Mixing Antibiotics and Herbs For Better Overall Health

Combining antibiotics and herbs can be a beneficial approach

  • Antiviral and anti-inflammatory herbs, such as astragalus (above), are helpful for upper-respiratory infections.
    Steven Foster
  • Antiviral and anti-inflammatory herbs, such as astragalus (above), are helpful for upper-respiratory infections.

It’s a common question, one that I’m likely to hear on any given day in my family practice: “Doc, I’ve had this bad cold for weeks. I’ve been coughing a lot, my throat is sore, and my nose has been draining thick, yellow mucus. Do you think that I might need to take an antibiotic?”

This may seem like a simple question, but answering it accurately requires knowing whether the infection is caused by bacteria (and, therefore, can be cured by antibiotics) or by a virus (which cannot). It is also helpful to know whether the patient has already tried any herbs or supplements as a first line of treatment.

Under pressure to avoid extra laboratory fees and to avoid making their patients endure another three to four days of discomfort while waiting for test results, doctors often choose to go ahead and prescribe antibiotics, “just in case” the infection is bacterial. That choice is often inappropriate: Except for strep throat (caused by streptococcal bacteria), upper-respiratory infections such as bad colds, bronchitis, sore throats, or sinusitis are almost always caused by a virus. Consequently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year as many as 50 million unnecessary prescriptions are written for antibiotics.

A bacteria fighter

Part of the quandary faced by many conventional medical doctors stems from a belief that if there is any chance bacteria are responsible for the symptoms, then treatment with an antibiotic is the only legitimate option; botanical medicines and other alternative therapies aren’t even worthy of consideration. It isn’t hard to understand the origins of this belief. Only a hundred years ago, the top three causes of death in the United States were pneumonia, gastrointestinal infections, and tuberculosis—all bacterial infections.

Most of the standard treatments for these diseases were ineffective. But about seventy years ago, something happened that dramatically changed this situation: Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and the era of antibiotics was born. Given their effectiveness for treating illnesses that in the past were often life-threatening, it’s no wonder that penicillin, the sulfa drugs that followed soon after, and eventually a panoply of infection-fighting medications were all perceived as magic bullets that could be used to treat any and all infections. When compared to such powerful weapons, the popular herbal remedies of the day, such as garlic (Allium sativum), echinacea (Echinacea spp.), and goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) were viewed as sideshow nostrums and cast aside.

Problems with antibiotics

As we enter a new millennium, times are changing once again. Antibiotics are no longer seen as a risk-free panacea. Their rampant overuse has created resistant strains of bacteria that are not so easy to treat. Antibiotics have also been found to have serious side effects such as allergic reactions, colitis, and yeast overgrowth. These problems have opened the door to creative alternative solutions for dealing with infectious disease. Ironically, one of the solutions to this modern-day problem might be found in the age-old realm of botanical medicine.

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