Oregano is a staple in most kitchens where it’s most often used to add flavor to Mediterranean dishes, but oregano also packs a surprisingly powerful, healthy punch. This culinary herb has a long history of use as a medicinal plant stretching back thousands of years, and has been used to treat viral and bacterial infections, parasites and asthma.
But its benefits don’t stop there. Oregano helps to protect against chronic diseases, improves digestion, boosts energy levels, strengthens bones, improves heart health and protects against type 2 diabetes.
Don’t you just love it when common foods turn out to be superstars? It’s so much easier to pick up some oregano (or grow some) than it is to track down the latest super-food – and it’s a lot cheaper too.
What Is Oregano?
Oregano is a perennial herb native to Europe and related to sweet marjoram. It’s a member of the mint family and the two herbs share a number of organic components and health benefits.
Its name means ‘mountain joy’ and the ancients must have truly rejoiced when they discovered all that this little plant could do for them. Traditionally Greek and Roman couples wore oregano wreaths at their weddings such was the plant’s importance in those days.
While oregano has been cultivated in Europe since the Middle Ages its popularity in the United States is fairly recent and is widely thought to be down to GI’s returning from war in Europe and bringing news of this tasty herb back with them which stimulated demand.
Like many herbs, oregano is a powerhouse of antioxidants, more so than any of the fruits and vegetables commonly heralded as great sources of these nutrients.
Among other nutrients, oregano provides vitamin K, manganese, calcium, iron, omega-3 fatty acids and fiber
Antioxidants In Oregano
Oregano contains antioxidant phytonutrients – including thymol and rosmarinic acid – that can prevent oxygen-based free radical damage to cell structures throughout the body.
Antioxidants are commonly added to processed foods – not to make the food healthier but to stop it spoiling – and in laboratory studies, oregano has proven to be a stronger antioxidant than either of the two most common synthetic antioxidants added to food (butylated hydroxytoluene and butylated hydroxyanisole).
On a gram for gram fresh weight basis, oregano has 42 times more antioxidant activity than apples, 30 times the antioxidant activity of potatoes, 12 times that of oranges and 4 times more than antioxidant rich blueberries.
Having a diet rich in antioxidants is so important because oxidative damage is an endless process caused by normal cellular metabolism. Oxidative damage, (or oxidative stress) results in the creation of free radicals, and free radicals are a root cause of many chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer. Free radicals also make you age faster, so you can thank them for your lines and wrinkles.
What’s a free radical? Free radicals are molecules missing one or more electrons. To make themselves whole they steal electrons from other cells in your body, damaging DNA and turning those cells into free radicals. Without sufficient antioxidant protection, the free radicals run rampant and disease is the result.
Your body produces a number of different antioxidants but these antioxidants have to complemented by antioxidants from the diet.
By the way, the more unhealthy you are – drinking alcohol, smoking, eating processed foods, eating a diet high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup, being overweight, being sleep deprived, suffering from stress, taking prescription or recreational drugs, living in a polluted city, exposing your skin to too much sunlight, etc. – the less antioxidants your body produces, even as its need for these protective molecules shoots through the roof.
Your antioxidant production also declines as you age, which may be why chronic diseases tend to be a feature of old age, especially when diet is poor.
It’s crucial that you take in a wide variety of different antioxidants because all antioxidants aren’t created equal, even the ones made by your body.
Different antioxidants protect cells in different ways, and antioxidants that protect fatty cellular membranes can’t protect the watery parts of cells.
You have to have both kinds.
You also have to have antioxidants of different molecular sizes. Small molecule antioxidants neutralize free radicals. A major small molecule antioxidant is Vitamin C which neutralizes free radicals by donating one of its electrons without becoming a free radical itself.
Large protein antioxidants are one of the enzymatic antioxidants produced by your body and this type of antioxidant breaks down free radicals and removes them. In order to work properly these antioxidants need sufficient levels of zinc, manganese, copper and iron.
Bottom line when it comes to antioxidants – you can never have too many, so incorporating rich and diverse sources of antioxidants into your diet will make sure that you have plenty of free radical busting molecules protecting your health.
And given oregano’s abundance of antioxidants, its easy availability and its low cost, you should definitely think about using oregano as more than a just a tasty sprinkle on your pizza.
Oregano’s Immune System Boost
Oregano gives your immune system a boost in four ways. The first way is by nuking free radicals as we’ve already seen, the second way is through its antibacterial activity.
Oregano contains thymol and carvacrol which are both potent bacteria busters that protect against a wide range of bacteria. Oregano even shows strong activity against the H Pylori bacteria that cause stomach ulcers!
Other bacteria that oregano is effective against include Pseudomonas aeruginosa a multidrug resistant pathogen that is a major source of hospital acquired infections including pneumonia and sepsis, and Staphylococcus aureus which is responsible for many conditions including, respiratory infections, skin abscesses, sepsis, meningitis, pneumonia and more.
Researchers have also found oregano to be more effective against Giardia (a parasite that causes abdominal cramps, bloating, nausea and watery diarrhea) than Tinidazol, the commonly used prescription drug.
Third, oregano stimulates production of the white blood cells necessary for your immune system to function.
And finally, oregano speeds up metabolism which helps you to recover from illness more quickly.
By adding plenty of oregano to your diet, you’ll have a much greater resistance to opportunistic infections.
Helping Heart Health
Oregano is a natural, plant based source of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3-fatty acids are essential fatty acids, which means that they can’t be made by the body and must be obtained from the diet. The other type of essential fatty acid is omega-6.
Unfortunately omega-6 fatty acids are present in abundance in most of the foods that make up the modern western diet, even though we only need very small amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, while omega-3 fatty acids are much harder to find.
Too much omega-6 causes inflammation in the body, and inflammation causes disease, including heart disease.
Omega-3 fatty acids on the other hand are anti-inflammatory, these fatty acids protect your body.
Protecting your body isn’t as simple as just adding more omega-3 to your diet though because your body uses the same receptors for omega-6 and omega-3. If you’ve eaten foods containing vegetable oils (most processed foods) then those omega-6 fats will fill up your receptors and leave no room for the omega-3’s.
So the best plan of action is to significantly reduce your omega-6 consumption, while increasing your omega-3 intake.
Omega-3’s are good for your heart health, they promote the production of the good type of cholesterol (omega-6 promotes the bad type) and they reduce inflammation in your cardiovascular system.
Upping your omega-3 levels will help to protect you from atherosclerosis (hardening and narrowing of the arteries), high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke.
There’s another heart healthy substance in oregano too. Beta-caryophyllene – (E)-BCP – is a strong anti-inflammatory that protects the cardiovascular system.
Incidentally (E)-BCP is the anti-inflammatory found in marijuana and it gives that drug some of its medicinal qualities.
Researchers say (E)-BCP could be beneficial for pain, arthritis, cirrhosis, nausea, osteoarthritis, atherosclerosis and many other ailments.
If you use more oregano, you can get these medicinal benefits without getting a prescription and paying high prices at a medical marijuana dispensary, because oregano is a totally legal herb!
Oregano Aids Digestion
Oregano is full of fiber, so it can have a big impact on the health of your digestive system.
Fiber feeds the good gut bacteria that are essential to proper gut function, it increases the bulk of your stool which makes it easier to pass and prevents constipation and painful bloating, and it stimulates the peristaltic motion, which moves food through the intestines efficiently.
A healthy gut is also able to take more of the nutrients from your food, so fiber is something that you really need to make sure you’re eating good amounts of.
Lack of fiber can also lead to weight gain. You probably know that fiber helps you to feel full and so discourages overeating, but did you know that the bacteria in your gut that rely on fiber as their food source also help to regulate your weight?
The bacteria in your gut are known as your gut biome, this colony of diverse bacteria are the key to the health of your entire body, and if you don’t feed them and you let their numbers dwindle, bad bacteria take over.
These bad bacteria, basically hijack your system. They don’t care about fermenting fiber to get food; they want sugar. And to get it they send signals to your brain telling you you’re hungry, and more specifically making you crave carbohydrate rich food. Carbs are sugar as far as your body is concerned.
Not only that, they interfere with your energy metabolism and encourage fat cells to suck in energy instead of releasing it for fuel. The result is weight gain.
Researchers proved the gut bacteria / obesity link in laboratory studies using mice.
Gut bacteria from obese individuals was introduced to lean mice. Those mice were fed exactly the same diet as mice that hadn’t been given the gut bacteria. What happened? The mice given the gut bacteria gained tons of weight while the others didn’t gain any. Then, the obese mice were given bacteria from lean individuals… and you guessed it they lost the weight.
If your diet is heavily processed and carbohydrate heavy, you’re damaging your gut bacteria, the same damage happens anytime that you take a course of antibiotics. So, if you want a healthy digestive system and more effective weight control, add fiber to your diet pronto.
Source of Nutrients For Strong Bones
Oregano is a source of calcium, iron, manganese and magnesium which are all crucial nutrients for strong bones. And they all interact with one another to work properly.
This multi faceted interaction is a good reason to obtain your calcium from natural foods that contain plenty of other vitamins and minerals, instead of taking calcium supplements.
You can take all of the calcium you like, but if the other nutrients are missing, the calcium won’t go where you need it to go, and in fact, will lodge in your soft tissues instead.
Taking calcium as a standalone supplement actually increases the risk of heart attack and stroke because when other nutrients are missing calcium gets deposited in arterial walls, making them weak and rigid instead of strong and flexible.
To protect against osteoporosis in later life, use food sources rich in calcium and its essential cofactor nutrients.
Adding More Oregano To Your Diet
Oregano livens up so many dishes, making it a good idea to add a generous pinch to whatever you’re cooking and see how it affects the flavor. It goes great with eggs, fish, meat, salads and vegetables, as well as being a tasty addition to soups, stews, sauces, infused oils and even green smoothies and juices.
Meat is a potent source of free radicals when it’s cooked, but if you marinade meat in a herb and spice mixture containing oregano prior to cooking, you can reduce the level of malondialdehyde (a marker for oxidative damage) by 71%. Researchers also found that the levels of malondialdehyde in urine were 49% lower in those consuming meat prepared with herbs.
Here’s the herb and spice mix used in the study:
- Black pepper
Mixing up a flavorful salad dressing with oregano and other herbs is another good way to add more of this herb to your diet.
You can even make a tea with oregano, and drinking oregano tea is a great way to get an energy boost if you’re feeling tired and lethargic.
Dried oregano is convenient to use but fresh oregano is really where the health benefits ramp up because fresh oregano contains higher levels of antioxidants and antibacterial compounds than dried oregano.
You should be able to pick up fresh oregano at large supermarkets, street markets and farmers markets, but if you can’t find fresh oregano in your local area, then you can easily grow some!
If you’ve got a nice backyard, great! But you don’t need a garden to grow oregano.
Herbs like oregano make great container plants, and as long as you have a sunny windowsill or spot on your balcony you can grow some tasty, healthy herbs.
And don’t just grow oregano, put some herbs like basil, mint and chervil in there too. Plants always grow better when they’re clustered with other types.
Oregano will grow as a perennial in warmer climates (think Mediterranean) but you’ll only be able to grow it as an annual in colder regions.
A perennial is a plant that lives for many years, going dormant over the winter months, then springing back to life once the weather warms up.
Annuals grow from seed, flower and die in one year. So if you want to grow oregano in a cool climate you’ll need to grow new plants each spring.
Make sure that you choose Greek oregano (Oregano heracleoticum), this variety has the best flavor and the most health benefits. Other varieties are Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) which isn’t really oregano! And golden oregano which looks really pretty but has less flavor and fewer medicinal benefits.
While you can start oregano from seed, it’s much less hassle to purchase a seedling and grow it on. Oregano cross pollinates easily and seed may not be true to type, whereas seedlings will be.
Four or five plants will give you fresh oregano throughout the season and plenty to dry for winter time use.
Oregano is a Mediterranean native and prefers well drained soil. This means that the soil shouldn’t hold too much water. If soil clumps together easily when you squeeze a handful, it’s high in clay and organic matter and will hold onto water. For oregano, what you want to see when you squeeze soil is a soil that remains loose and crumbly.
Plant your seedlings, making sure they aren’t too crowded and place them in full sun.
Once plants are 4-5 inches high, you can start to harvest by cutting sprigs off all the way down to soil level. Don’t worry about killing the plant even though it’s still quite small at this stage, it will grow vigorously when you cut it back hard.
Pinch out flowers as they appear. This will prevent the plant from going to seed. Once plants turn their attention to setting seed, they don’t put as much energy into foliage production.
Keep fresh oregano is the fridge. Wrap it in a slightly moist paper towel for best results.
You can also freeze fresh oregano. Store it whole or chop it up and store it an airtight container in the freezer. A handy tip for soups, stews and sauces is to freeze chopped oregano in ice cube trays. Just cover it with a little water or stock and freeze.
Dry oregano keeps ‘fresh’ for about 6 months if you store it in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark cupboard. Spice racks might look attractive in your kitchen, and glass jars full of herbs and spices look wonderfully decorative on kitchen shelves, but the best place for herbs and spices, is out of sight, in a cool, dark spot.
So there you have it, a whole bunch of good reasons to start adding more oregano to your diet!