The Health Benefits of Thyme (Thymus Vulgaris)

Common garden herb exerts potent antimicrobial properties

Adding thyme to a cooking pot

Lucy Lambriex / Getty Images

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a herb of the mint family commonly used in cooking, is believed to have medicinal properties beneficial to health. With a taste that is spicier than oregano and a scent reminiscent of pine and camphor, thyme can be recognized by its tiny, sage-green leaves and thin but woody stalks. In early summer, the plant will blossom with pink or purple flowers.

Thyme can be used fresh or dried or distilled into an essential oil for aromatherapy. The plant is known to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and antioxidant effects that may be useful in treating everything from intestinal infections to skin conditions.

Thyme is also sold as a dietary supplement in liquid or capsule form. There are even thyme teas, thyme mouthwash, thyme face masks, and thyme nasal sprays.

Also Known As

  • Bail Li Xiang (traditional Chinese medicine)
  • Common thyme
  • French thyme
  • Garden thyme
  • Rubbed thyme

Health Benefit

In alternative medicine, thyme can be taken by mouth, applied to the skin, gargled, or inhaled for health purposes. The plant contains compounds like thymol (a plant-based phenol specific to thyme) that is known to control or neutralize certain bacterial, viral, fungal, and parasitic infections.

Thyme is touted as a natural treatment for an almost encyclopedic array of unrelated health conditions, including:

  • Acne
  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis 
  • Bad breath
  • Bronchitis 
  • Colds
  • Cold sores
  • Colic
  • Cough
  • Dementia
  • Dermatitis
  • Diarrhea 
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Ear infections
  • Flatulence
  • Gingivitis
  • Hair loss
  • Laryngitis
  • Liver dysfunction
  • Menstrual cramps
  • Oral thrush
  • Premenstrual syndrome 
  • Sciatica
  • Sore throat 
  • Tonsillitis
  • Urinary tract infection
  • Whooping cough

Thyme is also believed to stimulate appetite, curb inflammation, boost immune function, and repel insects. Some of these claims are better supported by research than others.

As with many herbal remedies, the evidence supporting thyme's medicinal effects is weak. However, there are certain conditions for which thyme or thyme oil shows definite promise.

Anxiety

Thyme is believed by practitioners of aromatherapy to exert anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effects, a property supported by a 2014 study in the Journal of Acute Disease. According to the research, mice provided an oral dose of thymol at 20 milligrams per kilogram (mg/kg) exhibited far less stress when undergoing an elevated maze test than mice that weren't.

Whether the same can occur by inhaling the thyme oil has yet to be established. Further human research is needed.

Atopic Dermatitis

According to a 2018 study in International Immunopharmacology, the application of thymol to the skin of people with atopic dermatitis has a direct physiological response. In addition to inhibiting inflammatory compounds known as cytokines, thymol helps shrink the swollen dermal and epidermal skin layers characteristic of dermatitis.

In addition, thymol was able to prevent secondary infections caused by the bacteria Staphyloccocus aureus. This all-too-common complication occurs when swollen tissues allow S. aureus to move from the surface of the skin and establish reservoirs beneath the skin.

According to the researchers, thymol's anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effects may have a place in the management of chronic atopic dermatitis.

Cough

Thyme has long been used as a home remedy for cough, bronchitis, and other respiratory conditions. It is sometimes taken orally to treat a chest infection or inhaled to open airways. There is some clinical evidence of these effects.

According to a 2013 study in the European Respiratory Journal, thymol acts on receptors on the tongue, mouth, throat, and nasal passages in a way that may suppress coughs.

The study involved 18 volunteers, each of whom was exposed to cough stimuli. After using a thymol nasal spray, they underwent several tests to evaluate the urge to cough, the number of coughs experienced, and the threshold by which coughs occurred.

While the nasal spray had no effect on the cough threshold (the point where coughs occur in response to stimuli), it significantly reduced the number and severity of coughs as well as the overall urge to cough. The users reported that the spray had a pleasant cooling effect.

Intestinal Infections

Thymol has been shown in test tubes to neutralize certain enteric bacterium associated with intestinal disease.

In a 2017 study in Scientific Reports, chickens inoculated with the disease-causing bacteria Clostridium perfringens were fed a blend of essential oils containing 25% thymol and 25% carvacrol (another potent phenol found in thyme). After 21 days, the birds treated had far less evidence of the bacteria in their intestines than the untreated birds. These had fewer lesions and C. perfringens-related deaths.

Further research is needed to determine whether the same effect might occur in humans with other types of Clostridium bacteria.

Menstrual Cramps

Thyme has long been touted for its analgesic (pain-relieving) and antispasmodic (spasm-relieving) properties. The evidence supporting these claims is often mixed, but there have been some promising findings.

In a study published in the Journal of Research in Medical Sciences in 2012, researchers gave 120 female college students either thyme supplements or ibuprofen to treat menstrual cramps. After two months of treatment (four times daily for the thyme supplements and three times daily for ibuprofen), both groups of women reported similar levels of the relief.

This suggests that thyme may be a viable alternative to ibuprofen with far fewer side effects.

Oral Thrush

Thyme oil mixed with water has long been used as a remedy for bad breath and the prevention of gingivitis and gum disease. There is also evidence that it may treat oral thrush, a common infection caused by the fungi Candida albicans.

According to a 2015 study in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, thymol was able to suppress the growth of C. albicans and other Candida strains in the test tube. The researchers believe that thymol inhibited the production of ergosterol, a cholesterol-like substance needed to foster fungal growth. When used in combination with the antifungal drug nystatin, thymol was able to eradicate 87.4% of all Candida strains.

Thymol (derived from thyme by alcohol extraction) is widely used as an active ingredient in many commercial brands of mouthwash, including Listerine.

Possible Side Effects

Commonly used for cooking, thyme is considered safe when used in normal food amounts. It also appears to be well-tolerated in dietary supplement forms. However, the overconsumption of thyme may cause upset stomach, cramps, headaches, and dizziness.

Unlike most essential oils, thyme oil can also be consumed orally, albeit in limited quantities. Because the oil is concentrated, it may further amplify the known side effects. Hypotension, an abnormal drop in blood pressure, can occur if thyme oil is used in excess.

Allergy to thyme oil is also common, especially in people sensitive to plants in the mint family (including oregano, lavender, and sage). An allergy can manifest with diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting when consumed. When applied to the skin, allergic contact dermatitis may occur.

Thyme oil or supplements should be avoided during pregnancy. Thymol has estrogen-like effects that can influence menstruation and increase the risk of miscarriage. The use of thyme in cooking poses no such risk.

The safety of thyme oil and thyme supplements in children has not been established.

Interactions

Thyme can slow blood clotting and may amplify the effects of anticoagulants like Coumadin (warfarin) or Plavix (clopidogrel), causing easy bleeding and bruising. It is for this reason that thyme oil or supplements should be stopped at least two weeks before scheduled surgery to prevent excessive bleeding.

Thyme oil or supplements should also be used with caution in people on high blood pressure medications. Taking these together may cause an abnormal drop in blood pressure (hypotension).

To avoid interactions, speak with your doctor if you are taking or planning to take thyme to treat any health condition.

Selection, Preparation, and Storage

Thyme can be purchased at any grocery store as a dried or fresh herb. Dried thyme can be stored safely at room temperature for up to two years but quickly loses its aromatic properties after about a year.

Fresh thyme generally lasts for around a week in the refrigerator and will begin to turn black when it gets old. Fresh thyme can be frozen and added to stocks and stews directly out of the freezer.

Thyme capsules contain powdered thyme leaves and are typically dosed between 250 milligrams and 500 milligrams daily. (The listed dosages are from the manufacturers only and should not be construed to be either effective or tolerable.) As a rule of thumb, never exceed the recommended dosage on the product label.

Thyme essential oil is typically sold in light-resistant amber or cobalt blue bottles. The best oils will generally include the plant's Latin name (in this case, Thymus vulgaris), the country of origin, and the extraction method. You can store the essential oil in the refrigerator or in a cool, dry room away from direct sunlight. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun can damage essential oil.

There are no guidelines for the appropriate use of thyme for medical purposes. Speak with your doctor to ensure it is an appropriate option for your condition.

Common Questions

How do you use thyme oil in aromatherapy?

Practitioners of aromatherapy believe that you can enhance the benefits of treatment by using the oil for aromatherapy massage. To prevent skin irritation, never use the oil at full-strength. Instead, dilute it with a cold-pressed carrier oil, such as avocado, sweet almond, or jojoba oil. Cold-pressed carrier oils are less acidic than heat-extracted oils.

Most people find that a 2% thyme massage oil is well-tolerated. Simply add 12 drops of high-quality essential oil to one fluid ounce (30 milliliters) of a cold-pressed oil, lotion, or vegetable butter.

Resist adding extra thyme oil to topical preparations if they don't smell strong enough. As the oil is heated on the body, the aromatic essence will start to emerge.

Never inhale thyme oil directly from the bottle. Instead, place a few drops on a tissue or cloth and breathe in lightly. You can also use a commercial diffuser or vaporizer or simply add a few drops to bathwater or a simmering pot of water.

How can you add thyme to food?

Thyme is an excellent herb to use when making chicken, beef, or vegetable stocks as well as stews. It is great addition to pork, lamb, or chicken marinades and gives an aromatic boost to roast vegetables and potatoes.

Thyme can be infused into orange, lemon, or raspberry teas, served either hot or cold. It can even add a surprising floral note when added to whipped cream and baked custards. Lemon and thyme pair beautifully, whether in a roast chicken recipe or a lemony panna cotta.

Here are some recipes that use thyme as a key flavor note:

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