In the world of naturopathic medicine, this small, scrubby, fuzzy green herb has long been known for its strong antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. Oil of oregano concentrates these properties into a potent medicine. In the past few years, this little-researched remedy has therefore garnered attention and acclaim from M.D.’s, journalists, and celebrities alike.
Glancing at some of the first items that pop up on a Google search, it seems oil of oregano can be used to treat just about anything. Yeast infections, foot fungi, respiratory infections, inflammation, MRSA, Listeria, cancer — testimonials abound about the oil’s effectiveness against all kinds of pains and maladies. Due to a lack of research, however, how and when to use oil of oregano is often unclear for those who are interested in the oil as a safer, more natural alternative to pharmaceutical drugs.
“The most important thing to inform some of your decision on some of the herbs and a lot of supplements that are out there — they’re FDA approved but not FDA researched, which has its own pros and cons — is how you feel,” said Artemis Morris, N.D., a naturopathic practitioner, researcher, author, and founder of Revive Wellness Center in Connecticut. “If you want to use oil of oregano in the most informed, clinically responsible way, it would be really important to have a naturopathic physician be someone in your care plan.”
Oil of oregano’s medicinal potency comes from the concentration of the herb’s volatile compounds — tiny but mighty molecules found in the leaves of the plant. The most abundant volatile compound found in different species of oregano is carvacrol — a fragrant phenol that gives oregano its signature smell and many of its medicinal properties, according to An Herb Society of America Guide to the Genus Origanum.
“Carvacrol is probably the strongest anti-viral component because it helps to inhibit viral replication,” said Jenn Dazey, N.D., professor of botanical medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA.
Species of oregano also yield high levels of thymol, a thyme-scented phenol known for its antioxidant, antifungal and antiseptic properties.
Carvacrol, thymol and the many other volatile compounds that can be distilled from the oregano plant inhibit the growth of bacteria, which makes them powerful alternatives to antibiotics. In 2010, researchers presenting at the International Symposium on Animal Genomics for Animal Health concluded oregano oil’s antibiotic potency was such that it may provide “drug-free alternative strategies for disease control for poultry infectious diseases.”
While oregano oil does provide what some call a more natural alternative to antibiotics, bacterial infections can still develop resistance to it, Dazey said.
“We’ve already made resistant bacteria to those more natural and safer alternatives to antibiotics,” Dazey said. “So my strategy when it comes to oregano oil is use it as one part of a strategy. If you’re going to be using oregano oil, use that for about a week. Then make sure you use something different, like thyme oil, for a week, and then something different like lavender oil for a week. That way the 1 percent [of bacteria] that wasn’t susceptible to the oregano oil will be susceptible to perhaps the next agent that you try.”
Like conventional antibiotics, oil of oregano may also kill off healthy bacteria in the body, which leaves the immune system vulnerable.
“You always, always, always want to get probiotics,” Dazey said. “No matter what you do, as far as an antibacterial agent, you need to make sure you do probiotics.”
When used as an antibiotic, oil of oregano may also cause a Herxheimer reaction in some individuals, Morris said, which occurs when harmful microorganisms release toxins as they die.
“Just like how antibiotics are concentrated to kill bacteria, the same thing is happening with oil of oregano,” Morris said. “It’s going to work more potently. You might actually get some die off. The Herxheimer reaction is what’s known… You can have some die off of that bacteria, but actually you’ll feel worse before you feel better.”
Joy Of The Mountain
There are about 44 known species of oregano, according to the An Herb Society of America Guide to the Genus Origanum. It belongs to Lamiaceae, the mint family, and it was used throughout the ancient world, from Syria to Egypt to Greece.
In Greek and Roman mythology, oregano is the herb of love. Aphrodite grows it in her garden on Mount Olympus, and it was used in love potions and spells. Hippocrates — the father of Western medicine — is said to have prescribed it to patients as early as the 5th century B.C.E., and it was used by other medicinal practitioners throughout the ancient world, like Theophrastus, Pliny and Mithridates, among others.
The most common medicinal species of oregano used in modern times, Origanum vulgare, originally grew wildly on Greek mountainsides. Its name supposedly derives from the Greek term “oros ganos,” which translates to “joy of the mountain,” according to the popular story. “Vulgare” refers to the herb’s status as a common roadside weed — it was a medicine available to anyone and everyone in ancient Greek society, Jenn Dazey N.D. said.
Oregano seeds made it over to North America about 200 years ago, where the species continues to flourish, Dazey said. Today, it grows all over the continent. Dazey, for example, grows oregano in her garden in the Pacific Northwest while Artemis Morris, N.D. grows oregano in her garden in the Northeast.
Using oil of oregano distilled from local oregano may have certain benefits, Morris said. She hypothesizes that herbs and plants develop specific resistance mechanisms to bacteria, insects and fungi in their environment — when we eat these plants, we benefit from the defense mechanisms plants have been developing for thousands of years.
“If you’re using something locally, it’s more likely to have survived and developed the phytochemicals that would be more useful to you on a local level,” Morris said. “It all depends on what you need it for.”
When choosing an oregano oil, however, it’s more important to choose a manufacturer that grows their oregano organically and distills it in a virgin carrier oil — preferably organic — than to choose a locally sourced oil, Morris said.
“If it’s not organic, you’re also distilling toxins as well as essential oils,” Morris said. “You also want to learn how to judge a good manufacturing process. If you’re using a non-organic, possibly pesticide-laden local oregano, versus a highly concentrated organic oregano from somewhere else, you’re better off with that organic higher quality one.”
Concentrated Benefits, Increased Risks
While with oil of oregano, oregano’s volatile compounds are diluted in a carrier oil — like olive oil or coconut oil — oregano essential oil consists purely of the volatile compounds. This far more potent substance has a broad range of medicinal uses.
According to a 2011 study published in the Journal of Food Science, oregano essential oil distilled from a Moroccan species of oregano demonstrated antimalarial activity in addition to being a powerful antioxidant. The researchers also found oregano essential oil may act against human breast cancer cells.
Oregano essential oil is used frequently among holistic health practitioners. Alisha Olivier Park, founder of Tranquility Wellness Center in Encinitas, CA, uses oregano essential oil for several healing techniques. One of these is the Raindrop Technique — a healing methodology created by Gary Young, the founder of Young Living Essential Oils.
In the Raindrop Technique, the practitioner drips essential oils along a patient’s spinal column, Park said. Practitioners use only the most powerful antimicrobial, antifungal, and antibacterial essential oils, one of which is oregano, in this process. When the essential oils penetrate the skin, they detoxify the body and provide an emotional and sometimes spiritual release, Park said.
“At the end, people don’t even know what to say a lot of the time because it goes beyond words, what they experience,” Park said. “The reports that we do get back, when people can put it into words, is that it was a true, a much deeper spiritual experience, if you will. They feel a lot of relief on an emotional level, they feel the physical effects — that’s very clear and evident — and they also felt they tapped into something else.”
Park also uses oregano essential oil in the Emotional Release Technique. In this technique, the practitioner uses essential oils to access the limbic brain — specifically the amygdala — where we house what Park calls emotional blockages.
“The only way to access the amygdala gland is through the sense of smell,” Park said. “Smell is the only thing that can unlock these buried emotions.”
Different oils correspond to different emotions, Park said. Specifically, oregano essential oil helps us release feelings of vulnerability, fear of completion and toxicity.
At such high concentrations, essential oils magnify the benefits of herbal medicines — but also increase their risks.
“[Oregano essential oil] is a very concentrated medicine that would never occur in nature,” Jenn Dazey, N.D. said. “The plant has it in these little structures in its leaves, and the plant would never contain that concentrated and that high level of medicine. Just by distilling it and concentrating it, we’ve made something that’s not natural. Of course it’s effective against bacteria, but we have to respect the fact that it has a lot of toxic potential.”
In one 1981 study published in the Journal of Clinical Toxicology, the neurotoxic threat posed by essential oils was demonstrated in rats for the first time. Later studies summarized in this paper by Robert Tisserand confirm the neurotoxic threat of certain essential oils, namely thuja, sage and hyssop.
Few peer-reviewed studies exist on oregano essential oil’s toxic potential, though overuse of oregano essential oil may build dangerous levels of thymol in the kidneys, brain or nervous system, according to a Livestrong article.
“Try to use these very strong purified essential oils limited to first aid reasons or indications,” Dazey said. “If you want a daily tonic, then the whole plant has so much more than the volatile essential oil.”
We can safely enjoy oregano’s health benefits on a daily basis by consuming it in its less concentrated forms. Artemis Morris, N.D. has devoted a large part of her career to researching the Mediterranean diet and its benefits, in which oregano plays a large role — particularly when used with complementary herbs and spices.
“In traditional use, oregano is used in cooking the meat,” Morris said. “A very common dish is using oregano on chicken. You would take chicken and put lots of garlic — which is also antibacterial — you can put oregano on top of it, too, and then lemon juice is another very essential component to a lot of Mediterranean cooking. The combination of oregano and garlic actually is synergistic from a medicinal standpoint because they’re both antibacterial.”
Morris recommends using this combination of herbs in marinades, potatoes, and other meat dishes.
“Oregano used in cooking is a great idea — make sure you don’t have an allergy or sensitivity to it,” Morris said. “Combined with good quality olive oil and garlic.”
When dried properly, oregano can also be made into a tea.
“I think people don’t really give enough credit to the effectiveness of some of these teas that have aromatic herbs in them,” Jenn Dazey, N.D. said. “Let the tea steep with the lid on top, or else the volatile oils will escape.”
In any case, Morris stresses the importance of deferring to an expert when using herbal medicine.
“If you’re going to use an essential oil or an oil of oregano therapeutically,” she said, “make sure you consult with an accredited naturopathic physician on your health care team to make sure you’re using that in the most therapeutic and safest manner possible.”