Plants have developed complex responses to bacterial invasion, and offer long-term resistance to disease. Pictured: Echinacea.
Photo By Jason Houston
Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, known as “superbugs,” are becoming more numerous and more virulent thanks to continuing overuse of antibiotics. Herbal medicine offers an alternative to these increasingly ineffective drugs.
What follows is an excerpt from the book Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria (reprinted with permission from Storey Publishing), in which herbal expert Stephen Harrod Buhner offers compelling evidence that medicinal herbs should be our first line of defense against disease. He explains the roots of drug resistance and why medicinal herbs can work better than pharmaceutical drugs.
Drawing on massive amounts of scientific research, Buhner’s book provides in-depth profiles of and recipes for using the most reliably effective herbs to treat common ailments, such as wounds, urinary tract infections and strep throat, as well as life-threatening methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other infections.
For information on specific herbal medicines you can use to treat maladies such as earaches and staph infections, see the Herbal Remedies for Common Ailments chart. — MOTHER EARTH NEWS
In 1942, the world’s entire supply of penicillin was a mere 64 pounds. By 2009, some 60 million pounds of antibiotics were being used per year in the United States alone, with nearly 30 million pounds deployed on livestock to promote growth and prevent disease on factory farms.
These figures are per year. Year in, year out.
What most people don’t realize is that these antibiotics never go away. Antibiotics, in their pure or metabolized states, form a significant part of our hospital waste streams. They are excreted in millions of pounds by millions of patients. They travel to treatment plants and pass relatively unchanged into water supplies.
We’ve allowed the North American continent and much of the world to become awash in antibiotics. In the short run, this means the emergence of pathogenic, antibiotic-resistant bacteria in agricultural crops and animal and human populations. In the long run, it means the emergence of infectious disease epidemics more deadly than any in human history.
Miracle Drugs Fade
Though penicillin was discovered in 1929, it was only commercially developed during World War II, and it wasn’t until after the war that its use became routine. Those were heady days. It seemed science could do anything. New antibiotics were being discovered daily; the arsenal of medicine seemed overwhelming.
By 1999 — 54 years after commercial production of antibiotics began — the first staphylococcus bacteria resistant to all clinical antibiotics had infected its first three people. Originally limited to patients in hospitals, resistant strains, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), are now common throughout the world’s population.
This rate of development of antibiotic resistance was supposed to be impossible. Evolutionary biologists had insisted that evolution in bacteria (as in all species) could come only from the spontaneous, useful mutations that occur with an extremely low frequency in each generation. That bacteria could generate significant resistance to antibiotics in just 35 years was considered impossible. That the human species could be facing the end of antibiotics only 60 years after their introduction was ludicrous.
What so many people missed is that all life on Earth is highly intelligent and unbelievably adaptable. Bacteria are the oldest forms of life on this planet and have learned supremely well how to react to threats to their well-being.
The world is filled with antibacterial substances, most produced by other bacteria as well as by fungi and plants. To survive, bacteria mastered a very long time ago how to respond to those substances. As soon as a bacterium develops a method for countering an antibiotic, it systematically begins to pass the knowledge on to other bacteria at an extremely rapid rate. In fact, bacteria are now communicating across bacterial species lines — something they were never known to do before the advent of commercial antibiotics. They transfer a significant amount of resistance information by releasing it into the environment to be taken up by other bacteria.
Antibiotics, ultimately and regrettably for us, act as chemical attractants and pull bacteria to them. In the presence of an antibiotic, a bacterium’s learning rate immediately increases by several orders of magnitude.
The fairly recent discovery that all of the water supplies in industrialized countries are contaminated with minute amounts of antibiotics (from use in humans and livestock) means that bacteria everywhere are experiencing low doses of antibiotics all the time. The more antibiotics that go into the water, the faster the bacteria learn. They are not competing with each other for resources, as standard evolutionary theory predicted, but instead are promiscuously cooperating in the sharing of survival information. For one example (out of many), antimicrobial pressure has caused Escherichia coli, not normally pathogenic, to develop unexpected virulence capacities in such forms as the potentially deadly E. coli O157:H7. Epidemiologists now know, through studying its genetic markers, that it was taught its virulence by a different genus, the shigella bacteria.
Reign of Resistance
The antibacterial soaps, mouthwashes and hand sanitizers that end up going into our water are also stimulating resistance among many classes of bacteria. Even though resistance dynamics were well-understood long before antibacterial soaps were allowed on the market, these products were still let into the United States because of pressure from corporations. And like all other antibacterial substances, the soaps have begun to confer unique forms of resistance on the planet’s bacteria. Our fear of microbes, so thoroughly leveraged by modern advertising, has only hastened the resistance.
The widespread use of antibiotics by factory farms and by veterinarians for our pets has created a similar bacterial evolution on fast-forward. This overuse of antibiotics has generated a tremendously potent and quick resistance in a large range of bacteria. As science journalist Brandon Keim wrote in 2010, “Farms have become giant petri dishes for superbugs, especially MRSA, which kills 20,000 Americans every year — more than AIDS.”
Salmonella, which is now genetically lodged in the ovaries of (and hence the eggs that come from) many agribusiness chickens, can survive refrigeration, boiling, basting and frying. To kill salmonella bacteria, the egg must be fried hard or boiled for nine minutes or longer. Listeria in deli meat can survive refrigeration. E. coli can now live in both orange juice and apple juice — two acidic mediums that previously killed it. A 2011 study, published by the Translational Genomics Research Institute, a nonprofit research institute in Phoenix, found that nearly 50 percent of all store-bought meat and poultry tested were contaminated with staph, and more than half of the bacteria tested were strains that had become resistant to one or more antibiotics.
The Harm of Overprotection
The bacteria that naturally colonize our bodies are friendly and mutualistic, taking up all of the space on and in our bodies upon which bacteria can grow. By doing so, they leave no room for other, less benign — or even beneficial — bacteria to live.
But the relationship goes beyond this. All of our coevolutionary bacteria generate antibiotic substances that kill off pathogenic bacteria. The streptococcus species that normally live in our throats, for example, produce antibacterial substances that are specifically active against the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria that cause strep throat.
As we grow up, regular exposure to pathogenic bacteria teaches our bodies and our symbiotic bacteria how to respond most effectively to disease organisms. This results in much higher levels of health in later life. Research continually finds that children who are “protected” from bacteria by being kept in exceptionally clean environments where they are constantly exposed to antibacterial soaps and wipes are in fact much sicker overall than children who are not so protected. Constant exposure to a world rife with bacteria — the world out of which we emerged as a species — in fact stimulates our immune health as we grow. We need to come into contact with the microorganisms of the world to be healthy. (Our sister publication Utne Reader features an excellent article on the importance of microbial biodiversity in our homes and on our bodies — MOTHER EARTH NEWS).
Many people believe there will always be antibiotics, and if the ones we have now aren’t working, others will be discovered that work just as well. “No need to worry,” they say.
The truth is, unfortunately, very different. Virtually no new antibiotics are in development or are likely to be. Pharmaceutical companies have almost completely given up the search for them. Dr. Stuart B. Levy, professor of molecular biology and microbiology at Tufts University School of Medicine — perhaps the foremost researcher on antibiotic-resistant organisms in the United States — writes that developing medications for long-term conditions, such as heart disease and arthritis, is just more profitable for the drug companies than finding new antibiotics is.
The Promise of Plant Medicines
Plants have long been, and still are, humanity’s primary medicines. They possess certain attributes that pharmaceuticals never can. The chemistry of plant medicines is highly complex — too complex for resistance to occur. Instead of a silver bullet in the form of a single chemical, plants often contain hundreds to thousands of compounds, and have developed sophisticated responses to bacterial invasion over millions of years.
Plants are free or nearly so; whether you buy them or grow them yourself, they are remarkably inexpensive. Anyone can use them for healing — you don’t need 14 years of schooling to learn how to use plants for your health. They are quite safe — in spite of the unending hysteria in much of the media, properly used herbal medicines cause minimal side effects of any sort, especially when compared with the millions of people who are harmed every year by pharmaceuticals (adverse drug reactions are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association).
Plant medicines have been with us since we emerged out of the ecological matrix of this planet. They have always brought healing to those in need — at least to those who know about them.
During the past 15 years, nations in Africa, Asia and South America, as well as those within the Russian sphere and in most of the old Eastern Bloc, have realized that the medical model used by the West is unworkable. To a great extent, they have begun abandoning it as the dominant approach to health care.
Unlike in the United States, researchers in those nations aren’t exploring whether plant medicines work (nor are they spending time and money trying to discredit what they think is “primitive” medicine or unscientific quackery); they are exploring which herbal medicines work best, in what form and at what dosage. Many non-Western researchers are actively addressing the health problems of their nations’ citizens with little if any profit motive. They have realized that corporate profit-making is not compatible with human health.
To be fair, some good studies are occurring in the United States, but virtually none of them supports the use of herbal medicines by the general populace or even by educated herbal practitioners. Instead, their focus is on the identification of an “active” constituent that can then be modified chemically, patented and subsequently produced by a pharmaceutical company for profit.
Western medicine is being left behind with its outmoded paradigm. But you do not need to stand by hopelessly as more drugs become ineffective. Medicinal herbs can more than fill this void.
Stephen Harrod Buhner is the award-winning author of 19 books. He lectures throughout the United States on plant medicine, healing, culture and deep ecology. You may purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria.