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A Jouney through Thyme

July 2021, posted by Emma

If you look in your kitchen cupboard, the chances are that a jar of thyme is nestled amongst your herb collection. The roots of this humble garden herb, long favoured by cooks, stretch way back through history.

Folklore

The botanical name, Thymus vulgaris, originates from Ancient Greece. This herb, which now grows widely across temperate areas of the world, may have first been used as long as 3,500 years ago. The Ancient Greeks harnessed thyme to flavour food and to help prevent the spread of diseases. They also used it to disinfect the air, in fact ‘thymon’ comes from the Greek meaning ‘to fumigate’. This herb was also associated with bravery and Roman Soldiers were reputed to bath in it before going into battle. A little further afield, the Ancient Egyptians utilised thyme as an embalming herb.

Take a small step forward through the mists of time and we find this herb was recommended for a range of ailments in the Middle Ages, including plague, paralysis, leprosy and body lice.

Writing in the 15th century, renowned herbalist Nicolas Culpepper prescribed thyme to treat whooping cough, excess phlegm and the painful lower back condition sciatica, amongst other complaints. A little earlier, John Parkinson described the whole plant as a powerful medicinal remedy which could remove heat and toxins,
“Tyme…doth helpe somewhat to purge flegme, if as Dioscorides saith, it be taken with hony, salt and vinegar:…” (quoted in Bruton-Seal J & Seal M, 2014, p.208). Parkinson also recommended thyme for menstruation, childbirth and to help break wind - he clearly considered it to have a wide sphere of action.

The herbalist Bruton-Seal also explains that by the 19th century research showed the whole herb to boost immunity to certain infections including anthrax, typhoid and diphtheria. This special herb continues to be famed as an aromatic infection-fighting warrier today!

How to choose the right chemotype

Which thyme is which?
Bataglia tells us that there are over 300 varities of thyme, with Thymus vulgaris being the commonest. As with any aromatic plant, the chemistry, aroma and recommended uses of its essential oils are not the same as that of the whole plant. However the variations do not stop there, as T. vulgaris has 6 known chemotypes and the essential oils of several are commonly used in aromatherapy. You may be aware that when aromatic plants produce different chemotypes they can vary widely between each other in terms of chemistry, recommended therapeutic uses and safety issues. Therefore aromatherapists and essential oil lovers should be familiar with each essential oil chemotype you use.

Thymus vulgaris chemotype (CT) thymol
This could be described as hot thyme and is the most widely used thyme chemotype. One gentle inhale enlivens the brain and clears the sinuses. Mojay describes it as energetically invigorating and a powerful Yang energy tonic.

As the name suggests, thymol (a phenol) is present in significant levels, varying between between 30.9 - 70% (Tisserand and Young, 2014). Compare this to its linalool content which Tisserand and Young state as being between just 0.2-9.4% - a big difference!

Physically, it is a strong antibacterial oils and it is said to have good imuno-supportive actions. It is a generally useful respiratory aid. Think colds, coughs (especially those with phlegm), bronchitis and flu - all conditions where thyme thymol may lend support. This oil is also a useful part of an aromatic tool kit in cases of chronic fatigue and general exhaustion. Emotionally, consider using it as the Roman soldiers once did, to fortify courage and to dispel feelings of self-doubt, which is so often linked to the need for bravery.

It is important to be aware of safety cautions associated with the thymol chemotype. Most aromatherapists are aware that its high thymol content poses a potential risk of skin and mucous membrane irritation. For this reason Tisserand and Young, world-leaders in essential oil safety, recommend using it in skin preparations at no more than 1.3% of the total blend. We recommend avoiding use in cases of skin damage and disease, or highly sensitive/ reactive skin. For these reasons it may also be best to avoid using it with young children. Be aware that the constituent thymol may also inhibit blood clotting by affecting blood platelet activity – a clear caution regarding certain health conditions.

Warrier Thyme: blend Thymol thymol with gentler oils such as pine, black spruce, lemon or grapefruit. A combination of any of these oils, blended at a 5% dilution in a base oil like sweet almond, can be used to help with symptoms of acute conditions such as the on-set of colds or nasty coughs. Rub a small amount into the upper chest and back. To achieve a 5% blend add 25 essential oil drops to 20ml of base oil and mix well before use. A blend for grown-ups! Check the above cautions before use.

Thymus vulgaris chemotype (CT) linalool
The plant from which this essential oil is distilled is more sun-loving than its thymol CT counterpart and it’s aroma is smoother with a slightly floral undertone. This thyme is often more acceptable to people who find the scent of thymol CT a little harsh. Thyme linalool is definitely thymol’s more laid back cousin! It will come as no surprise to learn then that its linalool content (a monoterpenol) is significant - up to 79% - whereas it’s thymol content is said to not even reach 4%. Compare this to Thyme thymol (above), and the difference between these two essential oils is clear. Tisserand and Young consider there to be no safety issues associated with Thyme linalool, making it a good choice to use with children and with those with problematic skin.

The linalool chemotype has a gentle warmth to it. Like its feistier thymol counterpart, it can be a very useful support for respiratory issues so may be used for many of the same conditions; it is said to posses excellent infection fighting powers. Like CT thymol this gentle giant of an essential oil can also be very useful when fatigue is present and a gentle stimulant is needed.

In my own practice I reserve Thyme thymol for use in short, sharp bursts in local applications when acute respiratory issues arise, e.g. in chest rubs, however I use thyme linalool much more frequently. I love this calmer chemotype to support on-going conditions, in general massage blends or when I still want powerful physical and emotional support, but need a more gentle and caring touch.

Gentle Giant Thyme: Blend thyme linalool with woody oils such as vetiver, other herbals like lavender or sweet marjoram, or even florals such as geranium. For use as a general massage oil or bath oil blend at a 2% dilution (10 drops of essential oils mixed with 20mls of base oil).

Important Note

It is very important to stress that no essential oils can prevent or cure Covid-19. If you suspect that you, or someone you know, is experiencing any symptoms associated with COVID-19 then you must seek immediate medical advice. See very useful information from NHS UK here. (link ‘here’ to https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/)

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REFERENCES**
• Bataglia S (2003) The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy (second edition), Brisbane: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy
• Bruton-Seal J & Seal M (2014) The Herbalist’s Bible, John Parkinson’s Lost Classic Rediscovered, Ludlow, Shropshire: Merlin Unwin Books
• Johnson AT & Smith HA (1972) Plant Names Simplified, Abingdon: The Hamlyn Publishing Group
• Mojay G (1996) Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit (1996) London: Gaia Books Limited
• Peace Rhind J (2012) Essential Oils (second edition), London & Philadelphia; Singing Dragon
• Tisserand R & Young R (2014) Essential Oil Safety (second edition), Edinburgh, London, New York et al: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier