Photo of a bottle of pills
It's time to kick the antibiotic habit and find better ways of managing our health [Image: Morguefile]

Antibiotic alternatives – your 12-point plan

25 November, 2011

Here is the truth. We use too many antibiotics. We use them for the wrong things, at the wrong times and in amounts that are dangerous for us individually and as a society.

We need to find a way out of a vicious cycle which is making essential medicines, which can be genuinely useful in certain well-defined situations, less and less effective.

The situation is now so acute that on World Health Day 2011 the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, warned of ‘a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and once again, kill unabated.’

Down on the farm

Currently more than half of all global antibiotic use is in farm animals, most commonly in the pig, poultry and dairy sectors, where they are used as stealth growth promoters and to fight the infections endemic in the unacceptably crowded, stressful and unhygienic factory farm conditions in which commercial livestock is reared.

These antibiotics enter our food chain, our soil and our water supply and find their way into our bodies.

Last week three environment and animal welfare groups, The Soil Association, Sustain and Compassion in World Farming, announced they had formed the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics – a campaign that calls for a 50% reduction in antibiotic use on farms.

The alliance throws a spotlight on the link between excessive antibiotic use on farms and the rise in antibiotic resistance and incidence of superbugs – such as E. coli and MRSA – in humans.

The Alliance’s report came as the European Commission launched a 12-point plan to tackle antibiotic resistance and called for farmers play a key role.

We must tackle the industrial scale use of antibiotics in farm animals. But we must also tackle our own reckless use of them and seek better ways of managing our health in our day-to-day lives.

Natural alternatives

A decade ago suggesting that we should seek natural alternatives to antibiotics was considered a fringe notion. The idea that herbs or essential oils or homoeopathy could be used to promote healing was tolerated but not necessarily embraced.

It’s time to embrace it. So we’ve come up with our own ’12-point plan’ of effective alternatives to antibiotics.

It begins with prevention, which is always better than a cure. The stronger your immune system is, the less likely it is that you will succumb to any kind of bug. To prevent bacteria from taking hold, or to limit the damage it can cause if it does take hold, consider the following:

1. Decrease stress

How well your immune system functions is intimately linked to the amount of stress you are under.  The value of good quality sleep and relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditations and visualisation cannot be over emphasised.

During the deepest levels of sleep potent immune enhancing compounds are released and many immune functions are greatly enhanced. Any kind of massage can help relax the body. If the stress is emotional hypnotherapy may help to release it. The point is, deal with the problem at its source. Don’t wait for a cold or flu or worse to force you to.

2. Take a daily supplement

Because of the way we have damaged our soil with pesticides and overuse of nitrogen -based fertilisers, our food is no longer as nutrient rich as it once was. We have also come to rely very heavily on read-made meals which as high in salt, fat and sugar and low in nutrition.

A quality daily supplement is, for many of us, not an option but a necessity. Apart from bolstering our general health, many nutritional factors have been shown to prevent the effects of stress on the immune system.  Adequate levels of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, zinc and other antioxidants prevent stress and free-radical damage and boost immune function making us less vulnerable to ill health.

3. Don’t forget probiotics

The term probiotics literally means “for life”. Probiotics are organisms, such as the bacteria which make up the major portion of the intestinal flora in a healthy person, which contribute to the health and balance of the intestinal tract.

Consider supplementing with probiotics such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria – anywhere from 1 to 10 billion viable L. acidophilous and B. biffidum cells daily is considered sufficient for most people. More may induce gastrointestinal disturbances while less may not be able to colonise the gastrointestinal tract.

The newest strain of lactobacillus, known as Lactobacillus GG is more acid stable and less likely to be destroyed by stomach acid before it reaches the gut.

4. Focus on the kitchen cupboard not the medicine cabinet

Many common herbs and spices commonly found in the kitchen cupboard boost health and some such as such as bay, cinnamon, clove and thyme have been shown to be effective at inhibiting certain bacteria both in foods and as topical preparations.

Living foods with friendly bacteria such as yoghurt, sour milk, cheese, and acidophilus milk are good for gut health and a healthy gut means a stronger immune system.

When cooking, include plenty of garlic which is beneficial in fighting a broad range of infectious agents including viruses, fungi, parasites and bacteria.

Foods like Jerusalem artichoke, onions, asparagus and garlic also act like ‘prebiotics’ – substances that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut allowing them to grow naturally.

5. Is it environmental?

Many symptoms which we associate with “bugs” are actually caused by food allergy and sensitivity as well as environmental toxins. Just eight foods – wheat, diary, eggs, citrus, fish and shellfish and something else – are responsible for 90% cent of all allergies. Chronic exposure to allergens can also depress immune function.

Consider also the toxins in and around your home.  It’s not just car fumes and factory waste which can make you ill. Cleaning products, bug sprays, air fresheners, synthetic carpets, paint fumes, formaldehyde released from particleboard furniture, cadmium released from enamelled cooking pans have all been associated with chronic illness.

Finally consider the temperature of your home during ‘cold and flu season’. A recent study found that a warm humid environment can make your nose feel more stuffy than a cool dry one. Turn down the heat and add an extra layer of clothing when indoors, and make sure you get plenty of fresh air daily even in winter.

Once you’ve tackled prevention, meaningful alternatives to antibiotics abound amongst natural medicines.

6. Echinacea

This immune stimulating herb is amongst the most widely used of natural remedies. Numerous studies in Germany this century have, shown echinacea to be “extremely valuable” in boosting immune system function (and thus useful for colds, flu, catarrh, bronchial infections and urinary tract infections) and it has a proven ability to enhance immune function.  Root extracts of echinacea also have been shown to possess interferon-like activity as well as anti-viral activity including acting against influenza and herpes.

Echinacea does not work particularly well as a preventative. However, there is evidence  to suggest that once you get a cold taking echinacea may help reduce symptoms and shorten its duration. Not all herbalists agree; some believe echinacea initiates a general immune reaction which can result in prevention and indeed many users swear that it works as a preventative for them.

7. Goldenseal

Goldenseal is a natural antibiotic can be used to treat mucous membrane ailments like chronic sinusitis and chronic urinary tract infections and in inflammatory conditions caused by allergy or infection. It is often found combined with echinacea in immune stimulating herbal formulas.

Its medicinal value is thought to be because of its berberine content (an alkaloid which is also found in Oregon Grape root and barberry). It is this active component which has been most widely studied.  Laboratory tests have shown that berberine has broad antibiotic effects and can be useful in the treatment of acute diarrhoea caused by a range of nasty bugs including E. coli, Giardia, Salmonella and Vibrio cholerae (cholera).

8. Bromelain

This substance derived from pineapples has been shown to be as effective as conventional antibiotics in treating a variety of infections from pneumonia to skin staphylococcal infections (such as impetigo). It has numerous properties that can help fight infections.

In animals it has been shown to protect against diarrhoea caused by E. coli and Vibrio cholerae. It helps break down mucous and is useful for cases of bronchitis and sinusitis. It can also boost the potency of conventional antibiotics making them more effective.

9. Usena Barbata (Beard lichen, Old man’s beard)

An unusual treatment derived from lichen. Because of its strong antibiotic effect, it is useful in treating bacterial infections that cause tonsillitis/sinusitis and bacterial pneumonia. It seems to be most effective against Staphylococcus, Streptococcus and Mycobacterium tuber­culosis.

It is also effective against fungal infections such as ringworm and athlete’s foot. In fact many of the anti-fungal creams on the market today have Usnea as a constituent. It is generally taken as a tincture or tablet because of its strong taste.

10. Propolis

An often overlooked natural antibiotic is propoils – the sticky resin leaked by tree bark and leaf buds which bees collect to cement their hives.  Propolis comes in a variety of forms such as capsules, lozenges and elixirs.

Propolis is an extraordinary substance which contains at least 180 different compounds, including amino acids, vitamins, minerals and bioflavonoids which bolster the body’s defences and aid the healing process.

There have been many small studies into the healing properties of propolis which show that it can destroy disease causing bacteria without harming the body’s own friendly bacteria. Its antibacterial properties have been widely demonstrated. There is some evidence that it is effective against resistant bacteria including MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus)  and VREF (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus faecium).

Like all powerful medicinal propolis is best used when indicated and not as a general tonic

11. Homoeopathy

There are no homoeopathic antibiotics or homeopathic anti-viral agents. Homoeopathy does not work that way.

Instead of targeting specific organisms in order to kill them, homoeopathic medicine aims to strengthen a person’s own immune and defence system in a way that helps to fight bacterial or viral infection

The bulk of evidence in favour of homoeopathy comes from research into childhood ear infections.  Homoeopathic remedies have been repeatedly shown to be more effective than conventional treatments at reducing otitis media (middle ear infection) in children.

Most trials compare homoeopathic remedies with each other, but in one large study researchers observed children with this common ailment for one year and compared alternative remedies, such as Belladonna, with traditional treatments, such as antibiotics.

In the homoeopathic group the duration of pain was shortened and the longer term health was better:  70.7% of the homoeopathically treated children did not have another middle ear infection within one year after taking the remedy, compared to 56.5% of those who took antibiotics

But adults benefit too. In an international study that involved close to 500 patients with upper respiratory tract, lower respiratory tract or ear complaints, 83% of patients receiving homoeopathic care experienced improvement, while only 68% of those receiving a conventional medication experienced a similar degree of improvement.

The study also found that those people given a homoeopathic remedy experienced more rapid relief: 67.3% experienced improvement with homoeopathy within 3 days, while only 56.6% of patients given conventional medicines experienced the same improvement (16.4% of homoeopathic patients improved within 24 hours; 5.7% in other group).

12. Essential oils

Many essential oils have anti-bacterial properties and can be useful in treating topical infections.  Among the most well researched is tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternofolia). There is no doubt that tea tree oil possesses significant antiseptic properties.

It has been shown to be active against a wide range of organisms including those implicated in herpes, athlete’s foot, impetigo, ringworm, sinus infections and thrush. E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Candida albicans can all be inhibited by tea tree oil.

Other strongly antibacterial essential oils include cinnamon, clove, geranium, lemon, lime, orange and rosemary oils which have been shown to work against a variety of different bacterial strains. Lavender oil has shown antibacterial and antifungal activity; it was also found to be effective to treat burns and insect bites. Lemongrass, oregano and bay oils are also effective against a range of bacteria and fungi.

We desperately need a new paradigm when it comes to health. One that doest’ reach for a pill every time something goes wrong and one that aims to improve overall health to make the body more resilient in the face of bacteria and viruses that are evolving rapidly to resist mainstream treatment.

Natural remedies work differently from conventional ones in many ways. Often they work more slowly, but as some of the studies above show they also work more deeply to strengthen the whole body. That’s good news for every body.

Finally, there is a great deal of information available to those who wish to self-medicate, but when in doubt always seek the guidance of a natural health professional.