You’ve probably seen lists like "Top (you name the number) Antibiotic Herbs" or "X Number of Natural Alternatives to Antibiotics" in magazines and online that talk about the antibiotic properties of plants. I hate to burst your bubble, but the place where bacterial infection and herbalism intersect isn’t that simple.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way: there’s a mindset that keeps popping up with this topic and it really bothers me. Boiled down from whatever other distractions are involved in the presentation, the baseline is this: there are natural alternatives to antibiotics that work the same way as prescription antibiotics.
Whether it's pitched to make you think you can avoid a trip to the doctor, or as a solution for the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, or as an emergency preparedness topic, the take away from these lists and articles is almost always the same:
“Never Fear- Herbal Antibiotics Are Here! Citizens, Rest Assured! There is an Herbal Pill We Can Substitute!”
I’m really sorry, guys, but that just isn't true.
There is no Santa Claus, and there's no such thing as herbal antibiotics. At least, not in the way you are thinking of. Herbs just don't usually work that way- that silver bullet, broad spectrum, marvel of modern medicine kind of way. If they did, we would never have needed to invent pharmaceutical antibiotics to begin with.
Penicillin, the first discovered antibiotic, would not have been such a miracle drug if we already had "herbal" antibiotics. Besides that, even if there were herbs that could be used this way (there’s one author in particular who makes a good case for a very small number of plants- and no, they probably aren’t any you’ve heard of) that still leaves us with the potential to repeat the same mistake we’ve made with the pharmaceutical antibiotics: use them indiscriminately until they stop working.
Now, you CAN rest assured: there are plenty of ways to use herbs support your immune system. There are also plenty of herbs that can be used to clear Heat- the traditional way of describing what we now know to be the signs of an infection. But these require a certain amount of finesse- a slightly different perspective- to be able to use successfully. So, I'm sorry. If you think you can pop an herbal capsule or two instead of a prescription antibiotic and be on your merry way, I'm here to tell you that no. That's not how it works.
That being said, let's look at a more realistic approach to herbal antibiotics.
In “Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug Resistant Bacteria”, Stephen Harrod Buhner does a pretty succinct job of pointing out that most of the so called herbal antibiotics are not systemic. This is important, because modern medicine’s antibiotics ARE systemic. That’s why they work. Buhner does discuss several plants that he has researched extensively and considers systemic:
- Cryptolepsis (c. sanguinolenta)
- Sida (S. acuta, and possibly s. rhombifloia, s. cordifolia, and s. spinosa)
- Alchornea (A. cordifolia, A. laxiflora)
- Bidens (B. pilosa)
- Artemisia (A. annua)
He also talks about localized/non-systemics- the ones most people have heard about and generally don’t use correctly. These include:
- “The Berberines” (Like goldenseal and Oregon grape)
Garlic is another herb on this second (non-systemic) list, as is practically anything else that gets tossed around in discussions about herbal antibiotics – we’d probably be here all night if I attempted to list the number of herbs I’ve seen added to this list, so I won't bother. Just know that if it isn't on the first list, it's probably on the latter.
Buhner’s book does an excellent job discussing the few true systemic herbal antibiotics that exist, explaining when and where the non-systemics are useful, and includes a great deal of information on potential herbal protocols for specific antibiotic resistant infections. I consider it a must have reference for the herbal preparedness shelf. It's not a quick read though, so be prepared to do some studying.
Within the protocols, Buhner makes sure to incorporate a way to support the immune system itself as part of the strategy- and this absolutely should not be overlooked.
There are also extensive profiles for many immune supporting herbs- plants like ashwaghanda, astragalus, boneset, echinacea, eleuthero, red root, reishi, and rhodiola. What he doesn’t mention is that these herbs actually come from several different herbal categories. Represented in that list are a few herbs from groups like adaptogens, alteratives, and bitter tonics.
And that brings us to the main point for this article: there's an entire body of knowledge that you need to know if you want to be informed on the subject of herbal antibiotics. Rather than focus exclusively on herbal antibiotics, you need to have a working knowledge of an herbal approach for infection. This is especially true if you want to be prepared for a time when antibiotics aren't working or you don't have access to them.
To wrap up, let's look at six other things you should know about an herbal approach to infection for preparedness purposes.
1. Be Prepared to Work With the Whole Body
You need to have a system for working with the whole body. In folk herbalism, different herbs are viewed as having an affinity for different organ systems: we think of the heart or the lungs and immediately certain herbs come to mind. So, an herbal approach to providing support during a urinary tract infection could include herbs that are soothing demulcents and diuretics, like corn silk, if there is scanty urination; or a better approach might be a cooling astringent like oregon grape- if there is copious, burning urination or discharges. You have to be able to read the individual situation. But herbalists also learn that there is a relationship between organ systems- Traditional Chinese Medicine is particularly brilliant at this system of thinking. In TCM, there are said to be relationships between certain organs that describe the way the human body is in balance with itself. If a urinary tract problem is chronic, TCM herbalists might then look to other parts of the body to see if there was a weak link in the chain further up.
2. Consider the Person as an Individual
The overall impression of the individual is another important tool- some herbalists call this constitutional analysis. We look at someone and determine how well their physical state is balanced overall. Clues like whether someone is overweight or excessively thin, whether they constantly feel hot or cold, even their tone of voice can give us clues about what herbs might be useful to support their whole body while they heal. After you have a way of describing the individuals you are working with and have a system of describing the whole body, then you should brush up on a few other classes of herbs:
3. Study Up on Adaptogens
Herbs that help the body better respond to stress and influence immunity are known as adaptogens. Ashwaghanda, rhodiola, eleuthero, and ginseng are some of the most well known herbs in this category. Like any other category, this group of herbs can suffer misuse and abuse as well, so it's not simply a matter of knowing a list of adaptogens and picking one at random! Adaptogens can support the strength and resiliency of the entire body, and many of them have a wonderfully supportive influence on the immune system.
4. Learn About Alteratives
Alteratives are herbs that assist the elimination pathways of the body and help restore health over time. Herbs like red clover, violets, alfalfa, burdock, dandelion, and nettles are examples here. Some alteratives work mainly through the liver, through the kidneys, or through the skin. So again, it's important to get down to the nitty gritty and not make assumptions about how something is working. Oh, by the way- herbs can also fit into more than one category. Rather than curse this as confusing, simply accept it as part of their versatility.
5. Don't Underestimate the Usefulness of Lymphatic Herbs
Herbs like cleavers, calendula, red root, and poke root influence the health of the lymphatic system and have a traditional role in overcoming lingering infections and illness. I use cleavers for lingering skin infections or for infections that seem to erupt from the skin over the lymphatic gland (and it's a great general spring time tonic!); calendula is wonderful for winter time ills that you just can't shake; red root is my favorite "serious b'ness" lymphatic- but they are all wonderful and under utilized.
6. Understand How to Utilize Synergists.
Buhner discusses three herbs that are added to formulas to make a formula more effective, which he calls synergists. In folk herbalism, these are sometimes called harmonizers. The most commonly used Eastern herbs in this category are ginger, licorice, and black pepper. In western herbalism, we might also use hawthorn, lobelia, or cayenne.
So, yes. I know that's a lot more information to take in than a simple list of "antibiotic" herbs, but it will serve you much better in the long run!
All the Best,
P.S. Here's a link to the book I mentioned above if you would like to buy it- Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Ed: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug Resistant Bacteria by Stephen Harrod Buhner - it's well worth it. He also has a second volume, Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging and Resistant Viral Infections.