The herbal products company Artemis has released research showing Central Otago thyme used in its products may be effective at fighting common respiratory illnesses. But pending regulation changes, Artemis cannot claim any of this in its product labeling. Jonathan Chilton-Towle investigates:
Freezing in chilling winters, then baking in scorching summers, the thyme growing wild in the foothills of the Central Otago ranges of the Southern Alps has to be tough to survive.
This toughness appears to have translated into the region’s wild thyme being more potent than European varieties and having greater antibacterial properties, a joint study between the University of Otago’s departments of microbiology and immunology, chemistry, and Plant and Food Research study finds.
Funded by Callaghan Innovation, the study chemically analysed two Central Otago thyme extracts produced by Artemis and one made by a competitor using a European thyme variety. The three products were tested for antimicrobial activity against five oral and respiratory pathogens in the lab.
Initial results for the three-year project show the Central Otago thyme extract contained almost three times as much thymol, thyme’s primary antimicrobial agent, and plant volatiles as the European extract.
All three of the extracts showed antimicrobial activity against the pathogens – at a greater level than predicted from the concentration of thymol in each extract. The study says this suggests that the thyme contains other bioactive compounds or that a synergistic effect is occurring with the thymol and other compounds.
One of the Streptococcus strains the thyme was effective against is antibiotic resistant, although the study states clinical trials are required to determine if the lab results will carry over into humans.
The next manuka honey?
Artemis founder Sandra Clair has suspected Central Otago thyme is special for years and hopes it will one day be as much of a sought-after health product as manuka honey.
She believes it can be used as an OTC solution to many common ailments.
A medical herbalist originally from Switzerland, after moving to New Zealand Dr Clair immediately noticed Central Otago thyme has a much stronger smell and taste than the European plants she was used to. She also noticed far better clinical results in her patients than she would have expected in Europe.
“Something is really special about Central Otago thyme,” she says, and the research is an attempt to find out what exactly that special something is.
Dr Clair theorises that after thyme was introduced to Central Otago in the 1860s, it had to adapt to a far harsher climate than Europe. In response to greater heat and cold, more insects and being closer to the ozone layer, she believes the introduced thyme grew more potent compounds to protect itself.
Artemis makes a range of herbal products from wild Central Otago thyme, harvested with the agreement of landowners in the area.
New Zealand rules need to change
In much of Europe and Canada, thyme is recognised and regulated as a plant medicine with strict quality standards (pharmacopoeia) providing guidance for the active ingredient levels and parts of the plant to be harvested and processed for maximum efficacy.
The plant has traditionally been used as a treatment for a wide variety of common ailments from skin infections to oral health issues but is most well known for treating respiratory conditions such as influenza, colds, sinusitis, bronchitis, tuberculosis, pertussis and asthmatic coughs.
But even if the research proves Central Otago thyme is a potent cough and cold treatment, Artemis will not be able to make any health claims about their products in the New Zealand market because the country has no legislation governing plant-based medicines – these products are currently regulated as foods.
This is despite New Zealand being a signatory to the WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 which aims to empower members to strengthen the role of traditional medicines in their countries.
Dr Clair believes this inability for New Zealand natural health product manufacturers to advertise their products’ specific health properties makes it hard for Kiwi consumers to make informed choices about their OTC treatment options.
“We cannot help people to the extent we want to,” she says. “We want to make truthful claims as all of our trading partners are able to make.”
New Zealand did get close to having complementary health products legislation under the previous Government – the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill – but it was never progressed after passing its second reading in 2013, and faced opposition from some natural products producers, academics and New Zealand First.
The current Government withdrew the bill entirely in 2017 and is currently working on replacement legislation but no date has been given for when this will be introduced to Parliament.
Artemis and many other manufacturers supported the original bill and Dr Clair was hugely disappointed when it was withdrawn.
She says the new legislation must allow product manufacturers to make health claims, supported by evidence, about their products.
“New Zealand needs to move with the times and support people with self-care.”
ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN PHARMACY TODAY APRIL 2020
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