Several years ago I was hiking in southern Provence with friend and fellow herbalist Christophe Bernard. Christophe, who’s always about ten steps ahead on the trail, suddenly and excitedly called out to me and I hurried to catch up with him to see what he had found. Growing about six inches off the ground, with lots of tiny leaves, was wild thyme. We both crouched down to get a better view. Many herbalists like to differentiate between wild thyme and garden thyme. After meeting this little plant I can see why: the aroma of those tiny leaves was incredibly strong and the taste was a lot spicier and hotter than the garden variety. With just one taste, I knew that there was a lot of potent medicine in this small and unassuming plant.
Thyme’s native habitat is southern Europe and the Mediterranean, where it grows wild in hard rocky soil. This well-loved plant has become domesticated and now grows in gardens around the world. There are hundreds of different thyme varieties and most of them can be used as medicine. Use your sense of taste as your guide. Is it spicy and hot tasting? If so, it’s most likely good medicine.
Thyme is strongly antimicrobial and has traditionally been used for many types of bacterial infections. It can be used in mouth washes for sore gums, inflamed gums, or minor mouth infections. A gargle made with thyme, or fresh thyme infused into honey, can soothe a sore throat.
Thyme has also been used topically for yeast and fungal infections like ringworm or vaginal yeast infections. Herbalist Aviva Romm recommends thyme, as well as other herbs, as a vaginal suppository to address Group B Streptococcus in the late stages of pregnancy.1
In his book, Herbal Antibiotics, Stephen Buhner says thyme has been shown to inhibit the mechanisms that can make bacterial cells resistant to antibiotics.2 I could not find any human clinical trials regarding thyme’s antimicrobial properties, but numerous in vitro studies on thyme essential oil have shown thyme’s ability to inhibit pathogens like Candida albicans, Staphylococcus aureus, Enterococcus fecalis, Escherichia colia, and nosocomial infections.3,4,5,6,7
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 2 million people in the U.S. get antibiotic-resistant infections, resulting in as many as 23,000 deaths every year.8 Thyme, as well as many other herbs with similar effects, may be a ray of hope for the looming threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Thyme has been used for a variety of symptoms related to colds and influenza for thousands of years. Even Dioscorides (40-90 AD) wrote, “Everyone knows thyme…”9 He recommended a drink of thyme with salt and vinegar for driving out phlegmy matter through the bowels.
Thyme’s hot and drying energetics make it a great match for cold and stagnant conditions, indicated by a thick white coating on the tongue, and congested mucus in the lungs. Thyme is also well known for stopping coughing spasms and is widely employed as an antitussive, even in dry coughs like whooping cough. Many herbalists recommend thyme in place of endangered osha.
The pounded herb, if given fresh, from 1 to 6 oz. daily, mixed with syrup, has been employed with success as a safe cure for whooping cough. An infusion made from 1 oz. of the dried herb to 1 pint of boiling water, sweetened with sugar or honey, is also used for the same purpose, as well as in cases of catarrh [excessive mucus] and sore throat, given in doses of 1 or more tablespoonsful, several times daily. The wild plant may be equally well used for this. - Maude Grieve, A Modern Herbal
Science has begun to validate herbalists’ traditional thyme uses for acute bronchitis. In one double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-center clinical trial, researchers found that patients with acute bronchitis who were given dry extracts of thyme and evening primrose had significantly better healing times than those given the placebo.10
Another prospective, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that an extract of thyme and ivy leaves given to patients with acute bronchitis resulted in a 50% reduction in coughing fits two days sooner than in those taking the placebo.11 The combination of thyme and ivy leaves has also been shown to be effective and safe for children with acute bronchitis aged 2-17.12
Many herbalists feel that thyme also broadly supports the immune system. British herbalist Jeremy Ross says:
Thyme may be especially appropriate for those who have had repeated antibiotic therapy, for example, for respiratory or urinary infection, with the result that the immune system and digestive system have been weakened. This, in turn, can result in an accumulation of pathogens that are not cleared from the body. - Jeremy Ross, Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine
Like many of our culinary herbs, thyme both tastes great and helps digestion. It can be enjoyed in meals to support already healthy digestion or it can be taken in larger quantities to move stagnant digestion like bloating, belching, and flatulence. It can also calm digestive spasms and could be helpful for those with diarrhea or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Thyme has long been used as a vermifuge to help the body get rid of unwanted parasites and worms.
A teaspoonful of tincture half an hour before breakfast has been used traditionally with castor oil for worms. In France, thyme is used particularly as a cleansing liver tonic, stimulating the digestive system and liver function, and to treat indigestion, poor appetite, anaemia, liver and gall-bladder complaints, skin complaints and lethargy.13 - Anne McIntyre, Herbalist
While thyme is primarily known for its ability to address digestion, infection, and upper respiratory symptoms, it has also been long used for pain. Maude Grieve recommends using thyme externally on painful joints as a rubefacient. Many historical herbalists recommend thyme for delayed menses and painful menstrual cramps. Culpepper recommends thyme for gout and sciatica, as well as general aches and pains.
Thyme is a delicious culinary herb. Because thyme has such a potent scent and taste it is normally used in smaller quantities in foods.
Thyme can be used in a variety of different herbal preparations. It works well as a tea, tincture (alcohol extract), and infused into oil, vinegar, or honey.
Many of the antimicrobial qualities of thyme have been shown by using thyme essential oil. There are at least seven different chemotypes (chemically distinct types) for thyme essential oil. Knowledge of the different qualities of these chemotypes is important when choosing thyme essential oil for both safety and effectiveness.
Thyme is easy to grow in the garden. I harvest it by cutting the thin woody stems a few inches about the ground just before it flowers. I am able to harvest two or three times each growing season, which supplies our household with enough thyme for the season. Dry it well and keep it stored in a tight glass container. I will warn you that patience is required for garbling those small leaves from the thin stems.
Thyme Tea: 2-6 grams of dried plant per day
Thyme Herb Fluid Extract: dried, 1:5, 35% alcohol: 2-4 mL three times a day
Thyme Essential oil: Dilutions of 1% or less (1 drop of EO in 100 drops of carrier oil)
Thyme herb is generally regarded as safe, especially when used in small amounts.
Pregnant and nursing moms should not use medicinal amounts of thyme, nor should they use thyme essential oil. In larger dosages thyme is an emmenagogue (herb that stimulates uterine contractions or menstrual flow).
Thyme essential oil should be chosen for its chemotype and only used diluted and in appropriate (very small) amounts. Studying with a clinical aromatherapist trained in the internal use of essential oils will ensure safety with this potent extraction.
Thyme has rarely been associated with allergic reactions.15
Thyme is a perennial member of the mint family and has the typical “lipped” flower shape. The flowers are generally white to pinkish. Bees love the nectar of thyme flowers and are often seen buzzing from flower to flower.
The leaves are very small and oblong. They grow on a woody stem. The plant grows as a small shrub reaching an average of six inches in height.
Native to the rocky soils of the sunny Mediterranean, thyme offers us powerful and aromatic medicine in a small package. Thyme can be enjoyed regularly in savory meals. I love adding it to hearty winter stews, salad dressings, and beef dishes. Taken as a tea or tincture, thyme is a valuable ally for addressing poor digestion and easing the symptoms of colds or influenza. It will be interesting to see further clinical research develop for using thyme against antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections.