlegm or catarrh.
Immune: The thymol component of thyme adds antibiotic, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-infective properties. In strong solutions or simply chewed as a fresh herb thyme will help fight infection of the gums, throat and larynx.
Digestive: The range of volatile oils, including thymol, also help to relieve digestive spasm acting as a carminative in indigestion. Thyme is a modest bitter, so stimulating upper digestive activities, and it is likely to be a good corrector of the gut environment, useful in cases of enteric infections. All these effects will be augmented by increased digestive secretions.
External: Useful in massage oils and liniments for aching joints, muscular pain, cuts & wounds. Gargle for sore throats, tonsillitis; mouthwash for infected, bleeding gums; douche for thrush and other vaginal infections. Lotion for hair; inhalant for coughs, asthma, colds, catarrh, sinusitis.
Most of the clinical trial reports for thyme are when this is combined in blends with other remedies like primrose root and ivy leaf. There are no reliable research studies for the effects of the herb on its own.
Adding thyme to olive oil compared to consuming olive oil alone decreased LDL levels in subjects with high cholesterol levels, This was linked to improved bifidobacterial levels in the gut microbiome (1).
Thyme oil on its own is very antibacterial and completely inhibited bacterial growth at concentrations of less than 2% (2). An important ingredient here is the often overlooked carvacrol which has its own pronounced antiseptic activity (3).
Some of this activity is also transferred to decoctions and to some extent infusions, with the resulting aqueous extractions active particularly against gram-positive (Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis) and gram-negative (Escherichia coli, Klebsiella spp., Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Enterococcus aerogenes, Proteus vulgaris and Enterobacter sakazakii) bacteria (4). This profile adds to the view that the bacteriostatic value of whole thyme preparations is on the gut microbiome.
Did you know?
Thymol in thyme oil is 20 times more powerful than the standard antiseptic phenol (the active ingredient of Dettol). Fortunately we should not drink thyme oil!
Thyme is a perennial aromatic bush indigenous to the western Mediterranean and southern Italy. It can grow to heights of 30cm, its leaves are small, narrow and elliptical in shape and are a characteristic deep green colour with a strong aroma. Its flowers are also small, delicate and a pale pink/purple in colour. It is often found clinging in rocky crevices or growing in apparently barren soils.
Alternate botanical names:
The official medicinal monographs in the British Pharmacopoeia and the European Pharmacopoeia allow the use of whole leaf and flowers of Thymus zygis (Spanish thyme) as well as Thymus vulgaris.
- Common or garden thyme (Eng)
- Gartenthymian (Ger)
- Thymianblätter (Ger)
- Thym (Fr)
- Timo (Ital)
- Ajagandha (Sanskrit)
Thyme herb is very safe. The oil is a powerful extract of the herb and should not be used internally.
3 to12 g/day of dried herb or in a tea
- Essential oil (1.0 to 2.5%) predominantly phenols, thymol and carvacrol and their corresponding monoterpene precursors (p-cymene and gamma-terpinene)
- Carnosol, rosmanols, galdosol and carnosic acid
- Tannins (10%)
- Rasa (taste) Bitter, pungent.
- Virya (action) Heating.
- Vipaka (post-digestive effect) Pungent.
- Guna (quality) Light, dry, sharp, penetrating.
- Dosha effect: strengthens pitta, and reduces excessive vata and kapha.
This fresh and uplifting ‘Breathe’ tea recipe is going awaken your lungs and help you breathe. Use this if you have a cough, are feeling tight-chested, or you just want to relish the joy of breathing a bit more deeply.
- Lemongrass leaf 4g
- Thyme leaf 3g
- Tulsi leaf 3g
- Ginger root powder 2g
- Aniseed 2g
- Peppermint oil 1 drop
- Honey to taste
This will serve 2–3 cups of lung nourishing tea.
1. Put all of the ingredients (except for the honey) in a pot.
2. Add 500ml/18fl oz freshly boiled filtered water.
3. Leave to steep for 10–15 minutes, then strain.
4. Add a dash of honey to taste.
Recipe from Cleanse, Restore, Nurture by Sebastian Pole
- Martín-Peláez S, Mosele JI, Pizarro N, et al. (2017) Effect of virgin olive oil and thyme phenolic compounds on blood lipid profile: implications of human gut microbiota. Eur J Nutr. 56(1): 119–131
- Mullen KA, Lee AR, Lyman RL, et al. (2014) Short communication: an in vitro assessment of the antibacterial activity of plant-derived oils. J Dairy Sci. 97(9): 5587–5591
- Sharifi-Rad M, Varoni EM, Iriti M, et al. (2018) Carvacrol and human health: A comprehensive review. Phytother Res. 32 (9): 1675–1687
- Martins N, Barros L, Santos-Buelga C, et al. (2015) Decoction, infusion and hydroalcoholic extract of cultivated thyme: antioxidant and antibacterial activities, and phenolic characterisation. Food Chem. 167: 131–137