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Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) is a multi-purpose herb that traces its roots to the Aboriginal people of Australia. For thousands of years, they used the leaves as an antiseptic and antifungal by crushing the leaves and making a mudpack. However, the plant didn't receive the name "tea tree" until 1770, when the name was given by the British explorer Captain James Cook and his crew. Although Cook's crew first used the leaves for tea, they later mixed them with spruce leaves as a beer. The plant's medicinal properties remained a secret with the Australian aboriginal people until the early 1920s, when a Sydney, Australia chemist, Dr. Arthur Penfold, researched its antiseptic properties. In 1929, along with F.R. Morrison, Penfold published "Australian Tea Trees of Economic Value." This study started a flurry of research into tea tree oil. The Australian government considered tea tree oil a World War II essential for their armed forces' first aid kits. After the war, increased use of pharmaceutical antibiotics decreased tea tree oil's appeal everywhere except in Australia. Tea tree oil started to regain its popularity in 1960, with a recharge in its research around the world. Today, Melaleuca alternifolia is also grown in California.
Tea tree oil's properties are contained in the oils of its leaves. The oil is steam-distilled from the leaves and then tested for chemical properties, which can number between 50 and 100. The number of components may explain tea tree oil's many beneficial uses. The main active components are terpinen-4-ol, 1,8-cineole, gamma-terpinene, p-cymene and other turpenes. Its aroma is one of a healthy pleasant disinfectant.
The most promising new function of tea tree oil is to counter methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), also called the hospital super bug. In United States and European hospitals, MRSA grew from under 3% in the 1980s to 40% in the late 1990s. This super bug attacks people who have wounds, such as post-operative infections, and a depressed immune system. MRSA resists conventional antibiotics, except Vancomycin. A Thursday Plantation in vitro study, at East London University, comparing Vancomycin and tea tree oil, shows the latter as a powerful alternative. This study corroborated the University of Western Australia study by Thomas Riley and Christine Carson. Because the spread of MRSA occurs mainly by hands, one London hospital uses tea tree oil soap for staff and patient hygiene.
Research reported on in 2002 reported that tea tree oil performed better than certain antibiotics in fighting MRSA, but the sample size of the study was small. Later studies involving herpes simplex and orthopedic infections also showed promising results for tea tree oil, but again failed to show enough statistical significance to prove tea tree oil works better than antibiotics.
Tea tree oil works as an expectorant when inhaled or taken internally and has a soothing effect; therefore, it can be used for throat and chest infections, and clearing up mucus. It is also effective against earaches, cystitis, and gingivitis. Inhaling steaming hot water with 5 drops of tea tree essential oil added can not only soothe coughing and plugged noses, but doing so at the start of the infection might stop it from spreading. Gargling with 6 drops of tea tree oil in a glass of warm water may soothe sore throats.
Author Info: Sharon Crawford, Teresa G. Odle, The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit, Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, 2005
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