"Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian,” said Alice May Brock of Alice’s Restaurant fame, but the ancient Greeks might dispute that. In Greece, Oreganum vulgare was once used by physicians to treat conditions ranging from wounds and convulsions to heart failure and hemlock poisoning. Nineteenth-century American doctors prescribed it as a general health tonic, and historically this aromatic herb has also gone up against headaches, urinary tract infections, and indigestion.
It’s always a bonus when something truly tasty is good for you (and who could dispute the heavenly aroma of oregano on a fresh, crusty pizza?). But these days it seems that oregano is moving off the menus and onto supplement labels that spotlight its medicinal properties.
Well-known herbalist James A. Duke, PhD, points to oregano’s tremendous antioxidant abilities and extols its virtues, saying, “Here’s a member of the mint family that’s simply loaded with antiseptic compounds.” Recent studies support mounting evidence of its antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antiparasitic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Does this mean that we can have our oregano and eat it, too?
A Pinch of This
It seems that this savory seasoning is the ultimate germ fighter. What makes it so? Oregano’s volatile oil contains a couple of potent compounds—carvacrol and thymol—that are especially effective against microbes and fungi; carvacrol in particular has been highly successful in treating Candida albicans (the yeast-infection culprit). Used externally, this oil delivers big antifungal benefits, too—rub the diluted oil topically on athlete’s foot, and you’ll feel its potency.
But it’s not just effective on the fungus among us. A recent study confirmed oregano oil’s fungus-fighting activities in the soil around tomato seedlings, too, where it increased the number of surviving plants by an astonishing 70 percent in some cases. Study authors suggest that oregano’s essential oil may someday be used as a replacement for synthetic fungicides.
In another arena—the one filled with bacteria—oregano oil does its duty against a host of microbes such as the infamous Escherichia coli (E. coli), which lives in the intestines and wreaks havoc when conditions are right (as in Montezuma’s revenge). Studies on various other food-borne bacteria and fungi (including Salmonella choleraesuis, Staphylococcus aureus, and candida) continue to support the strong antimicrobial effectiveness of carvacrol and thymol.
Oregano oil even takes on giardia parasites and stops the growth of certain food molds, indicating possible applications in the food industry, where it could help reduce harmful levels of fungi, bacteria, and parasites during food processing.
This herb can be taken in a variety of ways: savory seasoning, tea, capsule, or, in its most potent form, essential oil. Oregano essential oil is highly concentrated and so powerful it can actually burn, so it should always be diluted, whether you’re using it internally or externally.
For internal use (for example, treating a bacterial or parasite infection), look for a formula where the essential oil is already diluted, or dilute it yourself in water or olive oil, following directions. Make sure you’re using true oregano oil that emphasizes carvacrol over thymol content (less than 5 percent of the latter). For topical fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot, dilute one teaspoon of essential oil in two teaspoons of olive oil and apply up to three times daily to the affected area. Volatile oils should generally be avoided during pregnancy.
To enjoy a soothing cup of oregano tea, steep one to two teaspoons of dried or fresh oregano.