The thymes, they are a-changing!

By Terry A. Rondberg

For years, I’ve been railing against the over-use, misuse and outright abuse of antibiotics. Time and again, I’ve reported on the evolution of “superbugs” that have built up a resistance to traditional antibiotics.

Plants as medicine?
Plants as medicine?

Recently, I heard some good news about the topic. Researchers have found that inexpensive plant-derived essential oils might be a natural alternative to many chemical antibiotics.

According to research presented at the Society for General Microbiology’s spring meeting in Edinburgh in May, the essential oils of thyme and cinnamon were found to be particularly efficient antibacterial agents against a range of Staphylococcus species.

Strains of these bacteria are common inhabitants of the skin and some may cause infection in immunocompromised individuals. Drug-resistant strains, such as meticillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are extremely difficult to treat.

“Not only are essential oils a cheap and effective treatment option for antibiotic-resistant strains, but decreased use of antibiotics will help minimise the risk of new strains of antibiotic resistant micro-organisms emerging,” said lead researcher Professor Yiannis Samaras of the Technological Educational Institute of Ionian Islands, in Greece.

Dr. Samaras and colleague, Dr. Effimia Eriotou, tested the antimicrobial activity of eight plant essential oils. They found that thyme essential oil was the most effective and was able to almost completely eliminate bacteria within 60 minutes.

The Society’s announcement about the research provided additional information on essential oils, which have been recognized for hundreds of years for their therapeutic properties, although very little is still known about how they exert their antimicrobial effects in humans.

Australian aborigines used tea tree oil to treat colds, sore throats, skin infections and insect bites, and the remedy was sold commercially as a medicinal antiseptic from the early 20th century. Various scientific studies have demonstrated that essential oils are not only well tolerated, but are effective against a range of bacterial and fungal species. Their therapeutic value has been shown for the treatment of a variety of conditions, including acne, dandruff, head lice and oral infections.

The Greek team believes essential oils could have diverse medical and industrial applications. “The oils — or their active ingredients — could be easily incorporated into antimicrobial creams or gels for external application. In the food industry the impregnation of food packaging with essential oils has already been successfully trialled. They could also be included in food stuffs to replace synthetic chemicals that act as preservatives,” the researchers added.

I have mixed feelings about this report. Of course I’d like to see more attention paid to health care that doesn’t rely on chemical drugs. But I think this type of report only goes half way to the goal of changing the prevalent mindset about health.

It isn’t enough to switch to phytochemical substances as “treatments” for disease. We need to get to the point where we’re balancing the human system and optimizing its own ability to counteract any environmental stresses it encounters. As long as researchers keep thinking of plants and foods as “medicine” we aren’t making the fundamental changes that are vital for true wellness.