A perennial that can bunch up as a bush or creep along a forest floor, thyme is a ground cover, soil nutrient, and “living mulch.” Really, thyme is similar medicinally to its botanical presence: it's always there, sturdy and without much fanfare, but accomplishes important things.
To obtain the essential oil, the leaf and flower of Thymus vulgaris, or garden thyme, are steam distilled. Named either for its strong, herbaceous fragrance (thymon – to fumigate) or its association with bravery (thumon – courage) , thyme's “roots” reach back to ancient Greece.
Analyzed for its chemical properties, thyme essential oil is comprised of a component called thymol, followed by gamma-terpinine and cymene. Thymol is most studied, with a rash of research covering its food safety and antimicrobial benefits. (1) In fact, it stands out as thyme's most notable function, cleansing of microbes and danger. Once again, thyme's presence in the botanical world mirrors that of the essential oil realm. As a plant, it grows along the surface of the ground, preventing moisture loss and protecting the soil and the plants around it. As an essential oil, thyme continues it protective mission, cleansing surfaces and the air around it of detrimental microbes and fungal invasions.
The plant world is teeming with these complete packages of nourishment and health! When we fill our homes and lives with naturally protective substances like thyme, along with its fellow nourishing, healing, and relaxing foods, herbs, and essential oils, we add benefits to our whole life – mind, body, and spirit!
I'd be willing to bet that the chemical names and composite structure of an essential oil is probably still not what you're looking for. Unsurprisingly, the technical details rarely hold interest – we want to get right down to the meat of things. What can we DO with the components? For thyme oil, some of the possibilities are pretty promising!
4 Ways Thyme Can Heal
While thyme protects us as an antimicrobial for cleaning and food safety, which we'll look closely at in a moment, it may also help condition us to respond to microbes we encounter. The International Immunopharmacology journal published a study in 2014 that demonstrated thymol, a main substance in thyme essential oil, as a white blood cell stimulant and immune-boosting substance. (2) We all talk about health from the inside out, but thyme may be single handedly embodying that philosophy!
One avenue that thymol appears to take in the body is through neurotransmitters associated with depression. Published in Behavioral Brain Research this year (2015), Chinese researchers followed the effects of thymol on “chronic unpredictable mild stress,” observing anti-inflammatory relief on the neurotransmitters that cause depression. Its potential as an antidepressant therapy is exciting and one I'm looking forward to seeing discovered and developed. (3)
In another article, we looked at a study that demonstrated the benefits rose oil carried against acne bacteria. In the same study, cancer cells were also evaluated to see how they could stand up against ten powerful essential oils. Thyme was one of those oils, and it stood out from the crowd as most beneficial against the cells of prostate, lung carcinoma, and breast cancers. (4) While it can't be stated enough that these studies are preliminary, I'm filled with hope for a future where naturally occurring products replace toxic chemicals for cancer treatment and – dare we hope? – cures!
4. Hormone Balancing
As one of the top herbs for estrogen binding, thyme may be able to help the body balance and regulate hormones. (5) Incidentally, this is not the only time we have seen a potential estrogenic herb noted for its anticancer potential, as well. Because cancer frequently holds receptors for estrogen, thus being fed by anything estrogenic, it is often suggested that you should avoid estrogen if you have or are at high risk for cancer. However, this logic should not cause uss to avoid essential oils because of potential estrogenic properties.
At this time, there is virtually no evidence suggesting that essential oils are “estrogenic,” or that they they contain hormones. Recent studies actually suggest that they do NOT have estrogen-like activity. (source)
Technically, as researchers have put it, “Several aromatic oils have been recommended as phytoestrogens because they include components related to the sex hormones.” (source) What this looks like exactly is not clear. But, from what I can tell, using essential oils like thyme can help create homeostasis in the body, which supports proper hormone balance. Essentially, true healing from the inside out – not using essential oils for hormones like you would a drug.
Some Practical Uses
In a study released this year, thyme joined lemon, basil, geranium, clove, and cinnamon as highly effective against fungi, including Candida albicans and the resulting candidiasis. (6) Antifungal properties are important as a cleaning agent, but I'm especially interested in tools to battle systemic Candida struggles. This specific study occurred in vitro (in lab tests), but we have seen other studies demonstrate inhalation as an effective essential oil application against Candida. Diffuse a couple drops each of thyme, cinnamon and clove for a spicy, herbaceous fragrance that can help ward off Candida.
Thyme is an excellent addition to cleaning solutions, with potent antimicrobial properties. To establish antibacterial control in potentially one of the most infections environments – a commercial chicken house – Polish scientists used essential oil mists and monitored the antibacterial results. Both peppermint and thyme mixed with water were tested separately for three days, with both exhibiting strengths against specific bacteria. (7) Combining antimicrobial and antibacterial oils helps to facilitate that incredible synergistic effect that feels like magic – with each oil enhancing the abilities of the other. Diffuse thyme, peppermint, and lemon for an energizing and disinfecting effect. Add to a spritz bottle for topical disinfecting, particularly in the kitchen after handling raw meats and other food safety risks.
Thyme is especially well utilized when we take advantage of its antimicrobial prowess and improve food safety. Commercial applications are intriguing, with the potential for preservation and packaging to occur with natural substances like thyme oil. But safety in our homes is important, as well.
For example, a chicken marinade using thyme and orange essential oils was able to inhibit Salmonella. (8) A 2004 study and 2007 study found similarly beneficial effects against Listeria and E. coli, respectively. (9, 10) Though we should all be practicing good kitchen hygiene and food safety habits anyway, including thyme oil in food preparations may help to make up for shortcomings commercially – if nothing else, it's a bit of added peace of mind!