Slice of Pie; Hold the E. coli?

Oil of oregano may protect against disease-causing bacteria, says study

THURSDAY, Nov. 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The herb that gives your pizza its kick also may have what it takes to zap the toughest disease-causing bacteria, suggests new research.

Oil of oregano fought off the dangerous bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, at least in the lab, as well as the most common antibiotic treatments, says a study presented at the recent annual meeting of the American College of Nutrition.

Staphylococcus bacteria cause a wide variety of infections, including wound infections after surgery and life-threatening meningitis, pneumonia and inflammation of the heart lining.

"Microorganisms are incredibly wily," says Paul Doering, professor of pharmacy at the University of Florida School of Medicine in Gainesville, Fla. "No matter what we throw at them, they find ways to dodge, weave and duck, exchanging genetic material between other bacteria. Almost as quickly as man identified and isolated these [antibiotics], bacteria were already resistant to them. That's the constant battle that we have."

In the test tube study, oil of oregano inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus about as well as penicillin and streptomycin, the standard drugs used to fight the bacteria, and the antibiotic of last-resort, vancomycin. Two years ago the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) cited increasing reports of staph bacteria resistant to even vancomycin.

"Doctors use vancomycin as the gold standard," says Dr. Harry Preuss, professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University, who conducted the study for North American Herb and Spice. "If you've tried everything else, and you're down to your last attempt, you use that. Now, you have staph that's resistant to that. That's why we're looking at [alternatives]."

In the study, Preuss' research team infected 18 mice with staph bacteria and compared the benefits of oregano oil and carvacrol, considered to be the major antibacterial component of the oil. As a control, six mice received olive oil with no active ingredients; they all died within three days. Six other mice received carvacrol in olive oil; all died within 21 days. A third group of six mice received two to three drops of oregano oil per day, a relatively low dose; three survived the 30-day treatment.

Preuss says oil of oregano may have other antibacterial properties, in addition to the carvacrol, that should be studied.

"It's worth checking out. If someone were very, very ill, and you were running out of options, this could be a good possibility," Preuss says.

Doering says the antibiotic properties of carvacrol and thymol, another component of oil of oregano, are well known. He called the research "incredibly interesting," but very preliminary, with a minimum of another 10 years of study needed before it could be considered for government approval.

"I'm happy people are looking high and low for new sources of new drugs," he says. "For the past 20 years, we've sat back fat and sassy because of the accomplishments we'd made in antibiotic therapy. As soon as they developed penicillin, they should have started looking for 'Son of Penicillin.' I wouldn't bet the farm on oil of oregano as being the answer for drug-resistant staphylococcal bacteria. This research is very important, though, along with hundreds and thousands of others. It's a small step on the path to finding some new and better drugs."

What To Do

For more information on drug-resistant bacteria, check this CDC report. (You'll need Adobe Acrobat to read it.)

The Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics has a wealth of information on antibiotics, including when and how to take these drugs.

And the Spice Pages have everything you ever wanted to know about oregano.

SOURCES: Interviews with Harry Preuss, M.D., FACN, CNS, professor of physiology and biophysics, Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; Paul Doering, professor of pharmacy, University of Florida School of Medicine, Gainesville; October 2001 Journal of the American College of Nutrition
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