Outstanding Oregano: Benefits and Uses

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

I’ve had a love affair with cooking ever since I was a young boy. Spending time in the kitchen with my family was a daily ritual over which we shared stories, laughed heartily, and formed strong bonds.

Coming from a Sicilian family, it’s no surprise that a lot of our dishes were tomato-based. In fact, homemade pasta sauce, brimming with fresh garlic, herbs, and spices was our specialty. I never thought about it then, but now I know that our tomato sauce was actually quite the health food, between the lycopene in the tomatoes, the antioxidants and sulfur compounds in the garlic, and the countless benefits of the various herbs and spices!

Speaking of herbs and spices, let’s talk about one of my favorites—oregano.

The name “oregano” is of Greek origin and means “delight of the mountain.” And a delight it is… You simply can’t be an Italian cook (or any cook for that matter) and not appreciate oregano. It’s what gives sauce that slightly bitter kick and distinctive mouth-watering aroma.

Oregano is sometimes called wild marjoram, as it is closely related to another popular spice—sweet marjoram. There are more than 35 varieties, all of them native to Mediterranean or central Asian countries. While its history of use spans several centuries, oregano only became popular in the states after World War II, when American soldiers brought it home postwar.

Let’s take a closer look at the health benefits of oregano and what science has to say. But well before it became known as a culinary spice, oregano was used medicinally—and even as a natural insect repellent! (It is widely believed that chemical compounds in oregano repel insects, making it an excellent addition to your garden or patio area.) As far back as the ancient Greek and Roman empires, oregano leaves were applied to skin to treat sores and alleviate muscle pain. And oregano is still a folk remedy in many countries against upset stomach.

Oregano and Oregano Oil Benefits

Oregano is high in vitamins A, B6, C, E, and K, as well as calcium, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Not only that, oregano is rich in antioxidants, other compounds that research has shown can treat and prevent several diseases and health concerns. In fact, some varieties of oregano have four times the amount of antioxidants as blueberries—which are already antioxidant powerhouses in their own right!

The leaves of the oregano plant contain a variety of protective antioxidant compounds, including phenols, triterpenes, rosmarinic acid, and oleanolic acid. However, oil of oregano—the medicinal grade essential oil derived from the oregano plant—may be where the most significant benefits lie.

The two most potent compounds in oregano oil are carvacrol and thymol. Carvacrol in particular has been studied for its antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties. As such, it has a long history of treating various parasitic, bacterial, viral, and fungal infections (including Candida).

Research has shown that carvacrol really does have the ability to kill certain harmful bacteria. In one trial, oregano oil inhibited the growth of the Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa strains of pathogenic bacteria. The researchers said they looked forward to further testing of oregano essential oils “as alternative antibacterial remedies enhancing healing process in bacterial infections and as an effective means for the prevention of antibiotic-resistant strain development.”

Viruses should also be wary of oregano. A 2012 study found that carvacrol and thymol possessed major antiviral activity against the herpes simplex type 1 virus—and inactivated it by 90% within one hour! The researchers wrote, “Our results suggest that thymol and carvacrol are potential candidates for topical therapeutic application to reduce herpes simplex virus transmission.”

Carvacrol was also tested on viruses that commonly contaminate produce and can lead to foodborne illness, including hepatitis A and norovirus (the extremely nasty and contagious bug that causes nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea). A 0.5% concentration completely inactivated two norovirus strains, and a 1% concentration inactivated hepatitis A.

Carvacrol boasts anti-inflammatory properties, as well, which is especially important in the prevention of heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune conditions (to name a few).

In preliminary research with mice, oregano oil reduced the production of inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which in turn decreased the risk of colitis—an inflammatory bowel disease. Carvacrol in oregano oil has also been shown to destroy cancerous cells in the prostate, colon, and breast.

How to Use Oregano and Reap the Benefits

As you can see, oregano boasts some pretty impressive health benefits. Is it the next great cure-all? No…but time will tell. As more research is conducted, I’m sure we will discover even more benefits of oregano beyond the ones I’ve discussed here.

Until then, with no major side effects to speak of, there’s really no reason not to include it in your diet.

The easiest (and tastiest) way to consume more fresh or dried oregano is by adding it to your homemade sauces, meats, dressings, and other recipes. You can also top your salads with fresh chopped oregano, or sprinkle it on a bowls of soup, chili, or stew.

To help clear congestion or calm a cough/cold, you can make a facial steam by combining fresh oregano with other healing herbs like lavender in a pot of boiling water, then standing over the pot with your head covered and inhaling deeply for several minutes.

You can also purchase oregano oil as a supplement or essential oil, and it can be used both topically and orally. Combine it with a carrier oil (like coconut or olive) and rub it on sore muscles or on your neck or temples to relieve pain or headaches. (All folk remedies, but hey, it’s worth a try.) If using orally, follow directions on the bottle for proper dosing.

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