Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme”—that line from Simon and Garfunkel’s 1970 classic Scarborough Fair is the most repeated herbal phrase of recent time.
Like the three other herbs in the song, thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is best known as a common culinary herb, and many people are not aware of its rich medicinal tradition. Both fresh and dried forms have been used as a worm expellant, especially for hook worms, a digestive carminative (relieving gas in the digestive system), an antispasmodic (relieving muscle spasms), a mild sedative, an expectorant, and an aid to induce sweating in colds and fevers. Thyme has long been employed to help treat acute bronchitis, laryngitis, whooping cough, gastritis, diarrhea, and lack of appetite. When steeped in baths, it has been used to help relieve rheumatic pains and aid the healing of bruises and sprains.
While thyme was never a major medicinal plant in Europe, oil of thyme and the dried herb have been included in official medical treatises since the sixteenth century. In his English Physician Enlarged (1767 edition), Nicholas Culpeper also recommends thyme for lung ailments. “It is a noble strengthener of the lungs, as notable a one as grows; neither is there scarce a better remedy growing for that disease in children which they commonly call the Chin-Cough, than it is. It purgeth the body of phlegm, and is an excellent remedy for the shortness of breath.”
Why it works
Thyme, a member of the mint family, owes its medicinal value to its volatile or essential oil, usually found at concentrations of about 1 percent of the dried leaves. Thyme oil has been shown to have antispasmodic, expectorant, and carminative properties and was traditionally applied to relieve the pain of dental caries.
Caspar Neumann, a German chemist, discovered thyme oil in 1719; it was sold in apothecary shops as “oil of origanum.” In 1853, a French chemist dubbed the substance “thymol,” the name by which it is known today. Both oil of thyme and thymol were listed in the United States Pharmacopeia from 1880 through 1947. During World War I, thymol was widely used as an antiseptic.
Thymol is still used commercially, especially in antifungal skin preparations, but in its pure form it is highly toxic and irritating. Today it is an ingredient in a number of mouthwash, dental, and topical products, such as Listerine and Vick’s VapoRub. Thymol is no longer extracted from the oil of thyme, however, but is made synthetically from a menthol base. Thymol has also been used in fragrances as a “dry topnote” for lavender compositions and in men’s fragrances. It has been suggested as an antimold and antimildew agent for papers, a means to preserve anatomical specimens, and an ingredient in embalming fluids.
Scientists are studying many mint family members, including thyme and rosemary, for their antioxidant compounds. (Antioxidants help protect the body from harmful chemicals by binding to “out-of-control” oxygen compounds and rendering them harmless.) In 1996, Japanese researchers found two components in common thyme leaves that had potent antioxidant activity.
In Europe, practitioners use a variety of thyme products to support treatment of spasmodic coughs, bronchitis, whooping cough, emphysema, and even asthma. Studies suggest that thyme has an antispasmodic action on bronchiolar spasms. When taken internally in minute doses administered by a medical practitioner, oil of thyme is largely eliminated through the lung’s alveoli, so the remedy’s effects are concentrated where required, according to Rudolf Fritz Weiss in his classic Herbal Medicine (Beaconsfield Publishers, 1988). Weiss suggests using dried thyme for teas and infusions, thyme oil, and thyme syrup. For coughs, he recommends placing a handful each of chamomile flowers, thyme, and marjoram in a bowl, pouring boiling water over the herbs to release their volatile oils, then inhaling the vapors while sitting with a towel draped over the head to form a tent.
In Germany, thyme is used in several proprietary phytomedicines. Products are allowed to be labeled for “symptoms of bronchitis and whooping cough and catarrhs of the upper airways.” According to the official German Commission E monograph, thyme is considered a bronchospasmolytic, expectorant, and antibacterial.
In a German study involving 7,783 patients, a tablet containing dried extract of primula root (Primula veris) and dried extract of thyme (Thymus vulgaris) proved as effective as synthetic drugs in treating acute bronchitis. The herbal tablet tended to be more effective in adults, with fewer side effects (fewer than 1 percent had transient gastrointestinal symptoms).
As an antitussive and expectorant for coughs and bronchitis, thyme is used in teas. About 1 teaspoon (1.5 g) of dried, cut-and-sifted herb in a cup of hot water, steeped for 10 to 15 minutes, should be drunk three to four times a day as needed. Use tinctures of thyme in a dose of twenty to forty drops (1 to 2 ml) up to three times per day or follow label instructions. While thyme is generally considered safe, essential oil of thyme, even in small doses, can be highly irritating to the skin and the mucous membranes.
Ernst, E., R. März, and C. Sieder. “A controlled multi-centre study of herbal versus synthetic secretolytic drugs for acute bronchitis.' Phytomedicine 1997, 4(4): 287–293.
Foster, S. 101 Medicinal Herbs—An Illustrated Guide. Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1998.
Foster, S. and V. E. Tyler. Tyler’s Honest Herbal, 4th ed. Binghamton, New York: The Haworth Herbal Press, 1999.
Haraguchi, H., et al. “Antiperoxidative Components in Thymus vulgaris.” Planta Medica 1996 62(3): 217–221.
Weiss, R. F. Herbal Medicine (translated from the German by A. R. Meuss). Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers Ltd., 1988.
Witchl, M., Herbal Drugs and Phytopharmaceuticals (translated by Norman Grainger Bissett). Boca Raton, Florida: CRC Press, 1994.
Wren, R. C., revised by E. M. Williamson and E. J. Evans, Potter’s New Cyclopedia of Botanical Drugs and Preparations, 8th ed. Essex, England: C. W. Daniel Co., 1988.
Herbs for colds and coughs
It's that time of year again. Fortunately, herbs offer an array of simple choices for symptomatic relief of coughs and colds. When you feel like you’re coming down with something, echinacea products can stimulate the immune system and knock out a cold or flu before it has a chance to take hold. Echinacea can also shorten the duration and severity of symptoms; licorice, horehound, mullein, marsh mallow root, and slippery elm are also helpful. If you suspect more than a passing cold or flu, or if symptoms persist, consult your physician. A cough can signal a serious disease that needs proper diagnosis and treatment.
Coughing is a cleansing process, a defense mechanism for the respiratory tract. A productive cough helps clear secretions from the lower respiratory tract and eliminate foreign material, mucous, or other debris from the lung’s bronchi, trachea, and larynx. A nonproductive cough, also known as a dry cough, can cause self- perpetuating hacking that further irritates the mucosal lining of the trachea and pharynx. Coughs can arise from many different conditions including colds, flu, allergies, asthma, bronchitis, lung disease, pneumonia, even congestive heart failure and cancer.
Expectorants loosen and help to expel congestion in the upper respiratory tract; some also suppress coughs. Those that do both include mullein, fennel seed, licorice, horehound, and thyme (see “Thyme and Again,” page 71).
Mullein (Verbascum thapsus, V. phlomoides, V. densiflorum), traditionally considered a demulcent, an expectorant, and an astringent, is used primarily for treating lung conditions. Mullein’s leaves and flowers have been shown to contain mucilage and other compounds, all of which may contribute to the herb’s biological activity. Both the leaves and the flowers are used in European cough preparations. In Germany, mullein flower products can be labeled as soothing expectorants for catarrh of the upper respiratory tract.
Fennel seeds (the fruits of Foeniculum vulgare), known for their carminative, or flatulence-reducing, qualities and aniselike flavor, are not well-known in the United States for the ability to treat coughs. In Germany, fennel seeds are used in cough syrups to help relieve congestion of the upper respiratory tract, and they also add flavor. Various pharmacological studies have confirmed antimicrobial, antispasmodic, and anti-inflammatory activity. Animal studies show that fennel seeds stimulate the lungs’ hairlike cilia to move mucous up the respiratory tract, aiding in expectoration. One study found that fennel seeds increase expectorant action by 12 percent.
Licorice root comes from European licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra) and Chinese licorice (G. uralensis), which are used interchangeably. One of the best-known herbal expectorants, licorice root is considered as effective as codeine in suppressing coughs and also soothes irritated mucous membranes. Clinical reports (mostly from Asian sources) support its effectiveness, and the German government allows licorice preparations to be used for upper respiratory tract congestion.
Horehound (Marrubium vulgare) has gained a reputation as the bitter flavoring of horehound candies or lozenges. In European phytomedicine, horehound is used primarily as an appetite stimulant (in anorexia) but is also recognized as an expectorant for congestion of the upper respiratory tract. Although horehound’s use as a cough suppressant has been recorded for at least 400 years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1989 banned the herb as an over-the-counter drug because data on safety and effectiveness was lacking. In Germany, on the other hand, horehound preparations are still approved for supportive treatment of coughs and colds. A recent study using several experimental models of pain in mice found that horehound extracts had an analgesic effect comparable to aspirin. The authors theorized that horehound’s effectiveness in reducing pain may be related to anti-inflammatory activity.
Demulcents soothe irritated tissue, especially the mucous linings of the digestive and respiratory tracts. Two of the best herbs for helping to moisten and loosen phlegm and soothe mucosal-tissue irritation are marsh mallow (root and leaf) and slippery elm bark.
Marsh mallow (Althaea officinalis) is recognized for its ability to soothe and soften irritated tissue, particularly mucous membranes, and to loosen a cough. In Germany, marsh mallow root and leaf preparations are allowed to carry claims related to their ability to soothe irritated mucous membranes in cases of sore throat accompanied by a dry cough. Marsh mallow also mildly stimulates the immune system. The leaves and root both contain mucilagin, the substance that makes the tea “slimy.” The roots contain about 25 to 30 percent mucilagin, and the leaves contain about half as much.
Slippery elm (Ulmus rubra) is a simple herb that does one thing and one thing only: it soothes irritated mucous membranes. The inner bark contains high amounts of mucilage, made up of starch and polysaccharides. It is approved by the FDA as an over-the-counter demulcent drug.
Blumenthal, M., ed. The Complete German Commission E Monographs: Therapeutic Guide to Herbal Medicines. Austin, Texas: American Botanical Council. Boston: Integrative Medicine, 1998.
De Souza, M. M., et al. “Analgesic Profile of Hydroalcoholic Extract Obtained from Marrubium vulgare.” Phytomedicine 1998, 5(2):103–107.
Foster, S. 101 Medicinal Herbs—An Illustrated Guide. Loveland, Colorado:Interweave Press, 1998.
Foster, S., and V. E. Tyler. Tyler’s Honest Herbal. 4th ed. Binghamton, New York: Pharmaceutical Products Press, 1999.
Schulz, V., R. Hansel, and V. E. Tyler. Rational Phytotherapy—A Physician’s Guide to Herbal Medicine. New York: Springer Verlag, 1998.
Weiss, R. F. Herbal Medicine. Translated from the German by A. R. Meuss. Beaconsfield, England: Beaconsfield Publishers, Ltd., 1988.
Lavender oil studied
In an effort to better understand the sedative nature of essential oil from English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), researchers in London recently put the oil through several laboratory tests, but the mechanism that causes its spasm-reducing activity still is not clearly understood. The research group found that lavender oil relaxes muscles by chemically affecting the calcium ion exchange between cells; this action ultimately influences contraction mechanisms in smooth muscle tissue. Linalool, a major component of lavender, may play an important role in this process.
Dioscorides, a first century a.d. Greek physician, first recorded lavender’s effects as an antispasmodic, carminative, and sedative. In folk traditions, lavender tea, oil, and inhalants have been used for nervous tension headaches, insomnia, muscle spasms, and neuralgia. Aromatherapists value lavender oil for its carminative properties, which reduce flatulence and colic. When inhaled, lavender oil has a sedative effect that has been demonstrated in both laboratory animals and humans. (1)
American ginseng and sex
“Makes an older woman younger and a younger woman hunger, makes an older man secure and a younger man more sure,” is the refrain of herbalist Jim Duke’s bluegrass song “Ginseng.” That perception of the purported aphrodisiac effects of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) may be more fact than fancy.
Researchers at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Carbondale conducted a series of tests to evaluate the effects of American ginseng on the sexual behavior of male rats. Adult male rats treated with American ginseng for twenty-eight days at doses of 10, 50 or 100 mg/kg of body weight were compared with a control group that didn’t receive ginseng. Behavior, testosterone levels, differences in body weight, testicle weight, size of the seminal vesicle, as well as pituitary and spleen weights were measured. While no differences between ginseng-treated rats and controls in any of these biological tests were found, researchers did note an increase in neurotransmitters secreted by the pituitary gland and found that this may increase American ginseng’s ability to stimulate copulatory behavior in male rats.
In behavioral tests, vast differences were observed in the ginseng-treated rats. Time between mounting was greatly reduced after fourteen and twenty-eight days in rats treated with the highest ginseng dosage. The time between ejaculation decreased significantly after only one day of treatment with American ginseng extract.
This study mirrors findings of a previous study on Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng), which has long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat sexual dysfunction in men. More studies are needed to explore whether the positive results obtained in rats are relevant to humans.(2)
Natural Approaches to Arthritis
In 1993, Woman magazine erroneously reported that the Department of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter in England was recruiting patients for a clinical trial on arthritis. The department was not planning an arthritis study, but it received nearly 3,400 letters from readers who wanted to volunteer. Department researchers seized this opportunity to conduct a survey on how individuals self-medicate to treat arthritis. About one-third (1,020) of the original respondents—80 percent female with an average age of fifty-nine—answered the survey, and almost all had tried some type of alternative or complementary therapy.
Evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) oil, devils’ claw (Harpagophytum procumbens), feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), cod liver oil, and extract of New Zealand green mussel (widely sold in New Zealand and in the United Kingdom but seldom seen on the American market) were the most popular treatments. According to the analysis of the data, feverfew, devil’s claw, and New Zealand green mussel showed no statistical difference between those who found it useful and those who did not. Cod liver oil was perceived as the most beneficial supplement, with 17 percent reporting that they thought it helped and only 3 percent giving it up after a short time. Half of those who used evening primrose oil considered it beneficial. The survey did not attempt to evaluate the effectiveness of remedies.(3)
(1) Lis-Balchin, M. and S. Hart. “Studies on the Mode of Action of the Essential Oil of Lavender” (Lavandula angustifolia P. Miller).Phytotherapy Research 1999, 13:540–542.
(2) Murphy, L. L., et al. “Effect of American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius) on Male Copulatory Behavior in the Rat.” Physiology & Behavior 1998, 64(4): 445–450.
(3) Ernst, E. “Over-the-counter Complementary Remedies Used for Arthritis.” The Pharmaceutical Journal 1998, 260: 830–831.