Oregano (Origanum vulgare) is a culinary herb in the mint family with strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Oregano contains a variety of volatile oils, including thymol, eugenol, carvacrol and limonene, which give the herb its characteristic scent and flavor. Oregano is also a dietary source of apigenin, beta-carotene, caffeic acid, calcium, ferulic acid, iron, lutein, luteolin, manganese, myricetin, naringenin, oleanolic acid, quercetin, rosmarinic acid, ursolic acid and vitamin K. However, the chemopreventive micronutrients with most significant content are quercetin, ferulic acid and ursolic acid.
Oregano has been used extensively for centuries as herbal medicine for its antiseptic and antibiotic properties, treating digestive and respiratory conditions such as nausea, diarrhea, and asthma, as well as fever. However, while there are a multitude of studies pertaining to the micronutrients in oregano, few studies have attempted to address the chemopreventive potential of oregano as a whole food.
Breast cancer-related effects of eating oregano
One 2016 study evaluated the anti-tumor effects of oregano in an animal of breast cancer model and also in ER+/PR+ breast cancer cells. Rats who received low-dose oregano concentrate in their diets were found to have 56% fewer tumors and 45% lower tumor volume compared to control animals. The results demonstrated for the first time, according to the authors, a distinct tumor-suppressive effect for oregano in an animal model of breast cancer.
The remaining evidence for the chemopreventive effects of oregano all depends on evidence concerning micronutrients found in the herb. While oregano compromises numerous compounds that have been shown to reduce breast cancer development, growth or metastasis, the concentrations in oregano are modest.
Quercetin is a phytoestrogen flavonol found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. Most foods with significant quercetin content have been found to be associated with reduced breast cancer risk. Quercetin has been shown to induce the death of hormone receptor positive (ER+/PR+), HER2 overexpressing (HER2+) and triple negative (ER-/PR-/HER2-) breast cancer cells while not harming normal breast cells. A major Italian population study reported that the risk of breast cancer was reduced for increasing intake of flavonols such as the quercetin found in oregano.
Ferulic acid has been shown to induce programmed cell death in triple negative breast cancer cells. Ferulic acid has also been shown to synergistically enhance the treatment effects of Taxol and epirubicin chemotherapy. Ferulic acid reduced the heart damage caused by Adriamycin in an animal study of related cardiomyopathy.
Ursolic acid has been shown to inhibit tumor formation and growth in all of the major breast cancer types (ER+/PR+, HER2+ and triple negative). Ursolic acid has also been shown to reverse multidrug resistance in breast cancer cells. One study reported that ursolic acid resensitized multidrug resistant ER+/PR+ breast cancer cells to Adriamycin.
Given that it is often grown with high levels of pesticides, oregano should be purchased organic.
Based on the available evidence, the amounts of oregano normally used as a herb or spice in food are safe, however oregano oil in medicinal amounts has not been adequately studied and has not been proven safe.
Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) is not part of the same family as common oregano; it is part of the verbena, rather than the mint, family of plants. Mexican oregano is native to the southwestern U.S., Mexico, and Central America. It's volatile oil components give it a flavor similar to Mediterranean-derived oregano (although stronger, it is at the same time less bitter and less minty). Therefore, Mexican oregano can be successfully substituted for oregano in many recipes.
Mexican oregano has a far higher content of chemopreventive compounds than oregano. It is particular high in luteolin, which has been found to suppress triple negative breast cancer cell proliferation and metastasis and to reduce ER+/PR+ cell viability in a dose- and time-dependent manner. Luteolin has also been shown to inhibit angiogenesis (new blood vessel formation) and aromatase activity (in which androgens are converted into estrogens) in the laboratory. Mexican oregano also contains significantly higher of amounts of apigenin, naringenin and quercetin than oregano. Therefore, we would recommend using Mexican oregano, which is sold in dried form, but it should be purchased organic.