Significant research has found thyme essential oil and its constituent thymol to be antiseptic. In fact, many mouth washes and antiseptic wipes often contain thymol. But science is now finding that thyme oil also reduces pain and even menses pain.
Who would have thought?
Well, traditional medicines have been thyme oil and other essential oils to help relieve pain for centuries.
Thyme constituent inhibits COX-2
In a study from Japan’s Nara Women’s University, researchers found that one of thyme oil’s constituents, carvacrol, actually inhibits the cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) enzyme – part of the body’s inflammatory process that produces pain.
This strategy – of inhibiting COX-2 – has been utilized by pharmaceutical medications including NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs). Yet some of these NSAIDs and COX-inhibitor drugs come with side effects such as cardiovascular and digestive problems, which docile herbs like thyme don’t seem to come with.
Thyme Oil beats out Ibuprofen for pain relief
Medical researchers have confirmed that thyme is not only an excellent pain-relieving herb. It also reduces pain of difficult menstruation better than ibruprofen.
The researchers tested 84 women university students who had reported difficult menstruation. The young women were aged between 18 and 24 years old. All were suffering from primary dysmenorrhea.
Primary dysmenorrhea is usually defined as painful cramping that may or may not come with other symptoms such as back ache, nausea, headaches and dizziness. Secondary dysmenorrhea usually indicates menses pain that is related to another underlying condition.
Here the researchers added to the definition of primary dysmenorrhea that it appears within two years of the beginning of menses (menarche) and no pelvic pain during the other parts of the monthly cycle. This is logical because painful menses is more frequently seen among younger women within the first few years of the beginning of menses.
The researchers divided the students into three groups of 28 each.
Group one was given 200 milligrams of ibuprofen per dose plus 25 drops of a placebo essential oil.
Group two was given 25 drops of a 2% essential oil of thyme (Thymus vulgaris) plus a placebo capsule per dose.
Group three was given 25 drops of the placebo essential oil plus the placebo capsule.
Each subject was instructed to begin the treatment on the first day of menstruation, with a dose every six hours.
Pain intensity was recorded at the beginning before treatment was started, and an hour after each dose and 24 and 48 hours after they began the treatment. They also were asked to rate their blood flow.
The visual analogue scale (VAS) was used to rate their pain intensity. The thyme essential oil group’s average pain scores went from 6.57 prior to treatment to 1.21 during the first menstrual cycle tested, and 1.14 during the second menstrual cycle.
Meanwhile, the ibuprofen group’s pain scores went from 5.30 to 1.48 in the first cycle and 1.68 during the second menstrual cycle.
One important note about the above study is that although the thymus oil reduced pain more than the ibuprofen, the researchers stated that the difference in pain reduction between thymus and ibuprofen was “statistically insignificant.” Statistical significance relates to whether a difference is large enough to avoid the possibility that the result was by chance.
So was the difference between the two really insignificant? Take a look at the chart offered by the researchers:
Consider also what the researchers stated clearly in their paper:
“Both drugs (thymus vulgaris and ibuprofen) were effective in reducing the severity of dysmenorrheal pain. But the pain decreased more in thymus vulgaris group versus ibuprofen.”
The most clear indication – clearly not insignificant, was the responses from the women who were tested. Here is the table showing the satisfaction with the thymus versus the ibuprofen (remember, this is was a triple-blind study so they were not influenced by knowing whether they had taken the placebo, the ibuprofen or the thymus):
The table shows that in the first treatment cycle, 71 percent of the thymus group qualified their satisfaction from pain relief as “excellent” while only 28 percent of the ibuprofen group qualified their satisfaction from pain relief as “excellent.”
This satisfaction from pain relief is increased in the second cycle, as 81.5 percent of the patients taking the thymus qualified their satisfaction from pain relief as “excellent” while only 25 percent of those taking the ibuprofen qualified their satisfaction from pain relief as “excellent.”
This of course means that while the statistical measurement of pain intensity showed the difference between the pain reduction scores of thymus versus ibuprofen was “insignificant” – there was a clear difference in the pain reduction in terms of the satisfaction of the test subjects using the Kruskal-Wallis analysis.
Drugs versus natural herbs
One of the key results of this study was that the thyme oil’s therapeutic effects increased for the women through the second cycle, while the ibuprofen’s pain-relieving effects were decreased during the second cycle.
The thyme oil pain reduction went from 6.57 prior to treatment to 1.21 in the first cycle and then down to 1.14 during the second menstrual cycle. And the percentage of test subjects that qualified the pain reduction as “excellent” went from 71 percent to 81 percent.
Meanwhile, the ibuprofen treated women’s pain scores went from 5.30 to 1.48 in the first cycle and then only 1.68 on the second cycle.
This decreasing effect, often the case among pharmaceuticals, is called drug tolerance. Because these are isolated chemicals, the body’s detoxification and immune systems see the active constituent as a foreigner to the body. Liver enzymes will target and break down the chemicals. Because the body remembers how to break things down, the body will become more efficient at breaking them down the next dose, resulting in the body increasing its tolerance to the drug.
Because the active ingredient is more efficiently broken down, the body will need higher doses in order to gain the same pain-reduction effect in a pain medication. (This also goes for other chemical drugs as well – including ethanol (alcohol) and this is how alcoholics and other drug users will need more of the drug to feel “high.”)
But this increased efficiency in breaking down a chemical through liver enzymes doesn’t mean the liver and other tissues aren’t damaged by the drug. Chemical drugs such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen are notorious for liver damage with higher doses – even though those doses will have less effectiveness.
The cells may also become more resistant to a chemical drug, as the receptors that initially allowed the chemicals access to are modified – causing receptor down-regulation.
Natural medicinal herbs are typically not seen as foreigners by the body. This is because they contain a number of nutrients such as vitamins, minerals and other therapeutic compounds. For example, thyme has been found to have antiseptic and antioxidant effects within the body. These nutritional and therapeutic properties keep the immune system from identifying a natural herb as a foreigner – so the body does not launch enzymes and immune cells to clear out the biochemicals within a natural herb.
Natural herbs also contain a combination of bio-identifiable constituents rather than a single active, isolated chemical. Thyme contains multiple active ingredients and buffers. In addition to vitamins and minerals, thyme contains thymol – a potent antiseptic and antibiotic compound. Thyme also contains thymonin, naringenin, linalool, myrcene, cymene, luteolin and apigenin – all with distinct therapeutic properties that buffer and balance each other.
Pharmaceutical agents will typically contain one active chemical agent in addition to chemical excipients and additives that can be toxic to the body in larger doses. Even in smaller doses, they are seen as foreigners. This stimulates the body’s detoxification processes, including the cytochrome P450 liver enzyme pathway that breaks down chemicals not belonging in the body.
The fact that natural herbs are not seen as foreigners to the body and thus do not put pressure on the liver and kidneys to cleanse them out also means that their effective constituents – such as the COX-inhibiting caryacrol content in thyme oil – will maintain a higher level of efficacy without the side effects. This is illustrated by the combination of research identified above.
Note the low concentration dose of thyme oil – 2%. Consult with your health practitioner before using essential oils internally.
Hotta M, Nakata R, Katsukawa M, Hori K, Takahashi S, Inoue H. Carvacrol, a component of thyme oil, activates PPARalpha and gamma and suppresses COX-2 expression. J Lipid Res. 2010 Jan;51(1):132-9. doi: 10.1194/jlr.M900255-JLR200.
Katsukawa M, Nakata R, Takizawa Y, Hori K, Takahashi S, Inoue H. Citral, a component of lemongrass oil, activates PPARα and γ and suppresses COX-2 expression. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2010 Nov;1801(11):1214-20. doi: 10.1016/j.bbalip.2010.07.004.
Salmalian H, Saghebi R, Moghadamnia AA, Bijani A, Faramarzi M, Nasiri Amiri F, Bakouei F, Behmanesh F, Bekhradi R. Comparative effect of thymus vulgaris and ibuprofen on primary dysmenorrhea: A triple-blind clinical study. Caspian J Intern Med. 2014 Spring;5(2):82-8.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.