When one thinks of Italian food, perhaps the most immediate spice that comes to mind is oregano. The plant, which itself is native to the temperate climates that surround the Mediterranean Sea, is a staple in the diets of many other nearby cultures as well. It is often used as a meat seasoning, for instance, in Turkish cuisine. Greeks also employ oregano as a flavor additive to Greek salad, preferring to mix it with a zesty olive oil and lemon dressing.
Regardless of which culture oregano’s original use can be attributed to, more recent health related research has uncovered some interesting characteristics of the ancient herb. As it turns out, the same plant that adds some zip to everything from pasta and pizza to salads has essential oils which might provide significant health benefits when consumed by humans.
Unfortunately, the dried leaves used as seasoning don’t typically have much of this essential oil. Instead, it is extracted through a process that involves steaming oregano’s leaves. These extracts are often made available at health and organic food stores. And though it might take some extra effort to obtain, oregano’s essential oil has health benefits which might make that effort worthwhile.
In the wild, plants often develop certain chemical and biological properties in order to stave off pathogens in disease. Because they’re in an environment of near constant bombardment from pests such as bacteria and viruses, plants like oregano are powerful examples of this evolutionary feat. While some plants develop waxy cuticles on their leaves or toxins within their cell walls, oregano’s internal oil has very effective anti-bacterial and viral properties.
There are two substances in oregano’s essential oils which make these properties work. They are called thymol and carvacrol. In lab tests, both of these substances were seen to slow down the development and spread of bacteria significantly. What’s more, the bacteria used in these tests were no weaklings. The first was Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which can cause inflammation and sepsis when it infects tissues.
If it makes its way to the vital organs such as the lungs or kidneys, Pseudomonas aeruginosa is potentially fatal. The second bacterium proven to be inhibited by oregano’s essential oils is Staphylococcus Aureus. Named for its unique cluster formations, it is one of the most frequent causes of staph infections in humans. While consumption of oregano essential oils won’t necessarily rid one’s system of these bacteria, topical application of the oil could potentially be a way to slow infection.
In the body, countless chemical reactions occur that keep us in a state of homeostasis, or stability. Not all of these reactions, however, are particularly beneficial. Oxidation, when it occurs in cells, is one of these less beneficial reactions. When a cell undergoes oxidation, so-called “free radical” molecules are produced. The ultimate result of the presence of free radicals is often cell damage or death, which can grow into out-of-control proportions. Naturally, it is in our best interest to prevent these oxidation reactions from occurring in large numbers. Antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E work to do just that.
Less well known is the fact that antioxidants aside from these vitamins exist. A few of them are even found in oregano oil. The two specific ones that oregano oil is known to contain are thymol and rosmarinic acid. Lab tests have not only proven their existence in oregano oil, but have also revealed that they’re present in downright astonishing concentrations.
To put it in perspective, this lab test measured the amount of antioxidants per gram of fresh weight of oregano against the amount per gram per fresh weight of an apple. Apples were used as a measuring stick because they are renowned for high amounts of antioxidants. The tests found that oregano contained roughly 40 times the amount of antioxidant activity that apples did. This, of course, is nearly unprecedented in the realm of natural antioxidant sources. It seems that fresh oregano, even when consumed in relatively small amounts, is an effective way to ensure high antioxidant levels of your own.
Rounding out oregano oil’s wealth of nutrients are vitamin K and omega 3 fatty acids. The most concentrated of these three is by far vitamin K. A single two teaspoon serving of fresh ground oregano has nearly a quarter of one’s daily need for the vitamin. In the body, it is required for the coagulation of blood and in bone building. Omega 3 fatty acids, meanwhile, are present at about five percent daily value per two teaspoon serving. These fatty acids have gained much attention in recent years for the cardiovascular benefits, which include lowering of blood pressure and better blood circulation.
In a 1999 medical test that focused on Omega 3’s cardiovascular effects among 11,324 subjects who had recently had heart trouble, it was found that consumption of 1 gram of Omega 3 per day reduced the chance of sudden cardiac death by forty five percent. Additional preliminary testing has revealed that Omega 3 fatty acids present in oregano oil may also have cancer fighting effects, specifically for breast and prostate cancer. In patients who were already diagnosed, the consumption of these fatty acids correlated with slower development of tumors, and eventually a better survival rate. These beneficial health effects of oregano oil aren’t necessarily limited to those who already have cancer, either. Its aforementioned high antioxidant levels prevent the formation of free radicals, which in turn lowers the risk of several types of cancers.
As the evidence above implies, a dash of fresh oregano on your next dish may be more than just an effective flavor addition. In addition to its unique taste, oregano oil is a surprisingly potent source of both vital and antioxidant nutrients. In fact, its consumption can benefit an array of biological processes – especially those that keep the cardiovascular system in check and cancer at bay. So, it seems, fresh oregano and its essential oils have much more to offer than a flavorful kick to Mediterranean cuisine.
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