Homesteading

Herbal Antibiotics – Using Herbs to Fight Infection and Speed Healing

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Herbal antibiotics have long been used to fight infections and speed wound healing.

Now, they are gaining interest as treatments for bacteria that have become resistant to synthetic antibiotics. Many antibiotic herbs also fight viruses, like colds and flu.

drying herbs

This post is based on the book “Herbal Antibiotics” by Stephen Harrod Buhner, and related materials.

Mr. Buhner has a first and second edition of this book. The first is out of print, but easier for the layperson to follow.

We’ll start with some background information and then discuss antibiotic herbs and their use.

Note: Not all bacteria are harmful – many are essential to our health and well-being. Always exercise caution with the use of herbal antibiotics, just as you would with pharmaceutical antibiotics.

In food doses, they are generally benign, but in therapeutic doses they can have side effects just like any medication.

Please see a trained healthcare provider for severe or prolonged illness or injury. 

What is an antibiotic?

MedicineNet.com defines an antibiotic as:

A drug used to treat infections caused by bacteria and other microorganisms. Originally, an antibiotic was a substance produced by one microorganism that selectively inhibits the growth of another.

Synthetic antibiotics, usually chemically related to natural antibiotics, have since been produced that accomplish comparable tasks.

Most of us think of antibiotics as liquid or pills you pick up at the pharmacy. Originally, they came from naturally occurring sources.

Plants have antibiotic substances serving a beneficial roll around their root systems. Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria.

Many foods and herbs act as antibiotics, such as honey, garlic, onions, licorice root, ginger, sage and many others.

How do bacteria become antibiotic resistant?

Antibiotic resistance is a genetic trait, like brown hair or green eyes. Unlike human traits, antibiotic resistance transfers very quickly between one bacteria and another.

Bacteria communicate with each other extremely rapidly, and through this communication they are able to transfer survival traits.

The TED talk below by Bonnie Bassler gives examples of some of the rapid communication abilities of bacteria.

Back in the 1970s, Dr. Stuart Levy and his team tested adding antibiotics to chicken feed. They found that antibiotic resistant bacteria quickly showed up in the chickens’ intestinal tracts. Those bacteria also spread to the intestinal tracts of the people working with the chickens.

The chickens’ guts changed within a week, the farm workers in 3-6 months. Further, the bacteria were not only resistant to tetracycline (the antibiotic used), but several other commercial antibiotics. They had learned and adapted.

After they stopped using the antibiotic laced feed for six months, the problem corrected itself. No detectable levels of tectracycline resistant bacteria were found in the farm workers or chickens.

You can read more about this study at “The Spread of Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria from Chickens to Farmers“.

*Note: The FDA finally banned the use of therapeutic antibiotics in animal food in 2017.

How are herbal antibiotics different from pharmaceutical antibiotics?

Many pharmaceutical antibiotics are isolated chemical constituents. They are one compound/one chemical – penicillin is penicillin, tetracycline is tetracycline and so on. This makes them easier for bacteria to adapt to and counteract.

In contrast, herbs are much more complicated. Garlic has over 33 sulfur compounds, 17 amino acids and a dozen other compounds. Yarrow has over 120 identified compounds. (This makes me look at my herbs with a new appreciation.)

In plants, the whole appears to be more than the sum of its parts. The different compounds work together to combat bacterial infections, often to produce better than expected results.

Herbal antibiotics may be one of our best options for fighting methicillin resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

(See Chapter 2 of Herbal Antibiotics for a more detailed explanation.)

Top 15 Antibiotic Herbs

Stephen lists the following as his top 15 antibiotic herbs.

  • Acacia
  • Aloe
  • Cryptolepsis
  • Echinacea
  • Eucalyptus
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Goldenseal
  • Grapefruit Seed Extract
  • Honey
  • Juniper
  • Licorice
  • Sage
  • Usnea
  • Wormwood

The use of each of these is detailed in the book. I’ll share a few that I use regularly. (The post Honey as Medicine goes into detail on the use of honey.)

Note: 80% or more of urinary tract infections are caused by E coli bacteria. Herbal antibiotics that fight E coli are likely to help with UTIs.

Aloe – Herbal Antibiotic Long Used for Burns and Other Skin Trauma

Aloe vera is active against:

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Pseudomonos aeruginosa
  • Herpes simplex virus type 1 and type 2

Honey and aloe vera are two of the most effective treatments for burn victims when applied externally.

They help to speed wound healing and prevent infection. Manuka honey is particularly effective for fighting bacterial infections.

To use aloe, slice open the leaves of the fresh plant to get at the sap. Apply the aloe gel to the wound or burn until well covered, repeating as necessary.

You may also juice or puree the pulp for internal use. (Read more about medicinal use of aloe.)

garlic cloves and bulb

Garlic – Eat Your Medicine

Microbes that respond to treatment with garlic include:

  • Tuberculosis
  • Shigell dysenteriae
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Pseudomonos aeruginosa
  • Candida albicans
  • Escherichia coli (E.coli)
  • Streptococcus spp.
  • Salmonella spp.
  • Campylobacter spp.
  • Protues merbilis
  • Herpes simplex
  • Influenza B
  • HIV

Garlic cloves make be taken fresh (as juice or chopped), in capsules, as tincture, or in food. Start with small doses and gradually increase.

Be careful – raw garlic may cause stomach upset and vomiting. Small, frequent doses are generally easier to take than large doses (1/4 to 1 teaspoon juice as needed).

If raw garlic is too strong, try capsules of dried garlic. Ample garlic in food is also helpful. Avoid using large amounts of garlic if you are on blood thinning medication.

Echinacea (Echinacea augustifolia, E. purpurea) – Cold and Flu Care

Echinacea is active against:

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Streptococcus spp.
  • Mycobacterium (tuberculosis)
  • Abnormal cells (direct application necessary).

It’s not only an herbal antibiotic, but also antiviral and antifungal. Stephen particularly recommends it for abnormal pap smears, strep throat, and very early onset of colds and flus.

For strep throat, colds and flu, he recommends the use of echinacea tincture, 30 drops (full dropper) each hour.

I have also had success fighting off a cold with a steady stream of echinacea tea.

Licorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra)

Licorice works to fight diseases and bacteria, including:

  • Malaria
  • Tuberculosis
  • Bacillis subtilis
  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Streptococcus sobrinus
  • S. mutans
  • Salmonella typhimurium
  • Escherichia coli
  • Candida albicans
  • Vibrio cholera
  • Trichophyton mentagrophytes
  • T. rubrum
  • Toxocara canis

Licorice is a powerful immune system stimulant and antibiotic, and works well with other herbs. It does have side effects, especially with overuse.

Stephen notes, “I have found that the use of the whole root produces fewer side effects than the extracts.

However, some of the same side effects still occur: higher blood pressure, water retention. These occur with less frequency and generally occur in those of middle age – i.e. those who have gone through menopause.

I have used licorice for over 20 years now. I treat it more like a drug now, due to its potency. Licorice should be used with caution in those with high blood pressure.

This herbal sore throat syrup combines licorice root with other soothing herbs.

Stephen suggests a tea using 1/2 to 1 teaspoon powdered licorice in 8 ounces of boiling water. Steep the tea for 15 minutes and then strain. Use up to three times per day.

ginger root

Let Your Food Be Your Medicine and Your Medicine Be Your Food

There is so much more to learn about herbal antibiotics. My goal is let you know that herbs can provide effective treatment for drug resistant bacteria.

Infectious diseases and strains of bacteria keep changing, so we need to find the best of old and new solutions.

Always exercise caution when using herbs as medicine, and be doubly careful if you are on any prescription medication.

Eating probiotic food such as raw sauerkraut or probiotic supplements can help rebuild populations of healthy bacteria in your body. This is especially important if you have taken synthetic antibiotics.

You may also enjoy our other Herbs and Wildcrafting and Natural Health posts including:

Originally posted in 2012, last updated in 2020.

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