Among the most amazing inventions of the 20th century, antibiotics have saved millions of lives and eased suffering for millions more people. They have been so effective that we have come to rely on them, even taking them for granted. That’s why there are many diseases, such as tuberculosis, that we simply don’t worry about anymore. We know that when faced with a bacterial infection, a simple prescription will knock it out.
However, this medical safety net is endangered. As a result of overuse and other factors, antibiotics are becoming less effective. Bacteria have become increasingly resistant, offering the ominous prospect that we will once again be vulnerable to an array of life-threatening diseases.
There’s also a ripple effect. Simple surgeries will no longer be routine if we have trouble fighting infections. Getting our wisdom teeth extracted could become a weighty decision. Resistance is developing into a serious problem. But what can we do about it?
To some degree, Alexander Fleming’s accidental discovery of penicillin is the ultimate tale of scientific serendipity. But it’s no accident that this fungus kills bacteria. The two life forms (bacteria and fungi) have co-evolved for millions of years, constantly changing to better each other in their competition for scarce resources. Bacterial resistance to penicillin may have been inevitable.
But did it have to happen so fast? Probably not. We overuse antibiotics and use them improperly. Low doses are given to cows and pigs to make them grow faster and larger and to prevent the spread of diseases in crowded conditions. In fact, in the United States, as much as 80 percent of antibiotics are used on livestock.
Medical use is also a problem. Patients insist on receiving prescriptions for colds and flus, even though they’re caused by viruses and antibiotics (which kill only bacteria) are ineffective. Also, many people stop taking their antibiotics before completing the full course of treatment, allowing the hardier pathogens to survive and reproduce. Our poor medical practices have given antibiotic resistance a leg up.
Though resistant bacteria are nothing new, the crisis may have finally reached the point where politicians and public health officials start taking drastic action. In fact, a recent report suggests that the “superbug” epidemic in hospitals is much more serious than previously estimated. In Europe, there are proposals to curb antibiotic overuse, including restrictions on farm use and sanctions against physicians who overprescribe these drugs. There are also efforts to encourage people to take all their antibiotics: carrot-and-stick approaches using incentives and email reminders.
There are also worldwide efforts to develop new antibiotics. However, these efforts — like all drug discovery programs — will take time. Other tacks that may provide more immediate benefit are new diagnostics to detect bacterial diseases. By differentiating these infections from fungal growths, we can provide more appropriate care and use antibiotics more sparingly.
While we can all help ease the problem by taking the complete rounds of antibiotics we receive from physicians or even by refusing them for minor infections, there are other steps we can take to help combat these powerful bacteria. For example, there are herbs that have been used for centuries to help the body fight infections. With antibiotics losing effectiveness, scientists have been taking close looks at these botanicals.
A study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found 19 traditional Asian plants that were effective against the bacterial infection known as MRSA. In particular, a plant called Elsholtzia rugulosa often used in Asia to make herbal tea and the herb Fo-Ti (Polygonum multiflorum) are effective. Another study showed that garlic extract can help fight salmonella, staph, E. coli and other bacteria. Oregano, rosemary, grapefruit seed extract and goldenseal are commonly known for their antibacterial effects.
We should also be priming our bodies to resist infection with healthy lifestyles that boost immunity. Keeping our inner ecology in balance discourages invaders from taking hold. Eat an anti-inflammatory diet, particularly leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cabbage. Research shows these foods help boost immunity at a genetic level. Avoid foods that spike blood sugar and stimulate the growth of pathogenic bacteria while suppressing the immune system. Fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, yogurt and miso, as well as a variety of medicinal mushrooms, all encourage the growth of healthy gut bacteria. It’s also critical to exercise regularly, drink lots of water and get plenty of sleep. For more information about maintaining a strong immune system, read my immune health wellness guide here.
Eventually, researchers will develop new antibiotics — which, hopefully, we will use more judiciously. In the meantime, we can play an important role in this cycle. By updating our antibiotic practices, maintaining strong immunity and bolstering our systems with antibacterial herbs and botanicals, we can protect ourselves and be part of the solution.