EDITOR’S SUMMARY: Infections can be serious, and even deadly. It’s to your discretion, in combination with your integrative practitioner’s knowledge, what road to choose. As always, there is no “one way,” or “right way” when it comes to your health and medical care. There is merely making the best decision you can in the moment, and keeping your beliefs in high regard. One theory that weighs in as a moderate approach, suggests starting with the least invasive, natural treatment or protocol possible, go all in—mindset included—and assess from there. That said, if you’re caught in a time-sensitive, urgent predicament, do what you need to do to take your next breath.
Written by Jennifer Wolff-Gillispie HWP, LC
Edited by Nicki Steinberger, Ph.D.
Nearly 100 years ago in 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming stumbled upon one of the biggest developments in medicine—the antibiotic, penicillin. When he returned to his laboratory from being away on vacation, he observed that a petri dish containing the bacteria, staphylococcus, was also growing mold. The mold was observed to inhibit the staphylococcus growth, leading Dr. Fleming to hypothesize that “self-defense” chemicals within the mold were effective antibiotics. He named this mold, penicillin, and worked to present his findings to colleagues in the medical field. Unfortunately, he found that his peers were a hard sell on his new discovery.
After years of trying to purify the mold with no success, he gave up on his attempts. It wasn’t until nearly ten years later that two scientists stumbled upon Fleming's work, and assembled a team to work on “The Penicillin Project.” Wrought with challenges, the team worked for three years to purify enough mold to begin animal studies. Of the eight mice that were infected with deadly streptococci bacteria, only the four that were treated with penicillin survived. Based on this animal study, the team published a paper that garnered attention.
From 1941–1943, as the United States entered into the Second World War, the demand for this new treatment for bacterial infections was high. With the means to finally produce penicillin on an industrial scale, and with help of the government, widespread usage began. By 1946, the United Kingdom also began using penicillin, and the worldwide reliance on antibiotics was born. Interestingly however, it was a modern team including anthropologist, George Armelagos, and medical chemist, Mark Nelson, that would show in the 1980s, the use of mold-derived antibiotics was perhaps not a new discovery.
Beginning in 1980, the team was able to tie ancient use of Nubian beer to antibiotics found in ancient human skeletal remains from around 350 A.D. The grain that was used to make the fermented gruel which produced beer naturally, had soil contaminants, including the bacteria, streptomyces (which produces tetracycline, an antibiotic used to stop the growth of bacteria), and was derived from common soil mold.
Mark Nelson was quoted as saying:
"The bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time. I'm convinced that they had the science of fermentation under control and were purposely producing the drug."
Nelson’s theory is based on the understanding that when grain was fermented to make beer, the soil bacteria streptomyces produced tetracycline during the process. Whether the ancient people of Nubia had an understanding of the byproduct they were making during the fermenting process or not, they were clearly ingesting the antibiotic while drinking beer, and potentially reaping the benefits.
Crude uses of antibiotics can also be traced back to ancient Egyptian texts that recommended laying slices of moldy bread on wounds for treatment. Later, even dangerous methods of curating antibiotics were employed. Mercury salts and arsenic derivatives (discovered by Dr. Paul Ehrlich) were popular, yet hazardous treatments for syphilis in the early 1900s.
Ultimately, it was Dr. Ehrlich’s “magic bullet” method for discovering new antibiotic compounds that would blow open the new age of antibiotics. Observing that aniline and other synthetic dyes only stained specific microbes, leaving the others untouched, he speculated that the compounds could be manufactured into a safer treatment—one that would “be able to exert their full action exclusively on the parasite harbored within the organism.” This new systematic research method was pivotal in changing and accelerating the pharmaceutical industry’s research, and development that led to the discovery of sulfa drugs in 1935.
By World War II (1939–1945), antibiotic resistance to sulfa drugs (a class of medications/antibiotics used to treat bacterial infections) was already becoming a concern. In 1945, during his Nobel Prize lecture, Dr. Fleming (the same doctor who discovered penicillin) reinforced this by stating:
“It is not difficult to make microbes resistant to penicillin in the laboratory by exposing them to concentrations not sufficient to kill them, and the same thing has occasionally happened in the body.”
The “father of penicillin” was admitting that if the antibiotic wasn’t strong enough to kill ALL of the bacteria, the remaining can mutate into resistant strains.
Should You Or Shouldn’t You?
“[The] First comprehensive analysis of global impact of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) estimates resistance itself caused 1.27 million deaths in 2019 - more deaths than HIV/AIDS or malaria - and that antimicrobial-resistant infections played a role in 4.95 million deaths.”
A quick glance at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) website breaks down the concerns over antibiotic resistance:
- “Antimicrobial [microbes include bacteria, archaea, fungi, protozoa, algae, and viruses] resistance (AMR) is a global health and development threat. It requires urgent multisectoral action in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
- WHO has declared that AMR is one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity.
- Misuse and overuse of antimicrobials are the main drivers in the development of drug-resistant pathogens.
- Lack of clean water and sanitation and inadequate infection prevention and control promotes the spread of microbes, some of which can be resistant to antimicrobial treatment.
- The cost of AMR to the economy is significant. In addition to death and disability, prolonged illness results in longer hospital stays, the need for more expensive medicines and financial challenges for those impacted.
- Without effective antimicrobials, the success of modern medicine in treating infections, including during major surgery and cancer chemotherapy, would be at increased risk.”
While you may be aware of the “super bug” strain of antibiotic resistant bacteria called Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), there are many other varieties previously identified, and others that are newly emerging. These gram-negative bacteria (“resistant to multiple drugs and are increasingly resistant to most available antibiotics.”) have a strong outer membrane that insulates them from threats (like some antibiotics pose) in their environment. The Frontline documentary, “When Antibiotics Don’t Work / Hunting The Nightmare Bacteria,” expertly illustrates how devastating these strains can be.
Through the persistent and prevalent use of antibiotics in the treatment of human bacterial infections, vaccine manufacturing, meat production/animal husbandry, bee-keeping, fish-farming, and food preservation, antibiotic resistance has taken a hold on the world. There is also a risk of contamination to water sources and soil (possibly on the farms that grow your food) from manure that came from animals treated with antibiotics. It is estimated that 73 percent of the antibiotics sold worldwide are used in livestock production, exemplifying the fact that your own antibiotic exposure may be more than you think.
Another concern with prescription antibiotic use is the negative impact on gut health, and your microbiome leading to bacterial imbalances and decreased overall health. From The Scientist, “What Happens to the Gut Microbiome After Taking Antibiotics?”:
“Immediately after taking antibiotics, the total and culturable species richness decreased, the team found. For most of the volunteers, these measures returned to baseline values after two months—but the species present remained changed … This means antibiotics ‘“are fundamentally restructuring the microbiome.”’ In three of the healthy volunteers, who were assigned to different treatment groups, the gut microbiome was especially perturbed. They continued to have reduced microbiome diversity even at the end of the six months. ‘“Their gut microbiome became more similar to that of an ICU patient than of a healthy individual.”’
Taking a look at this study, “Antibiotic-Therapy-Induced Gut Dysbiosis Affecting Gut Microbiota—Brain Axis and Cognition: Restoration by Intake of Probiotics and Synbiotics,” you will see that the use of antibiotics, even on a short term basis, causes disruption in the gut-brain axis, leading to gastrointestinal, immunologic, and neurocognitive disorders because of gut dysbiosis. This is a condition where an abundance of good bacteria needed for proper bodily functions have been killed off. In turn, this can create an imbalance, possibly leaving dangerous levels of resistant bacterial strains. The following is a short list of problems caused by gut dysbiosis:
- Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Celiac Disease
- Leaky Gut
- Liver Disease
- Candida Infections
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Skin Disorders (Ex: Eczema)
- Difficulty Concentrating
From ScienceDirect, “The role of gut microbiome in cancer genesis and cancer prevention,” shows the unbelievable dependance your body has on proper bacterial balance to keep cancer in check. The study asserts:
“The microbiota plays a significant role in preventing numerous diseases and can influence human health by producing essential metabolites, metabolizing nutrients and several toxins that prevent the pathogenic invaders, retard their growth producing beneficial microbial products and metabolizing nutrients and toxins of the invader species. The interaction of the gut microbiota with stromal cells and epithelial cells, plays innumerable key regulatory functions. These include pathogen invasion and infection, controlling pathogen overgrowth, maintaining host-microbiota symbiosis and mucosal immune homeostasis, regulating metabolism and acting as barrier.”
When making the decision on how to treat an infection, consulting with your holistic, integrative practitioner may be a good idea. In addition, keep in mind that utilizing natural options as the first line of defense, or as a preventative measure, can still allow you to use prescription antibiotics in an emergency situation. If you do need to take prescription antibiotics for any reason, consider this approach offered by CentreSpringMD functional medicine:
- Take a high quality/ high dose (50-100 billion CFUs/10-20 billion for children) probiotic 2–4 hours after your antibiotic dose.These doses taken concurrently with the antibiotics may not help to colonize new bacteria, but may protect you from suffering from an upset stomach and diarrhea.
- Increase your intake of prebiotic foods such as apples, asparagus, onions, garlic, oats, and barley, as they contain a type of dietary fiber needed to support good bacteria. Additionally, they are fermented in the gut creating short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) which are the optimal fuel source for cells in your gut microbiome.
- Increase fermented foods such as kefir, yogurt, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut, natto, apple cider vinegar, and kombucha. While your gut works to recover from the antibiotics, helping it along by infusing with a variety of different strains of bacteria is beneficial. The key is to restore diversity, and fermented foods are a great way of doing that, especially homemade versions.
- Rebuild your gut. Antibiotics can damage the intestinal lining, further exacerbating problems. Increasing collagen and L-glutamine with nourishing bone broth can help to repair intestinal permeability (leaky gut), and reduce inflammation.
Nature Provides: Whole, Pure, and Non-synthetic
Coping with the dangerous rise in antibiotic resistance makes it imperative to look to the past, while moving toward the future. Historically, there are many examples of using natural substances to heal and protect yourself from infections, that are now quantified in science. Some of these nature-based substances offer protection from bacteria that are gram-negative, resistant strains.
Garlic, honey, vinegar, and fermented foods, as well as herbs and resins have been used for millennia to treat bacterial infections. There is even a story of thieves, during the time of the Black Plague, who used a secret concoction of herbs and vinegar that kept them from contracting the deadly plague, while allowing them to rob the dead.
Herbal and natural remedies are unique from pharmaceutical drugs, as they contain different compounds and properties (instead of isolated extracts) that seem to target not only the invading pathogens, but support the host’s (your) bodily systems for healing. This ability, in addition to general safety, makes natural antibiotic treatments an excellent choice to consider.
From the study, “Development of botanicals to combat antibiotic resistance”:
“Plant extracts have the ability to bind to protein domains leading to modification or inhibition protein–protein interactions. This enables the herbals to also present themselves as effective modulators of host related cellular processes viz immune response, mitosis, apoptosis and signal transduction. Thus they may exert their activity not only by killing the microorganism but by affecting key events in the pathogenic process, thereby, the bacteria, fungi and viruses may have a reduced ability to develop resistance to botanicals.”
Using natural options may not always work as rapidly as prescription antibiotics, which is why it’s important to treat an infection (or the wound before an infection sets in) as quickly as possible. Regularly incorporating natural antibiotic-rich foods in your diet will also allow your body to respond to a potential infection by already having these active compounds in your system. This may prove effective at preventing the onset of infection altogether. Listed are some of the most common, easily accessible natural antibiotics (with science that backs it) that you can begin integrating into your diet, or use topically to prevent sickness and infection:
- Garlic: “As an antimicrobial, allicin (one of the active compounds in garlic) is active against all types of pathogens and their toxins. For instance, allicin inhibits gram-positive bacteria, gram-negative bacteria, and even Mycobacterium tuberculosis when used in combination therapies. Allicin can also deactivate viruses such as influenza B, herpes simplex viruses 1 and 2, rhinovirus, and human cytomegalovirus, plus inhibit growth of a broad range of parasites.
Allicin has antifungal activity against Cryptococcus neoformans, Candida (yeast), and inhibits the formation of mycotoxins, such as the highly-carcinogenic aflatoxin from Aspergillus parasiticus. Allicin can also prevent the formation of Staphylococcus enterotoxins A, B, and C1, though not all bacterial toxins are negatively affected by allicin (e.g., Clostridium botulinum toxins). The only bacteria that seem to be protected from allicin are those that produce mucoid layers or capsules, like some Pseudomonas aeruginosa strains.”
- Honey: “Since the time of Aristotle, honey has been used as an ointment that helps wounds to heal, and prevents or draws out infection.” Healthcare professionals today have found it helpful in treating chronic wounds, burns, ulcers, bedsores, and skin grafts. For example, results of a study from 2016 demonstrate that honey dressings can help to heal wounds. The antibacterial effects of honey are usually attributed to its hydrogen peroxide content.
However, manuka honey fights off bacteria, though it has a lower hydrogen peroxide content. A 2011 study reported that the best-known honey (L. scoparium) inhibits approximately 60 kinds of bacteria. It also suggests that honey successfully treats wounds infected with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Antibacterial properties aside, honey may help wounds to heal by providing a protective coating that fosters a moist environment.
- Ginger: “An important study in the favors of ginger as anti-microbial activity showed that ginger has antimicrobial activity against E coli, Salmonella typhi and Bacillus subtilis and ethanolic extract of ginger showed widest zone of inhibition against Salmonella typhi.. Ginger rhizome contains several constituents which have antibacterial and anti fungal effects.
The gingerol and shagelol are identified as more active agents. Earlier studies have shown that, ginger has broad antibacterial activity and the ethanolic extract of ginger powder has pronounced inhibitory activities against Candida albicans and other report also showed that antifungal properties of ginger extract, Gingerol.”
- Oregano: “When the antimicrobial (antibiotic/antifungal) properties of Wild Turkish Oregano (O. minutiflorum, containing 82% carvacrol) were investigated against 16 bacteria and 2 yeasts, it ‘“showed strong antimicrobial activity against 17 of the tested micro-organisms.”’ It was determined in this study that minutiflorum could be used as an alternative to antibiotics to combat microbial diseases.
When Origanum minutiflorum was tested against TB, it was found to be ‘“especially active.”’ The study concluded that the Antibacterial and Antimycobacterial properties within the plant ‘“may support the use of the oregano species in traditional medicine to treat microbial infections.”’
- Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV): “Our previous in vitro study highlighted the anti-inflammatory as well as antimicrobial effect of ACV on non-resistant E. coli, S. aureus and C. albicans. We now extend the antimicrobial activity of ACV against MRSA and rE. coli. ACV inhibition of bacterial growth is comparable to the inhibition shown by trimethoprim and clindamycin which are typical antibiotics used to treat clinical E. coli and MRSA infections respectively.”
In addition to these easy to access, highly powerful ingredients, there are many other medicinal foods that can be incorporated into your diet, such as mushrooms, herbs and spices, teas, and fermented foods. Keep in mind when you are combatting a bacterial infection, secondary bacterial, viral, or fungal infections can occur.
It is extremely important to support your immune system in tandem with combatting any infection. This is why utilizing a variety of natural antibiotics/antivirals/antifungals/immune stimulators (most natural sources mentioned above contain a combination of these properties) while you are healing is key.
Bottom line: Continual overuse of prescription antibiotic medications will lower your body’s ability to effectively utilize them if and when you really need them. For better health, and to strengthen your ability to respond to treatment, it’s best to eliminate any potential source of antibiotics in your everyday life that is not absolutely necessary, and opt for natural healing instead.
Published on October 19, 2023.
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