Today, with our access to foods from all over the world and technologically advanced modern medicine, it can be hard to remember that, until very recently in our human history, people have relied on regional plants for wellness. That’s probably why so many humble herbs we sometimes take for granted today were revered by ancient peoples, who used their critical healing abilities to enhance health, treat illness and ailments, and live longer lives. Indeed, the ancient Greeks believed the goddess Aphrodite invented oregano to make the lives of humans happier, and they used it as a culinary and medicinal staple. One of the ancient Greek names for oregano means “mountain joy.”
While we tend to think of herbs in categories of use, such as culinary or medicinal, oregano proves the significant crossover between them. Today, research bears out the folk uses of many culinary herbs, including oregano, proving the adage “food is the best medicine.” A research-proven antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal medicine, oregano is also a powerful antioxidant — and that’s just the beginning of the amazing health benefits of this delicious and pungent herb.
A Brief History of Oregano
If you’re familiar with its role as a signature flavor in Greek cuisine, it will probably come as no surprise that oregano was first used by the ancient Greeks. In Greece, oregano is commonly combined with olive oil and lemon juice and used to flavor meat and fish dishes. Along with eating it in a huge variety of dishes, ancient Greeks also crowned newlyweds with wreaths of the herb and placed it on the graves of the deceased to help bring peace to their spirits. These ancients were also aware of oregano’s medicinal properties and prescribed the herb regularly to aid in the treatment of many afflictions, including as a cure for stomach and respiratory ailments; for bacterial skin infections and wounds; to treat and prevent food poisoning; and in creams used for aching muscles.
Oregano has become popular around the world, although it’s often confused with other plants. These include oregano’s milder-flavored cousin, marjoram, as well as Mexican oregano, which is actually a completely different plant (from the genus Lippia). Oregano is especially prominent in Italian cuisine, where it is a quintessential flavor in tomato-based sauces, lamb dishes and garlic-flavored dishes. The herb didn’t become popular in North America until after World War II, but it quickly gained popularity — today, more than 14 million pounds of oregano are consumed each year in the United States alone.
Because of its anti-infectious and antioxidant properties, oregano may be helpful in the treatment of arthritis. The bacteria Prevotella copri has been linked with the onset of rheumatoid arthritis. While few substances have been tested for effectiveness against this bacteria, oregano’s potent antibacterial compounds may be helpful. I have used oregano with many arthritic clients with great success. While adding oregano to meals is a good start, arthritics tend to need higher doses in the form of tincture taken internally on a daily basis. Buy a high-quality oregano tincture from a company you trust, and follow package directions for the specific product. For more information, consult my book Arthritis-Proof Your Life: Secrets to Pain-Free Living Without Drugs.
According to the research of renowned botanist and author of The Green Pharmacy, James Duke, oregano contains four anti-asthma substances, making it an excellent choice for the treatment of this condition. Because oregano has a strong smell, be careful not to breathe too deeply when using the oil of this herb as it can initiate a cough reflex that can temporarily aggravate asthma. Oregano works best against asthma when taken internally in tincture or oil form on a daily basis. Follow package directions.
Blood Pressure Balancer:
According to additional research by Duke, oregano contains seven natural compounds that reduce high blood pressure, making it an excellent regular dietary addition for anyone suffering from the condition.
While oregano hasn’t been extensively studied for its use against cancer, preliminary research published in the Journal of Medicinal Food found that, in the lab, the oregano compound 4-terpineol was effective at inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. In the journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, researchers reported that oregano slowed the growth of liver cancer cells.
Oregano is a powerful antiseptic thanks largely to the constituents carvacrol and thymol. Laboratory tests have found that these versatile compounds work against harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi and even parasites (such as worms). Research in the journal Microbial Ecology in Health and Disease showcased oregano’s effectiveness against Klebsiella oxytoca and K. pneumoniae — bacteria that colonize the skin, wounds, throat, gastrointestinal tract, urinary tract and lungs, and which can be resistant to multiple antibiotics.
Emphysema and Lung Infection Remedy:
Few people realize oregano is an expectorant, but in his research, Duke has identified six compounds in oregano that help expel mucus from the lungs, making the herb an excellent choice in dealing with emphysema or lung infections. These expectorant compounds also work on mucus in the sinuses, so you might find oregano helpful for a sinus infection. A steam inhalation made from oregano tea works well for sinus infections, or take oregano oil or tincture internally. Follow package directions for the product you select.
Antioxidants support overall health by combatting damage by free radicals, which plays a role in many conditions including high blood pressure, HIV and age-related eye diseases. As oregano has demonstrated significant antioxidant activity in many studies, it could potentially play a role in managing or treating many health conditions. Research published in Frontiers in Microbiology showcased oregano’s effectiveness against antibiotic-resistant strep strains. Oregano essential oil was used in the study.
Note: We typically do not recommend internal use of essential oils. However, oregano essential oil is often recommended for internal use. Use it with caution, preferably under the advice of a medical professional. As always, quality is critical when choosing essential oil.
Growing & Using Oregano
Hardy, perennial oregano is robust and easy to grow. It grows well in a wide variety of conditions, provided it has well-drained soil and full sun. It can be grown from seed indoors and planted outdoors after signs of the last frost, or it can be kept indoors in a pot for use as needed. Space plants about 12 inches apart. Oregano tends to start slowly and grow faster as the temperatures warm. As a result, it is important to keep it weeded as weeds can quickly overtake the young plant. You will find numerous plants being sold as “oregano” — for the Greek version, choose Origanum vulgare.
For cooking, harvest the leaves only (not the stems). For medicinal uses, you can use the leaves and stems. To dry, gather enough oregano stems (with leaves intact) to make a 1-inch-thick bundle, secure with rubber bands and hang upside down. Once completely dry, store in an airtight container, where oregano will retain its flavor potency for up to six months.
For medicinal uses, you can make your own tincture (alcohol extract): Fill a jar with fresh oregano and top it with vodka to cover. Secure with a lid and allow to sit for two weeks, shaking the jar at least once a day. Strain through cheesecloth. The tincture will retain maximum medicinal effectiveness for about a year. If you wish to use oregano essential oil, purchase an undiluted bottle from your local health-food store. Take a few drops of oregano oil in your mouth to help battle bacterial and viral infections. Keep a chaser of water or juice handy, as it has a potent taste.
Michelle Schoffro Cook, Ph.D., ROHP, is an international best-selling and 20-time author whose books include 60 Seconds to Slim, Be Your Own Herbalist and Arthritis-Proof Your Life.