Hyssop: The Holy Herb
With the coming of warmer weather begins the season of gardening. A couple of weeks ago I started planting herbs in my urban garden. I was surprised this year to find hyssop at the local nursery, as I studied this plant for my aromatherapy final certification last winter, and practiced making blends with the essential oil to help with nervous tension and bronchitis. I quickly planted some at home, excited to get some first hand use of its many medicinal properties. The following comprehensive information is from my final report.
Hyssop is an herbaceous perennial plant of the mint family (Lamiaceae or Labiatae). Native to Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, it is now found wild in America, Russia and Europe; the main cultivation sites are in Hungary and France, and to a lesser degree in Yugoslavia and Hungary. Hyssop is a brightly colored shrub, growing up to 60 cms in height, with purplish-bluish or white fragrant flowers, lance-shaped evergreen leaves and woody stems. While there are four main subspecies of hyssop, the official oil-producing variety of this plant is Hyssopus officinalis. The name is reputed to come from the Hebrew word ezob, which means “holy herb.”
History: Hyssop’s medicinal uses have been reputed since ancient times. The name hyssop does appear in translations of the Bible, as in verse 7 of Psalm 51: "Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” (1) However, it is now believed that this Biblical reference is not to this herb but to a form of wild marjoram or oregano, possibly Oreganum syriacum. Nevertheless, hyssop was historically used for religious purification in ancient Egypt; according to a superintendent of the Alexandrian library, Chaeremon the Stoic, priests would eat hyssop with bread as a method of purifying the food and to make it suitable for their austere diet. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a strewing herb, to ward off lice, and as an ingredient for liquors made by Benedictine monks. Through the ages, this plant has become known for its principal uses as an antiseptic, respiratory aid, regulator of blood pressure, and general nerve tonic.
Extraction: The essential oil of this plant is obtained from steam distillation of the leaves and the flowering tops.
Essential Oil Characteristics: The essential oil extracted from hyssop is colourless to pale yellow-green, and has a unique aromatic quality with a “sweet, camphoraceous top note and warm spicy-herbaceous undertone.” (2)
The blending factor for hyssop is 4, and it blends well with French basil, clary sage, citrus oils, lavendar, myrtle, geranium, and rosemary.
Chemical Constituents: The main chemical components are borneol, cadinene, camphene, camphor, caryophyllene, estragole, geraniol, isopinocamphone, limonene, linalool, myrcene, pinocamphone, pinene, and thujone. Of note, the constituents thenol and phenol provide antiseptic properties to this oil. Thujone can stimulate the central nervous system, and thus provoke epileptic reactions when taken at high doses.
Safety: Hyssop essential oil is considered non-irritant, non-sensitizing, and moderately toxic as it contains pinocamphone. It is recommended to use in moderation only. Caution should be taken in hypertensive patients, as blood pressue may increase before decreasing. One should avoid hyssop if pregnant or history of epilepsy. Even 2-3 drops of this essential oil can cause convulsions in children.
Principal Actions: Hyssop is useful as an astringent, antiseptic, antispasmodic, antiviral, bactericidal, carminative (settles the digestive system, relieves flatulence), cephalic (remedy for disorder of the head), cicatrisant (promotes healing by the formation of scar tissue), digestive, diuretic, emmenagogue (induces or assists menstruation), expectorant, febrifuge (combats fever), hypertensive, nervine (strengthens and tones the nervous system), tonic for the heart and circulation, vermifuge (expels intestinal worms), and vulnerary (helps wounds and sores).
Main Therapeutic Properties:
For circulatory support, hyssop can be help with low or high blood pressure. One should be careful if starting when hypertensive, for hyssop can increase the blood pressure further initially before seeing a decrease.
For the respiratory system, as massage, vaporization or steam inhalation, use hyssop for bronchitis, sore throats, viral infections, whooping cough, and tonsillitis.
For the digestive system, in massage, use hyssop for colic, indigestion, and flatulence. It may also aid as a mild laxative and help with the digestion of fats.
For the reproductive system, this herb may be useful for water retention, amenorrhea, or leucorrhoea.
For the nervous system, in massage, bath, and vaporization, hyssop can be stimulating, providing relief for fatigue and grief; it can also help with anxiety, nervous tension and stress.
For the skin, as skin oil/lotion or compress, hyssop helpful for healing cuts, sores, scar tissue, dispersing bruises, dermatitis and eczema.
Other Uses: Hyssop is used for its fragrance in perfumes, soaps and cosmetics. Beekeepers use it to produce aromatic honey. The herb is also used in cooking, mainly for sauces and seasoning, though in moderate use as the leaves have a lightly bitter taste. Hyssop is also used to flavor liqueur, as for example in chartreuse, absinthe and vermouth. For its medicinal antiseptic properties, it has been used in the formulation of mouthwash and eye drops.
Research: Clinical research on hyssop is published. A study in 1995 showed that a polysaccharide from hyssop has strong activity against HIV-1. (3) In 2007, a study published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy showed that ginger, hyssop, thyme and sandalwood exhibited high levels of virucidal activity against HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1) strains that were resistant to acyclovir. (4) Research has shown that the polyphenols in hyssop have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. (5) A review article from Iran published in November 2014, entitled “Medicinal plants in the treatment of Helicobacter pylori infections,” looked at previous studies from 43 medicinal plants, one of which was from the family Lamiaceae; the reports did show potent antibacterial activity against H. pylori, which is significant given that this organism can play a role in the development of asymptomatic gastritis and gastric cancer. (6) A 2014 study from China showed that hyssop could affect the levels of inflammatory markers that lead to airway scarring, remodeling and airflow obstruction in asthmatic mice. (7)
(1) “Hyssopus officinalis.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyssopus_officinalis
(2) Lawless, J. The Encylopedia of Essential Oils: The Complete Guide to the Use of Aromatic Oils in Aromatherapy, Herbalism, Health and Well-being. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd, 2001.
(3) Gollapudi, S., et al. “Isolation of a previously unidentified polysaccharide (MAR-10) from Hyssop officinalis that exhibits strong activity against human immunodeficiency virus type 1.” Biochem Biophys Res Commun, 1995 May 5; 210 (1): 145-51.
(4) Schnitzler, P., et al. “Susceptibility of drug-resistant clinical herpes simplex virus type 1 strains to essential oils of ginger, thyme, hyssop, and sandalwood.” Antimicrob. Agents Chemother. May 2007 vol 51 no. 5 1859-1862.
(5) Vlase, L. et al. “Evaluation of antioxidant and antimicrobial activities and phenolic profile for Hyssopus officinalis, Ocimum basilicum and Teucrium chamaedrys.” Molecules 2014, 19 (5), 5490 – 5507.
(6) Safavi, M., et al. “Medicinal plants in the treatments of Helicobacter pylori infections.” http://informahealthcare.com.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/doi/abs/10.3109/13880209.2014.952837
(7) Xiaojuan Ma, et al. “The effects of uygur herb Hyssopus officinalis L. on the process of airway remodeling in asthmatic mice.” Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2014; 2014: 7108710.
Other: “Hyssop.” http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/280187/hyssop
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