Long before the discovery of penicillin in the 1920s, cultures around the world turned to plants for their antibiotic needs. Ancient Egyptians used honey on wounds to help heal and prevent infection, and everyone from the ancient Romans to the early Americans relied upon garlic to treat infections. With the advent of conventional antibiotics, however, Western medicine began to leave medicinal plants behind. But today, with growing concerns about the overuse of antibiotics and the emergence of drug-resistant bacteria, interest in plant medicines is being restored.
Unlike antibiotics, which wipe out all bacteria in the body regardless of whether they’re harmful or beneficial, plants can be used to target an infection while leaving the body’s supply of good bacteria intact. Although medical professionals don’t suggest avoiding antibiotics altogether (many bacterial infections are serious enough to warrant their use), in many cases, antibacterial herbs and foods can help prevent infection and work synergistically with antibiotics to treat infection. Always talk to your doctor—and be wary of taking antibiotics for upper respiratory infections, many of which are caused by viruses and therefore will not respond to antibiotics.
It’s a long-held belief that drinking cranberry juice is good for bladder infections, and research backs that up. A 2006 study from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute showed that cranberries and cranberry juice can prevent urinary tract infections by preventing E. coli bacteria from adhering to bladder walls and beginning an infection. In a clinical trial of women with urinary tract infections, researchers also found that women who drank one cup of cranberry juice a day were less likely to have recurring infections than those who took Lactobacillus, a beneficial bacteria, or those who took nothing.
Cranberries work better as a preventive measure than as a treatment. To help prevent infection, drink one cup of unsweetened cranberry juice (sugar feeds the growth of bacteria) daily or take 400 to 500 milligrams (mg) of cranberry extract capsules twice daily.
Pomegranate is another powerful antibacterial. Although the antioxidant activity of this superfood has been well-documented, recent studies have also been diving into pomegranate’s antibacterial properties. In a study published in the International Journal of Microbiology, pomegranate extract showed antibacterial activity against bacteria such as E. coli, Bacillus cereus and Staphylococcus aureus. Additionally, a clinical trial of kidney disease patients on dialysis found that those patients who drank pomegranate juice three times a week for one year were less likely to be hospitalized from infection.
Although the juice provides some antibacterial effects, of the parts tested, the fruit’s rind showed the strongest inhibitory effect against bacteria. To make a tea from the rind, cut its peel into nickel-size pieces, lay them in the sun to dry, then steep 4 to 5 pieces in boiling water. You can also drink one cup of pomegranate juice daily.
Antibacterial Herbs: Healing Honey
Various studies have shown honey to be useful for fighting many forms of bacteria that infect the skin and wounds. A clinical trial of goldmine workers in South Africa found honey just as effective at treating shallow wounds and abrasions as the conventional pharmaceutical treatment, and at a fraction of the cost. Additional trials and studies have shown that honey can help heal wounds quickly, relieve pain and decrease rates of infection.
Honey is most often used externally to treat conditions such as burns, ulcers, bedsores, and infected or fungated wounds. For minor burns and wounds, apply honey directly to the site and cover with a sterile bandage. Change the dressing once or twice daily. For more serious wounds, ask your doctor about using honey to help the healing process.
This antibacterial can also be consumed to promote healthy immune function and help fight colds, flu and respiratory infections. Take 1 tablespoon three times daily as a preventive, or once every hour for acute conditions.
Note: Honeys produced from bees allowed access to wildflowers and plants are generally considered more potent in their healing qualities than large-scale agricultural and single-plant honeys (the kind you usually find at the grocery store). Grocery store honeys can also be contaminated with pesticides or made with high-fructose corn syrup. For maximum healing benefits, buy honey from a local source you trust. Never give honey to children younger than 2.
Long used as a folk remedy for treating coughs, colds and respiratory infections, studies have shown garlic to have antibacterial effects capable of fighting infections. A recent study from Washington State University, published in the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy, looked at the garlic-derived compound diallyl sulfide and found it to be 100 times more effective than two conventional antibiotics at killing Campylobacter, a bacterium known to cause many food-borne illnesses, under research conditions.
Most researchers attribute garlic’s antibacterial effects to the compound allicin. Because heat can chemically change this compound, eating raw garlic provides the most benefits. Cutting or crushing garlic also releases the allicin. Eat one clove of raw garlic daily; if you feel as if you are coming down with an infection, increase your intake to three or more cloves per day. Always talk with your doctor before making any changes to your health regimen, but because of garlic’s potential blood-thinning effects, be especially sure to discuss incorporating garlic if you’re taking blood thinners or if you have an upcoming surgery.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare), a popular Italian herb, has many uses outside the kitchen. In a 2001 Georgetown University Medical Center study, researchers discovered that oregano oil inhibited growth of the Staphylococcus bacteria, as well as the Candida albicans fungus known to cause yeast infections, as effectively as common antibiotics such as penicillin. Researchers think that carvacrol, one of the active chemical compounds in oregano, is largely responsible for this herb’s medicinal qualities. Take 300 to 500 mg in capsuled liquid form.
In a 2009 Romanian study, researchers found that sage showed strong antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus, salmonella and E. coli bacteria. Both the German Commission E and the USDA have deemed sage as antibacterial, and the USDA even mentions white sage (Salvia apiana) as a treatment for sore throats because of its abilities to inhibit bacteria growth. Drink one cup of sage tea (steep 1 teaspoon of dried sage leaves or 1 tablespoon of fresh sage in boiling water for three to five minutes) daily.
The Problem with Antibiotics
The rapid rise of drug-resistant diseases has raised awareness about the problem—and overuse—of antibiotics. The problem with pharmaceutical antibiotics lies in their simplicity, says Stephen Harrod Buhner, author of Herbal Antibiotics. “A drug is a single compound, a single bullet or monotherapy,” Buhner says. Antibiotics have just one static means of killing bacteria. Bacteria, on the other hand, are living organisms that have developed evolutionary responses to threats such as antibiotics.
Because bacteria are constantly evolving, it’s hard for pharmaceutical antibiotics to compete. Plants, on the other hand, are similar to bacteria in the sense that they develop new mechanisms—in this case, chemical compounds—to cope with threats to their survival. Unlike pharmaceutical antibiotics, plant antibiotics have as many as 200 different compounds that work together to kill bacteria. This multifaceted approach prevents bacteria from developing resistance to the plant’s antibacterial compounds, making them a more effective option for treating disease. To learn more about antibacterial herbs and the rapid rise of antibiotic-resistant diseases, visit Herbal Alternatives to Antibiotics.