English ThymeMichael Vertolli, RH May 1, 2006
Common Kitchen Herb is a Potent Anti-Inflammatory, Anti-Viral, and Anti-Bacterial Medicine
I have often written about how some of the most incredible healing herbs grow right under our feet. Knowledge of these herbs is sometimes lost or forgotten because the popularity of herbs in our consumerist society is largely market-driven. There is another place where amazing healing wonders lie right under our noses — in the kitchen! Most people don’t realize that the majority of culinary herbs became popular not only because of their flavour, but also as a result of their medicinal properties. All spices aid digestion and most of them are antioxidant and antimicrobial to some degree and help to prevent food spoilage and food-borne infection — and that’s just the beginning! The average culinary herb has dozens of important medicinal properties.
On that note I would like to introduce one of my favourite herbs — common thyme (Thymus vulgaris). A familiar component of Mediterranean dishes, thyme is a low growing evergreen shrub that is a native of the northwestern Mediterranean region, growing primarily from southern Portugal and Spain eastward to southern Italy. Today it is cultivated all over the world. In fact, thyme can be grown easily in southern Ontario. It requires good drainage and lots of sunlight. To grow enough for culinary or medicinal purposes it is necessary to plant a decent size plot as this plant creeps along the ground usually only growing about 20-25 centimetres high.
Like many popular culinary herbs, there are many different varieties and hybrids of thyme available. As always, it is best to use the variety that is closest to its wild origins as this is what has traditionally been used for medicinal purposes. (We cannot guarantee that the hybrids have the same properties). In this case it is best to grow or purchase the variety that is usually marketed as English or winter thyme. It is also the variety that grows best in our region.
The best time to harvest thyme is relatively early during its flowering period when a bit more than half of its flowers have fully opened. In southern Ontario this tends to be some time between mid June and early July, depending on the area and the weather conditions on any given year. It will usually flower early if we have a warmer, drier spring. Harvest the top 6-8 centimetres of the flowering stalks. If you end up with any woody stalk material, remove the auxiliary branches from it and discard the woody part of the main stem.
The smell of freshly harvested thyme puts me into a kind of ecstatic trance. It is absolutely heavenly! It smells fairly sweet, somewhere between oregano and lavender. After harvesting it, I can’t help sniffing my hands for the rest of the day. Sadly, even the best organically grown dried thyme that you come across is likely to be significantly inferior to the fresh herb correctly harvested. This is because economics generally necessitate that a larger amount of the herb is harvested later in the plants’ life cycle to maximize yields. In addition, poor drying and storage methods can result in loss of much of the volatile oil constituents. The end result is inferior flavour, pungency and medicinal properties.
The moral of the story is if you want really good quality thyme for tea or culinary purposes, grow and dry it yourself. It should be dried whole in a warm (but not hot), dry place away from direct sunlight. If done properly it will dry in a few days. The enemies of dried herbs are light, moisture and heat. Store it whole in a tightly sealed (preferably amber) glass jar (no plastic bags or clear glass bottles on exposed spice racks please!) in a dark cupboard away from major sources of moisture. Avoid cupboards above a sink or stove. If you make the effort to do it properly you won’t regret it.
Although a tea made from good quality dried thyme works well and tastes great, for medicinal purposes I prefer to use a tincture made from the fresh herb. The medicinal information below is based primarily on the use of the fresh herb tincture. However, you can expect similar results from the tea.
THERAPEUTIC QUALITIES OF THYME
As we can expect from any spice, thyme is an excellent herb for the digestive system. It increases the digestive secretions of the stomach, small intestine, liver and gallbladder. It can be used for indigestion, gas, bloating, spasms or cramping of the digestive tract, as well as for liver and gallbladder congestion. It also reduces liver inflammation and can help to protect this organ from the harmful effects of toxins. Thyme reduces inflammation of the digestive tract and is beneficial for conditions such as leaky gut syndrome, diarrhea, colitis and diverticulitis.
Thyme is an amazing respiratory herb. It is a great expectorant (expels mucous) for dry, spasmodic or loose coughs and can benefit all manner of conditions that affect the lungs such as colds, bronchitis, asthma and tuberculosis. It also decongests and dries up the secretions of the nasal passages, making it useful for sinus inflammations and infections including allergy symptoms. Thyme is also beneficial for feverish conditions such as influenza and childhood fevers like chicken pox and measles.
Thyme is a very effective antimicrobial herb. It is especially good for the treatment of bacterial and fungal infections. It is beneficial for the treatment of viral infections as well. This makes thyme a very important herb for the treatment of digestive or respiratory conditions that involve infection. It is also effective for the treatment of worms, especially nematodes (roundworms). It is one of the few herbs that are beneficial for the treatment of worms in children as many of the effective herbs for worms are somewhat toxic. Thyme is likewise effective for killing Candida so is recommended for the internal treatment of intestinal and vaginal yeast infections, and topically for fungal infections such as athlete’s foot and ringworm, and for infections of the urinary tract.
Thyme is also an excellent herb for conditions of the nervous system. It calms the mind and reduces tension while at the same time increasing alertness because it increases blood flow to the brain. It is beneficial for stress-related conditions such as nervousness, anxiety, hyperactivity, poor memory and concentration, and for dementia. It is also effective for the treatment of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, for mood swings related to PMS and menopause, and for depression. Because it is both calming and increases mental alertness, thyme will benefit those who are stressed out or depressed and suffering from fatigue, whereas many other antidepressant herbs might be too sedating. It is also of benefit to help those who are trying to overcome addictions, especially to alcohol.
Thyme doesn’t just increase blood flow to the brain, it improves circulation to the entire body. It is excellent for anyone who suffers from poor peripheral circulation. It is also a mild heart tonic and will help to normalize blood pressure.
Thyme is an excellent local anti-inflammatory and healing herb. It will benefit many kinds of inflammations and irritations of the skin. It is especially helpful for the treatment of burns. Taken orally it will also help to heal stomach and duodenal ulcers.
DOSAGES AND WARNINGS
As I mentioned earlier, I prefer to use thyme in the form of a 1:5 fresh herb tincture (this means that 5 ml of the tincture provides the equivalent of 1 gram of the fresh herb). The typical dosage for the tincture is 3-5 droppers (2-4 ml) of tincture taken 3-4 times per day for chronic conditions, or 6-8 droppers (4-6 ml) 5-6 times per day for acute conditions. The dosage is lower for children. As always, the tincture is best added to 25-50 ml (1-2 ounces) of water and held in your mouth for 30-60 seconds before swallowing. To make a tea, steep 1 (chronic dose) or 2 (acute dose) teaspoons of the dried herb in 250 ml (1 cup) of boiled water in a covered cup or teapot for 10-15 minutes then strain it. Always take herbs on an empty stomach. The best times are 15-20 minutes before meals and 30-60 minutes before bed.
Thyme is a very safe herb, however it may interact with antidepressant, sedative or anticonvulsant drugs. Anyone taking these kinds of medications should consult with a qualified herbalist or other natural health care practitioner before using this herb. This is not a concern when thyme is consumed as a spice. In addition, many health conditions may be too complex for self-treatment. If you are using thyme or any herb and you notice no improvement or a worsening of your symptoms you should discontinue the herb and consult with a qualified practitioner.
There is an ancient principle which states that food should be our medicine. There is no doubt that the nutritional and health-promoting properties of a good diet are very important for our overall health and well-being. This also applies to the spices that we use to enhance the flavour of our foods. Thyme is not the exception, it is the rule! All of the culinary herbs that we use have important health-promoting benefits. Although the medicinal properties of these herbs may not be as potent when they are cooked and mixed with foods, they still make an important contribution to our health. As long as we don’t eat excessive amounts of foods that are too pungent (hot), a generous use of culinary herbs doesn’t just spice up our meals, it also spices up our health. Enjoy!
Michael Vertolli is a Registered Herbalist practising in Vaughan (just north of Toronto). He is the Director of Living Earth School of Herbalism, which offers in-class and online general interest courses, certificate, and diploma programs. For more information: 905-303-8723, ext. 1. Visit his website: http://www.livingearthschool.ca/index.html Blog: http://michaelvertolli.blogspot.com/