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Thyme is a perennial plant and fragrant herb that has been found to contain a range of biological properties that are potentially beneficial in several ways. Grow thyme in the backyard, grow indoors in a pot filled with herbs, buy fresh thyme at the grocery store, find it on the spice rack, or get it as an essential oil. Thyme is highly versatile and widely available today. Interestingly, ancient Egyptian cultures first used used thyme in embalming fluid, as a means to making the transition to the afterlife easier. It also has biblical associations, was used in the middle ages to fend off the black plague, and today the chemical constituent of thyme, thymol, can be found in some mouthwashes because of its antiseptic properties.

Thyme is also a source of nutrients like vitamin C, iron, manganese, and more. Many studies suggest that thyme has several potentially beneficial medicinal properties that may support:(1)

  • Blood pressure already within the normal range
  • Respiratory health
  • Digestion
  • Immune system
  • Mood and behavior
  • Stress and frustration
  • Cardiovascular health
  • Eyes

More than 400 varieties of thyme can be found around the globe. Some of these varieties only grow a few inches tall, while other varieties have a larger, shrub appearance and can reach more than a foot high. Because thyme is so common, practitioners of modern and ancient medicine continue to explore its potential medicinal benefits when eaten as a food or taken in supplement form.

The History of Thyme

The earliest known uses of thyme dates back to ancient Egypt where the oil of thyme would be mixed with other herbs and rubbed on the corpse or added to embalming fluid.(2) Known for the practice of mummification, Egyptian culture held that the preserving the body allowed a soul to return to the body and survive the afterlife, as whatever was left in the tomb could be carried by the soul.

During the Greek and Roman eras, thyme had associations with courage, bravery and strength.(3) Thyme would be strewn across the floor before soldiers or generals. Those going to battle would be given thyme as a gift, and attached to clothing or armor to display honor. Similar to the Egyptians, some would fill pockets or purses with thyme to ease the passage into the afterlife. Additionally, the burning of thyme was significant to the purification of temples and homes, and possibly, heighten the strength of spirit in those who inhaled the smoke.

Thyme is also found in church gardens or used in interior decoration. According to Biblical historians, thyme is one of several herbs placed in the manger that the Christ-child bedded in Bethlehem following his birth.(4) Additionally, thyme grew on the hills near Jerusalem, the Middle East city significant to several Abrahamic religions, making it common to the region.(5) The oils would have been used during funerals, rituals, and sacrifices.

Across Europe, during the Middle Ages, millions died as a result of plagues that were born in heavily populated areas. Before the discovery of antiseptics, and more common bathing practices, people turned to herbs like thyme to help protect their health. In fact, doctors would administer thyme oil? directly to infections as a form of treatment. People would wear strings of thyme around the neck to try and prevent infection.

In the Victorian era, people held more mystical views of thyme. To find wild thyme growing in the woods meant that fairies had danced in that spot. Sometimes, children would camp out near these plots and hope to catch sight of woodland fairies. Also, like many civilizations before them, nurses would soak bandages in thyme prior to applying them to wounds in the hopes of fending off infection. It also became a favorite cooking spice used in bread, soups, and roasts. The prominence in foods was, in part, believed to offer some protection from spoilage as a result of a lack of refrigeration.

Varieties of Thyme

Thyme is a perennial evergreen herb that shares the Lamiaceae genus of plants, making it a close relative to both mint and oregano.(6) In fact, some people choose to supplement thyme and oregano because they share somewhat similar aromatic properties.

In total, there are more than 300 varieties of thyme.(7) The most popular varieties include common thyme, which is readily available and typically found in cooking; lemon thyme, which has a golden color and lemon scent; woolly thyme, a form of the plant that has hairy leaves and steam, is grey in color, and is ideal for rock gardens; creeping thyme, known as the mother of thyme, grows only a few inches tall in hunches that has a mat-like appearance; wild thyme, a flowering variety with petals that appear red or purple; and elfin thyme, a creeping variety with fragrant leaves and purple or pink flowers that may be ideal for rock gardens or for brick or stone walkways.

Whether each variety of thyme is better for medicinal purposes, cooking, or for decoration in the garden is difficult to determine without analysis of the plant. For cooking or decoration, the taste buds or eyes will be the best judge, but research can determine what types of thyme may be ideal for its potential benefits in supplement form.

Thyme Pillar Infographic

Thyme Potential Benefits

Thyme contains several natural chemical compounds, vitamins, and minerals that may provide support for a healthy body when taken as a supplement.(8) The volatile oils found in thyme include carvacrol, borneol, and geraniol, and are believed to provide characteristics that are similar to an antiseptic. Fresh thyme is also believed to have one of the highest levels of antioxidants among all herbs. The antioxidants in thyme include zeaxanthin, lutein, apigenin, naringenin, lutein, apigenin, naringenin, luteolin, and thymonin.

Thyme leaves are notable for providing ideal levels of nutrients. 100 grams of fresh thyme leaves provide more than the daily recommended value of vitamin C, vitamin A, iron; and also provides vitamin B6 calcium, magnesium, manganese, and several other vitamin and minerals that may help an individual meet daily nutritional requirements.

The compounds in thyme are believed to support the body in several ways. To help validate the potential benefits, studies have been conducted to help bring clarity to the subject.

Potential Benefits Of Thyme

At the Medical and Sanitary Microbiology Department, Medical University of Lodz, Poland, researchers looked at the antibacterial activity of thyme and lavender essential oils.(9) To determine the efficacy of both oils, bacterial strains of staphylococcus, enterococcus, escherichia, and pseudomonas general were added to the oil and the microbial growth of each strain was measured. These strains of bacteria were taken from patients with infections in the oral cavity, respiratory system, reproductive system, and hospital environment.

In conclusion, the researchers note that “the results of experiments showed that the oil from thyme exhibited extremely strong activity against all of the clinical strains. Thyme oil demonstrated a good efficacy against antibiotics resistant strains of the tested bacteria.” In the same test, lavender oil had a lesser effect when strains of staphylococcus, enterococcus, and escherichia genus were introduced.

Research from the Autonomous University of Madrid, Spain, looked into the effect of thyme oil extract on immune system factors, which include cytokine production and macrophages.(10) These immune factors play a role in the body’s inflammatory response. Researchers note that the interest in this field of study stems from the existing use of thyme and other herbal properties for the treatment of health challenges. Specifically, the major bioactive compound in thyme, known as thymol, has already been studied and found to “exhibit multiple biological activities including anti-inflammatory, immunomodulating, antioxidant, antibacterial, antifungal, and free radical scavenging properties.”

Researchers used extracts of three species of thyme, Thymus vulgaris, Thymus zygis, and Thymus hyemalis, then measured the effect of the extracts on cells that regulate the inflammatory response. The researchers write, “CO2 supercritical thyme extracts showed anti-inflammatory properties by (a) reducing the release of proinflammatory cytokines, and (b) increasing the anti-inflammatory secretion in activated macrophages. These results may suggest that essential oils from thyme extracts could be used as novel options for treatment of chronic diseases based on inflammatory processes.” While results were positive, researchers note that more studies with greater depth may be necessary to understand the effect of these extracts better and whether they provide benefits in humans.

Other research articles echo the above statements about the potential benefits of compounds found in thyme. Primarily, the immunoregulatory properties may provide optimal support for the digestive system(11), respiratory system(12), cardiovascular system (13), healthy-looking skin (14), and other areas of the body that may receive optimal support from antioxidant activity, vitamins, and minerals.

Thyme As a Spice

As with many other herbs, using thyme as a spice is another way to enjoy both the natural flavor and the potential medicinal properties. Traditionally, thyme is found in seasoning blends for poultry and stuffing.(15) It can also be found in sauces, chowder, and soups. Some recipes recommend rubbing minced garlic and thyme over some seafood, lamb, pork, or beef roasts. Other options include seasoning cheese, tomato, and egg dishes. Thyme is particularly popular in Italian cuisine, soups, and stews.(16)

Thyme is also a popular alternative to rosemary and oregano. While all three do share a similar appearance and peppery undertones, they have some distinct differences. Thyme is thought to be a more favorable herb to mix with other species because its taste is less astringent. Regardless, thyme pairs well with marjoram, basil, sage, and garlic.

Thyme: Planting, Growing, and Harvesting

Growing thyme in the garden may be more difficult from seeds than cutting stems and planting them in soil.(17) Due to uneven germination of seeds, thyme may not grow as expected during the early growing season. It is suggested to take a cutting from the thyme plant, such as a branch, and plant it in soil. The cutting should root and grow a new plant.

Thyme does not like cold weather, and if planted outside might not regrow in the Spring. Planting the seeds or cuttings indoors, 6 to 10 weeks before the last spring frost, can ensure that a healthy growth of thyme is ready to plant when the weather warms.(18) Thyme is typically easy to grow in average quality soil so long as it is well drained and receives full sun. Sandy or rocky soil is thought to be best. Moderately dry soil may be best, as many thyme species are drought tolerant and are susceptible to root rot. Thyme should be trimmed during the Spring and Summer to contain the growth - plant these trimmings indoors to replace plants that don’t survive, or pass them around to other gardeners.

There are many different species of thyme, and each has unique attributes that make them ideal for decorative elements either inside or outsides. Some flowering varieties are particularly attractive to bees, which may be perfect for gardens where fewer large flowering plants grow. But, each type of thyme might thrive better in one environment over another. A local nursery will know which types are right for each area of the country.

Begin harvesting leaves and springs at any point during the Spring and Summer so long as the plant appears healthy. Hang the leaves and springs in a dark, warm, and ventilated area. When dry, place them in an airtight container or freeze them. Lemon thyme or caraway thyme have aromatic qualities that may be an ideal choice to grow in the garden or indoors.

Start A Thyme Supplement Regimen

With so many available herbs that support a healthy body, it can be easy to overlook thyme. Because thyme can grow in almost any gardens or indoors, it's easy always to have a fresh supply of leaves to enjoy as a spice or eaten fresh. No matter how thyme is used, it contains some natural chemical compounds that might be potentially beneficial in a healthy body.

For optimal support, some supplements contain extracts of thyme. Using a patented extraction method, companies can extract and condense the chemicals found in thyme. These extracts are believed to promote bioavailability since the body no longer has to break down the plant structure.

No matter how an individual chooses to enjoy thyme, there are many known potential benefits to introducing herbs in a daily dietary regimen. Thyme, along with other herbs, may help to provide the support the body needs to maintain feeling of health and wellness at all stages of life.