Learn about some of the world’s more effective natural antibiotics, and get a few recipes to put them to use in your own home.
Artemisia annua can be used in an antibacterial wash for wounds.
Photo by Kristian Peters via Wikimedia Commons
By now most of us know the many problems associated with the overreliance on antibiotics—these life-saving marvels are key to modern medicine, but their overuse in both medical settings and in the treatment of farm animals has helped develop antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Although of course we always recommend caution in the use of herbal medicine, and seeking the advice of a trained medical professional, this article can help you learn about some of the world’s most potent antibiotic plants. If you have an irritating but mild upper respiratory infection, ear infection or sinus infection, for example, you just might be able to cure it with these astounding plants.
This article is excerpted from the second edition, completely revised and expanded, of Stephen Harrod Buhner’s book Herbal Antibiotics. The authoritative text on this topic, Buhner’s book offers an immense amount of information—much more than we could ever include in an article—and is critical reading for anyone hoping to become truly knowledgeable about natural medicine. I highly recommend it. —Jessica Kellner
• Herbal Glycerite Ear Infection Treatment
• Natural Nasal Spray for Sinus Infections
• Herbal Antibacterial Wash
• Honey and Sage Decoction for Colds and Flu
• Eucalyptus-Juniper Steam for Upper Respiratory Infections
Cryptolepis is one of the top five systemic herbal antibiotics in the world. There are 20 to 30 species of the genus Cryptolepis. Tests have found the plant to be a stronger antibacterial than the pharmaceutical antibiotic chloramphenicol. The primary systemic antibacterial among the genus is Cryptolepis sanguinolenta. Some sources say all the members of this genus contain the antibacterial alkaloids cryptolepine, quinoline and neocryptolepine. I have been unable to verify this by finding any in-depth chemical analysis of the other species. Of the plants in the genus, C. buchanani and C. obtusa have stimulated the most interest outside C. sanguinolenta. Given the importance of C. sanguinolenta, in-depth chemical research needs to be done on the entire genus.
The root is usually the part used medicinally. The leaves can be used medicinally but rarely are. The root of the plant is generally about the thickness of a pencil, and has a light tannish color on the thin exterior bark and a brilliant yellow on the interior. It’s pretty. The root is exceptionally bitter due to the many alkaloids present.
Cryptolepis can be prepared as a powder, capsules, tea or tincture.
• Powder: For bacterial infections of the skin and wound sepsis, liberally sprinkle cryptolepis powder on the site of infection as frequently as needed.
• Tincture: 1:5 (ratio of plant material to alcohol/water mix), 60 percent alcohol, 20 to 40 drops, up to four times daily
For resistant staph: In the treatment of severe systemic staph infection, the usual dose is 1⁄2 teaspoon to 1 teaspoon, three times daily. (I prefer to not use dosages this high for more than 60 days. That is usually sufficient.)
For malaria: 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon, three times daily for five days, repeat in 14 days
• Tea: Use 1 tablespoon cryptolepis in 6 ounces of water to make a strong infusion.
As a preventive: Drink 1 or 2 cups daily.
In acute conditions: Drink up to 6 cups daily.
Note: While the herb will work if infused in cold water, studies have found that the hot-water extraction is more effective. It is nearly as strong as the alcohol tincture.
As a preventive: Take 3 “00” capsules, two times daily.
In acute conditions: Take up to 20 capsules daily.
None noted. Considerable research has taken place to determine the potential adverse reactions from using the plant, and none have been found, either in human clinical use or with in vivo testing on mice, rats and rabbits. The herb is taken as a regular tonic for years at a time in some parts of Africa and India. One or two cups of the tea or two or three droppers of the tincture (60 to 90 drops) a day are fine for extended, long-term use.
Researchers in some instances have noted that people taking cryptolepis have elevated levels of alkaline phosphatase (ALP) and uric acid, which return to normal after the herb is discontinued. There have been no reported side effects from this. And though there is one report in the literature of adverse effects of cryptolepis in mouse pregnancy, I can find nothing in traditional use that substantiates an extrapolation to humans nor any studies in the literature that show negative effects in pregnancy in people.
Cryptolepine, a constituent of the plant, has been found to be cytotoxic, which raises concerns in some people. A few points:
• Cryptolepine is an isolated constituent, and like most isolated constituents that are made into pharmaceuticals, it produces side effects that don’t appear when the whole herb is used. Cryptolepis itself has not been found to be cytotoxic to people.
• The word cytotoxic, when used in reports, generally means it kills cancer cells, and indeed, cryptolepine does.
None noted. However, cryptolepis has been used in traditional medicine to help rectify insomnia. One mouse study has supported that effect of the plant. There is some potential for the plant to synergize with hypnosedatives or central nervous system depressants. Caution should be exercised, although there have been no reported adverse effects in these situations to date.
There are around 400 Artemisias in the genus, but Artemisia annua contains the most artemisinin—a potent antiparasitic—and this section focuses on that species. Artemisinin is famous for its effectiveness in treating malaria. All the plants in the genus do have some antibacterial and antimicrobial actions; however, those constituents are not nearly as systemic as those of cryptolepis. A. annua and its constituents are best thought of as systemic antihematoparasiticals; that is, specific for killing blood parasites, rather than systemic antibacterials.
The aerial parts, including the flowers, which have the highest artemisinin content.
The whole herb has a broader range of actions than the isolated constituent artemisinin. Because the studies are few and plant preparation differs from study to study, the outcomes in the antibacterial studies are contradictory. They do find a range of antibacterial activity across the artemisias—bearing out traditional uses of the genus—but the studies tend to vary on which bacteria the species are active against, leading to confusion. There is a tendency to extrapolate clinical use of the plant based on in vitro antibacterial studies, but that is a mistake, as it is with numerous other plants.
The traditional use of Artemisia annua, which gives a very good indication of its range of medicinal activity, has been primarily:
• For reducing fever—the plant stimulates sweating
• For topical use—it’s useful for infected wounds and skin infections
• For GI tract problems and infections
• For female reproductive issues—primarily as an emmenagogue
• For liver problems
• As a steam inhalant for respiratory issues—using the essential oil
• For parasitic diseases of the blood and liver
• Artemisinin: The effective dosage for malaria is 500 to 1,000 mg on the first day and 500 mg daily thereafter for two to four more days. This will completely clear the malarial parasite from the blood. However, at 400 mg for five days, the recrudescence rate is 39 percent. Dosage at 800 mg drops the rate nearer to 3 percent. Chinese dosage runs from 500 mg to 1,600 mg for three days, repeated in two weeks (to treat newly hatching parasites). I do think there is some evidential support for 800 to 1,200 mg for five to seven days, repeated for another five to seven days in two weeks. The relapse rate is definitely smaller at the higher dose.
There are several things to keep in mind when preparing the whole herb for use:
• The fresh plant is the strongest.
• Whether fresh or dried, the plant should never be boiled.
• Fat helps extraction of the active constituents.
• The plant, while still potent for blood parasites, loses a lot of its antioxidant activities if dried.
• Dosage and length of use are crucial.
Traditional Chinese texts, thousands of years old, recommend preparation of the fresh herb, infused in room-temperature water, then pounded and wrung out to extract the plant juice as well. Examination has indeed shown that this produces the most potent infusions. Many of the constituents in artemisia are not very water soluble, including the artemisinin. However, they are highly soluble in fats and alcohol. The herb is very effective if used properly. The dose can be increased fairly high, as it is a very safe herb. Remember: The reason this herb was discovered was that in the region of China where it is used there were few or no incidences of malaria. The secret is in the dose, as with all medications.
About 25 percent of people using A. annua as an antimalarial report a mild nausea, which does not progress to vomiting. It may also cause occasional dizziness, tinnitus, pruritus and mild abdominal pain. Artemisinin itself can cause gastrointestinal upset, loss of appetite, nausea, cramping, diarrhea and vomiting. About 4 percent of people who take it experience these symptoms, usually in a more severe form than that experienced from ingesting the herbal infusion. Very high doses (5,000 mg per day of artemisinin for three days) have caused liver inflammation, which corrects upon stopping the supplement. Artemisinin has a slightly chronotropic effect on the heart. (It causes mild hypotension.) This has not been, apparently, a problem in users.
Both the herb and the constituent should be used with caution in pregnancy, especially in the first trimester. In vivo studies have found a number of adverse effects in rats and mice if the herb is used in the first trimester. However, one clinical trial with 16 patients in the first trimester of pregnancy taking the herb found the miscarriage rate to be the same as that for the general population.
A. annua contains synergists that make its compounds more active against microbial organisms. In this instance, chryosospenol-D and chrysophlenetin, two flavonols in the plant, have been found to potentiate the activity of berberine and norfloxacin against resistant staph. Artemisinin does induce certain liver enzymes and may interact with drugs such as omeprazole.
For the purposes of this article, most berberine-containing plants can be used interchangeably in the treatment of resistant bacterial and fungal infections of the GI tract and skin. Berberine-containing plants grow nearly every place on Earth. Phellodendron amurense, Hydrastis canadensis, Berberis aquifolium, B. vulgaris and Coptis chinensis are only a few of the species used medicinally.
Bark, root bark, stems, roots, leaves, resin
The alkaloids in the berberine plants, including berberine, are not very water soluble. (So if you see a study showing an aqueous extract of a berberine plant to be ineffective as an antimicrobial, you now know why.) Tinctures need to use higher alcohol content (generally 1:5, 70 percent alcohol, 30 percent water), and the water needs to be acidic, with a pH between 1 and 6. Add 1 tablespoon of vinegar to the tincture if your water is alkaline (hard) or if you don’t know.
The berberine plants may be used as a powder for topical applications, as a wash, as a tincture or in capsules.
• Powder: Apply to cuts, scrapes or infected wounds
• Tincture: Dried bark of phellodendron: 1:5, 70 percent alcohol, 20 to 50 drops, up to four times daily (the taste is exceptionally strong). In acute dysenteric/diarrheal conditions, take 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon morning and evening until symptoms subside. Improvement should be seen within 2 days; usually there will be some improvement within 8 hours.
Note: The berberine plants are only about 50 percent active against cholera in clinical trials, as compared with enterotoxogenic E. coli, which they completely inhibit. However, if you combine the berberine plants with the root of any geranium species, the bark of pomegranate or the peel of the fruit, or the leaf or bark of guava, the cholera organism will be completely inhibited.
• As a wash: Add 1 ounce tincture to 2 pints water and wash the affected area morning and evening—especially good for helping acne and infected wounds.
• Capsules: For non-acute conditions, take 1 or 2 “00” capsules up to 4 times daily. In acute dysenteric/diarrheal conditions: Take up to 25 “00” capsules daily for up to 10 days.
Caution is advised in pregnancy. There is a tendency, because of the berberines’ poor absorption across the intestinal mucosa, to increase the dose to try to get more alkaloids into the bloodstream. This is a very bad idea. Abdominal cramping, nervous tremors and, most importantly, excessive drying of the mucous membranes will occur at high doses. Do not attempt to use these herbs as systemic.
The berberines are synergistic (or additive) with a number of pharmaceuticals such as fluconazole, ampicillin and oxacillin. Repeated use of berberine may reduce the GI tract absorption of permeability glycoprotein (P-gp) substrates including chemotherapeutic agents such as daunomycin. Berberine intake will increase absorption of cyclosporine A if it’s taken after long-term berberine use: One study showed that 3 mg/kg of berberine in six human volunteers taken twice daily for 10 days increased the bioavailability of cyclosporine A by 19 percent. A randomized, clinical trial of 52 renal transplant patients for three months found that constant berberine intake significantly increased the amount of cyclosporine A in blood plasma.
Any organic wildflower honey can be used in the treatment of antibiotic-resistant skin and wound infections. There is some evidence that large-scale agricultural honeys and single-plant honeys are less potent than wildflower honeys. Manuka honey from New Zealand, produced mainly from the flowers of Leptospermum scoparium, is very potent, and you’ll see it for sale all over the Internet at indecent prices. But any wildflower honey will do. The more plants the bees collect nectar from, the more potent it will be. If it’s organic, it will be relatively free of agrochemical pollutants—also important.
Honey can be applied directly to wounds or used internally for immune stimulation, overall health improvement, and treatment of colds, flus and respiratory infections.
• Direct Application: For burns, wounds (infected or not) ulcerations and bedsores, use direct application at full strength, covered by sterile bandage, changed once or twice daily.
• For impetigo or seborrheic dermatitis: Dilute honey enough to use as a wash, then use twice daily.
• As a preventive: Take 1 tablespoon, alone or in tea, 3 times a day.
• For acute conditions: Take 1 tablespoon honey each hour, or 1 tablespoon in tea 6 to 10 times daily.
• Best cold and flu tea: 2 tablespoons ginger juice, juice of 1⁄4 lime, pinch cayenne pepper, 1 tablespoon honey, hot water.
• External use: None
• Internal use: Mild to severe anaphylaxis in rare instances for those with allergic reaction to bee stings.
There are more than 50 species in the Juniperus genus; all of them can be used similarly. Alcohol extracts of juniper show activity against 57 strains of 24 bacterias, among them Bacillus, Enterobacter and Staphylococcus. They have been shown to inhibit, as well, 11 Candida species. Junipers are also active against various cancer cell lines, SARS coronavirus and Herpes simplex 1.
Usually the berries and needles, but the bark, wood and root are all active.
The constituents in the junipers are readily soluble in alcohol but vary in water depending on what part of the plant you’re using. The berries must be tinctured in alcohol or eaten whole to be effective. The needles will work to some extent in water (but are better in alcohol—the monoterpenes just aren’t that water soluble, as numerous studies have found), the bark not so well.
Use the berries for urinary tract infections; the berries or needles for upper respiratory or GI tract infections; the heartwood, roots, bark, berries or needles for skin infections and infectious dysentery; the essential oil for airborne and upper respiratory infections.
• Tincture: Berries, 1:5, 75 percent alcohol, 5 to 20 drops, up to three times daily
• Infusion: Chopped or powdered needles prepared as a standard infusion, covered 4 to 6 ounces, three to six times daily.
• Decoction: A strong decoction of the herb has been traditionally used in many cultures to sterilize brewing equipment, cooking utensils, surgical instruments, hands, counters, etc. The decoction is also effective as a wound wash to either prevent or cure infection. Use 1 ounce herb per quart of water, boil 30 minutes, then turn off the heat and let steep overnight.
• Berries: In whole form, for gastric problems, eat 1 to 5 berries per day for two weeks.
• Powder: Add any part of the plant to wound powders or use alone to prevent or cure infection in wounds.
• Steam: Any part of the plant, but usually the needles or berries. Use in sauna directly on the stones or boil 4 ounces of needles in 1 gallon of water, pour the resultant tea on the stones, and inhale the steam. Or just inhale the steam as it boils.
• Essential oil: For sinus and upper respiratory infections, 8 to 10 drops in water in a 1-ounce nasal spray bottle, four to six times a day; shake well before use. Or use the essential oil in a diffuser for helping prevent and cure upper respiratory infections. Moderate amounts can be mixed with water for a steam inhalant for upper respiratory infections.
There has been a long-standing assertion in scores of herbals that the use of this plant may cause kidney irritation and that it is highly contraindicated in kidney disease (guilty of this myself). I have used the plant for more than two decades and have never seen any problems. The phytomedicalist Kerry Bone and others have tracked back the emergence of this belief; it began in the latter part of the 19th century, apparently from the administration of large doses of the essential oil to animals. Recent studies with rats have found, contrary to popular belief, a kidney-protective effect from the plant. This bears out the long use by the Eclectics of the berries in the treatment of active kidney disease and inflammation. I no longer consider the herb contraindicated in kidney disease, nor do I feel that kidney irritation can occur from normal use.
The only side effect I have ever seen was a mild diarrhea when the essential oil (15 drops in one ounce of olive oil) was used to treat an ear infection. The mix was applied three times daily with a cotton swab. The diarrhea stopped with discontinuation of the herb.
The essential oil is not for internal use other than as a steam inhalant or for aromatherapy. Neither the plant itself nor the berry appears to produce any side effects, nor have I ever heard of any. Caution should probably be exercised by diabetics in any long-term use of the plant, as it affects blood glucose levels and may alter insulin requirements. It should probably not be used long-term with pharmaceutical diuretics. However, almost no one uses the plant long-term for healing; usually it is a short-course herb for urinary tract infection.
The herb is somewhat difficult to obtain in the United States. The only tincture I currently know of is available from Woodland Essence.
Honey is a potent antibacterial—when it’s filled with plant pollen. Unfortunately, much of the honey in U.S. grocery stores has had its pollen removed—a process that makes it impossible to track the honey’s source, and enables manufacturers to sell illegal honey tainted with antibiotics and heavy metals.
Food Safety News tested more than 60 honeys from 10 states. It found no trace of pollen in 76 percent of honeys purchased at mainstream grocery stores; 100 percent of drug-store honeys; 77 percent of big box store honeys; and 100 percent of single-serving packets. Every honey purchased from farmers markets, co-ops and “natural” stores such as Trader Joe’s had normal pollen levels. —Jessica Kellner
This article is adapted with permission from Herbal Antibiotics by Stephen Harrod Buhner. It includes extensive information on these and many other plants.
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