I recently came across an article about how a large chicken processor, Bell & Evans, has been experimenting with herbal medicine for its giant flock.

I recently came across an article about how a large chicken processor, Bell & Evans, has been experimenting with herbal medicine for its giant flock.

Chickens raised for meat and eggs have long been confined to coops that are more like big warehouses in which they have very little room and almost no time outdoors. Under these conditions, the birds are more susceptible to disease and have an unenviable quality of life.

One of the managers at the company had used oil of oregano to prevent illness in himself, and he came up with the idea to try it with chickens. Though no research has been performed on oregano's efficacy for preventing avian infections, there have been small, preliminary studies on mice, pigs, goats and sheep. The results have been promising, so maybe oregano will keep chickens healthier, thereby preventing overuse of antibiotics.

Oil of oregano has been a widely used remedy for various types of infections for some time. It contains a broad-spectrum, anti-microbial compound called carvacrol and various constituents that prevent bacterial and other types of infections. Companies have experimented with lining "active packaging" films with oregano oil to prevent foodborne infections such as salmonella and listeria.

I've long heard farmers say that animals — given the right environments in which to live — are fairly intuitive about their health and will root out medicinal weeds that keep them well. Some farmers grow herbs for their flocks and herds on purpose.

When I visit my friend's farm in Talent, his chickens seem to naturally diversify their diets as much as possible. I see them eating everything from fruits to seeds and leafy greens. He barely feeds them cracked corn because they're out and about eating as they choose, pecking at cow droppings and compost for bugs and other morsels all day long.

Though he's told me about losing birds to foxes, raccoons and other critters, I've yet to hear that he's lost one to disease.

On commercial chicken farms, however, the birds' diets are far less diverse, creating an opportunity for oregano.

Oregano isn't the sole anti-microbial herb common to the garden. Thyme has long been used as an expectorant. Thanks to their aromatic oil content, many culinary herbs also help with gas after meals, known in herbal parlance as carminative action.

Sage has been used for excess nasal secretions, sore throat and laryngitis.

Fennel is another carminative, and its seeds prepared as tea can help colicky babies. Moreover, it helps nursing mothers initiate and improve milk secretion, and when the time is right, sage — on the other hand — can be equally useful at drying up milk supplies, serving as an anti-galactagogue.

Now, what was that about chickens? Oh yeah, which came first: the chicken or the oregano?

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and teaches at Southern Oregon University. Email him at altmanm@sou.edu.