Are There Drugs in Your Spice Rack?

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As a trained chemist with research interests in the medicinal effects of food, I must admit that my mother-in-law’s frequent allusions to the folk-remedies of her Sicilian heritage sometimes tweak my professional ego. After listening to one of her particularly annoying (to me) dissertations on the magical properties of thyme and oregano, I decided to do a little research to show her what real science had to say on the matter. To my chagrin, I not only found that there are some important medical/health benefits to several of the substances in these herbs, but some of the components are also the active ingredients in commercial remedies!


For example, the essential oils of both thyme and oregano contain appreciable concentrations of thymol, a compound with a litany of health effects. Among these is the ability of the compound to increase the susceptibility of some strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria (e.g. Salmonella) to drugs like penicillin, tetracycline, and erythromycin. In addition, there is some evidence that thymol inhibits the development of birth defects during pregnancy and can limit the growth of certain cancer types. It is also an effective antiseptic; so much so that it is one of the active ingredients that gives Listerine © its abilities to reduce dental plaque and fight gingivitis. Thymol may also be useful as an antifungal agent, particularly because the standard treatments (e.g. fluconazole) are highly toxic when taken internally.


In addition to thymol, oregano contains higher amounts of another substance known as carvacrol. Structurally related to thymol, this “phenol” also shows antiseptic properties and can improve the effectiveness of antibiotics. However, what might be more interesting to us baby-boomers is that carvacrol has been used in cosmetics and at least one study has shown that this natural product stimulates the production of collagen, the protein that maintains the integrity of our skin.

Other Spices

What is generally true for oregano and thyme also holds for many other spices. This includes ginger, which contains several compounds that are strong antioxidants; turmeric, in which curcumin provides anti-inflammatory properties; and the capsaicin from chili oil, which has been incorporated in several commercial products for its anti-itch and pain- relieving properties. Although she doesn’t know it, people like my mother-in-law have played a part in the development of modern medications. Many of the drugs that fill our medicine chests have their roots in folk remedies. The ancient Greeks, for example, used a tea made from the bark of the willow for pain relief and fever. Today that same remedy is still in use, but we call it aspirin. But I have no plans to tell my mother-in-law about this.

By Dale E. Vitale, Ph. D, Chemistry-Physics Dept. Kean University

References Journal of Food Engineering Volume 98, Issue 2, May 2010, Pages 240-247. Journal of Pharmaceutical and Biomedical Analysis Volume 29, Issue 4, 20 July 2002, Pages 691-700. Thymol, Wikipedia James A. Duke, CRC hand- book of medicinal spices, CRC Press.

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