Back in the 1970s, some experts believed we’d all but defeated infectious disease thanks to our rapid leaps in the development of antibiotic medicines. But this view has proven woefully mistaken, as illness-causing bacteria have evolved to resist modern medicine. Today, antibiotic overuse and misuse is common, both in farm animals and in modern medicine. Antibiotics are often prescribed for colds and flu, which are caused by viruses, so are not treatable with antibiotics. As a result, we are experiencing a serious rise in antibiotic-resistant superbugs (for example, in 2014 the World Health Organization estimated that there were about 480,000 new cases of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis).
Interestingly, many herbs have proven antibacterial properties, and researchers are turning to these herbs as they work to discover new ways to counter resistant illnesses. This list includes some of my favorite antibiotic herbs: German chamomile, garlic, ginger, oregano and thyme. In time, these ancient herbs may become some of the most potent medicines of the future, but they can also prove useful now to help prevent illness. Keep in mind, much of the research discussed in this article is very preliminary. We recommend consuming these herbs for general wellness and for use in the treatment of mild infections. For serious illness or infection, it is critical to consult a medical professional.
This seemingly delicate flowering plant is actually potent medicine, particularly when it comes to skin and dental infections. The German Commission E monographs approve German chamomile as a skin treatment for bacterial infections. Researchers assessed the antimicrobial activity of a German chamomile extract against the fungus Candida albicans and the bacteria Enterococcus faecalis. Candida albicans is a common fungus associated with yeast infections, and E. faecalis is an antibiotic-resistant and often life-threatening infection that sometimes inhabits root canal-treated teeth. The Indian Journal of Dentistry published an assessment of a lab study of a high-potency chamomile extract and found that it helped kill both microbes. This study could help explain German chamomile’s longstanding reputation for healing dental abscesses and gum inflammation.
Chamomile goes by many names but the two main types are German chamomile, known as Matricaria chamomilla or M. recutita, and Roman chamomile, known as Chamaemelum nobile.
It is best to avoid using chamomile if you are allergic to ragweed. Also, the drug warfarin has been found to interact with chamomile. Additionally, other blood thinners may interact with chamomile, so it is best not to use chamomile if you are taking these drugs.
Garlic (Allium sativum) is best known for its heart-protecting and antiviral properties, but thanks to a growing body of studies on its other medicinal properties, we also know it is antibacterial. According to James Duke, botanist and author of The Green Pharmacy, garlic contains several antimicrobial compounds, including allicin, a powerful, natural broad-spectrum antibiotic.
Research in the Journal of Parasitic Diseases found that in the lab, garlic was effective at inhibiting bacteria involved in urinary tract infections. Other research showed that garlic penetrates the dentin, which forms the bulk of the tooth, where it works as an effective dental antimicrobial.
Most savory dishes benefit from the addition of garlic. Cooking or roasting garlic helps mellow both its flavor and aroma to enhance soups, stews, stir-fries, curries,
sauces and pastas. It is a staple in many European and Asian cuisines and continually grows in popularity in North America.
The many types of garlic range in size from quite small to the giant cloves of elephant garlic. But when it comes to garlic, it appears good things come in small packages; the smaller Italian or Mexican varieties seem to be the most potent. Choose organic U.S.-grown garlic, grown mostly in California. In recent years, Chinese imported garlic has come to dominate the market, but taste tests show California garlic to be superior for flavor. Some also question the quality and safety of Chinese garlic. Look for garlic that is firm and free of black mildew on the skin. Or grow your own, as garlic is incredibly simple to grow. Store whole garlic heads at room temperature in a well-ventilated spot such as a garlic keeper. Many experts suggest consuming at least one clove a day to reap maximum health benefits.
Studies have shown that beneficial compounds in garlic can be destroyed or decay faster when cooked or processed so it’s a good idea to eat some raw garlic on a regular basis. That’s fairly easy to do by adding a clove of garlic to your next salad. But, eating cooked garlic is better than none at all, and is still a great way to keep harmful bacteria at bay.
For those worried about offending significant others or friends with garlic breath, try roasting whole garlic by cutting off the stem, exposing the top of each clove and drizzling a bit of olive oil over top of it. Wrap it in foil or place in a garlic roaster and bake at 350 degrees for about an hour. This greatly minimizes its powerful aroma but creates a fabulous-tasting spread that has the consistency of butter.
While it’s a staple in holiday baking, don’t overlook the potent antibacterial activity of ginger (Zingiber officinale) the rest of the year. More and more exciting research showcases ginger’s potency against bacteria, even when antibiotic drugs fail. That’s important news as we collectively cope with resistant superbugs. Research in the journal Nutrition found that ginger was highly effective against Pseudomonas aeruginosa — a type of bacteria that can cause a wide range of infections, including those of the blood, lungs and ears. The lab study found that ginger even worked against resistant strains of pseudomonas.
There are so many amazing culinary and medicinal uses for ginger that you’ll always want to have a supply on hand (fresh is superior to powdered). It’s easy to integrate ginger into the diet. You can add fresh ginger to curries, soups, stews, vegetable or meat dishes, stir-fries and desserts. Or, add an inch or two of fresh ginger to your juicer when making your next vegetable or fruit juice.
Thyme is not only a welcome addition to meat, poultry and vegetable dishes — it is a welcome antibacterial remedy for anybody looking for a powerful herb in the fight against a variety of infections. Its effectiveness is largely due to the compound known as thymol, which is found in the miniature leaves of this plant. But don’t underestimate these tiny leaves. Thyme has been found to be one of the most antibacterial herbs available.
In one lab study assessing the antibacterial action of essential oils from seven herbs against E. coli bacteria, researchers found that thyme oil was among the most effective. E. coli bacteria are responsible for many cases of food poisoning every year.
Another lab study published in the Journal of Oleo Science found that the essential oil of the species of thyme known as Thymus vulgaris was highly effective against harmful bacteria that are found in contaminated food. The researchers concluded that “thyme oil exhibited broad-spectra activity against food-borne bacteria, including: S. aureus, [and] E. coli…”
While the researchers used the oil extracts of the plants, it is likely that similar antibacterial properties can be found in the fresh or dried herb or an alcohol-based tincture of thyme. Keep in mind that dried herbs tend to lose their potency within six months to a year. To make a thyme herbal tea, simply add 1 teaspoon of dried thyme (or 2 teaspoons fresh) to one cup of boiled water and let steep for 10 to 15 minutes. Strain and drink one cup three times daily.
Most people think of oregano as a staple in their favorite Greek and Italian dishes, but study after study showcases oregano’s potent antibacterial properties, as well. Scientists published their research exploring the effectiveness of oregano (in conjunction with savory) in the journal Helicobacter. The journal is named after the bacteria known as Helicobacter pylori, which is a harmful bacteria and the cause of many gastrointestinal infections, ulcers, gastritis and a possible precursor to cancer of the gastrointestinal tract or lymphatic system. In this animal study, the researchers found that the “essential oil mixture has great potential as a new, effective and safe therapeutic agent against H. pylori.”
In another study published in the journal Natural Products Communications, researchers explored the capacity of oregano essential oil to inhibit the growth of various bacteria, including MRSA, which stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus due to its resistance to the antibiotic known as methicillin. These resilient bacteria have been linked with systemic infections of the blood, heart, spinal cord and bones. The researchers found that in the lab oregano oil was effective against Staphylococcus aureus and other bacteria linked with respiratory conditions.
Other lab research found that oregano was also effective against bacteria that cause strep throat. Published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, oregano essential oil was found to be effective against strep bacteria.
Not all oregano essential oil is created equal. Be sure to check the Latin name of the product you choose, as some companies use marjoram or other varieties of oregano in their products. The oil should be extracted from Origanum vulgare. Of course, you can also use fresh or dried oregano in your cooking by adding the herb to salads, soups, stews, poultry and meat dishes, just to name a few.
Michelle Schoffro Cook is the international best-selling author of Be Your Own Herbalist (New World Library), 60 Seconds to Slim (Rodale) and The Probiotic Promise (DaCapo). Visit drmichellecook.com and worldshealthiestdiet.com to learn more about her work.