The End of Antibiotics?
Overuse has led to microbial resistance.
can plant-based remedies help?
By Lisa James
In 2011, Addie Rerecich was an energetic 11-year-old living in Tucson, Arizona. One night she had hip pain; the next day she was in the hospital and within a week she was in intensive care covered in boils, eventually going on life support with a severe lung infection. Addie recovered only after a double-lung transplant.
Addie’s story, first reported on the PBS series “Frontline,” is one of antibiotic resistance, in which these drugs lose their power to fight bacteria. Addie is not alone: The Centers for Disease Control states that 2 million infections, and 22,000 deaths, are caused by resistant bacteria every year.
“I think people underappreciate how dangerous antibiotic resistance is,” says Marion Kainer, MD, MPH, director of the Healthcare Associated Infections and Antimicrobial Resistance Program at the Tennessee Department of Health. “We could go back to an era when mild infections could become deadly.”
Master herbalist Stephen Harrod Buhner believes that “antibiotic resistance is more dangerous than any other threat that faces us as a species.” In addition to the renewed threat of epidemic disease, Buhner warns that “routine surgeries would once again be extremely dangerous” because of infection risks. That potential hazard extends to cancer chemotherapy, which can depress immunity.
Some types of bacteria can divide every 20 minutes under the right conditions. Such fast turnover allows them to quickly adapt to antibiotic exposure, especially when doses are too small or taken for too short a time. This resistance may even pass from one group of bacteria to another, resulting in bacterial populations that can become impervious to nearly every drug thrown at them.
What’s more, “most pharmaceuticals are not easily biodegradable,” says Buhner, the author of 20 books including Herbal Antibiotics (Storey). “Once we excrete them out of our bodies or throw them in landfills they continue to exert antibacterial effects.” A 2014 paper in Critical Care noted that in the US alone, 15 million kilograms (more than 33 million pounds) of antibiotics enter the environment each year.
That includes antibiotics used in agriculture to prevent disease and promote growth in farm animals, which can pass the resistant bacteria in their intestines to people through either environmental pollution or contaminated food.
Resistance isn’t a new concept. Alexander Fleming, the Scottish scientist who discovered penicillin in 1928, was the first to sound a warning. Why did we not heed Fleming’s words? “Hubris mostly,” says Buhner. “Bacteria are not the rather stupid organisms we think they are.”
Attacking the Problem
Antibiotics can save lives. For example, “very powerful antibiotics are needed very quickly in any patient with sepsis,” a potentially lethal infection complication, says Arjun Srinivasan, MD, Associate Director for Healthcare Associated Infection Prevention Programs at the Centers for Disease Control. But too often these drugs are prescribed without a confirmed diagnosis, in some cases for people who aren’t suffering from bacterial infections at all (see box below). The idea, Kainer says, is to use “the right antibiotic at the right dose in the correct amount of time.”
In March 2015, the White House released a National Action Plan that aims to reduce spread of resistant infections by strengthening procedures for reporting outbreaks and by developing new diagnostic tests and antibiotic drugs.
The plan also calls for greater international cooperation in fighting resistant infections. “The full resources of the federal government need to be brought to bear,” says Srinivasan, “but this is not something that any single group can do alone.”
One way to reduce resistance is to lower infection rates. Kainer says hospitals need to practice proper protocols such as diligent handwashing, correct catheter usage and strict cleaning procedures. She adds that if a patient does develop an infection the question should be, “Did we get the diagnosis right—is it resistant or not?”
According to a Food and Drug Administration report, sales of antimicrobials for agricultural purposes increased 22% from 2009 to 2014. That means controlling antibiotics usage in people won’t reduce resistance overall without controlling usage in animals, especially the use of these drugs as growth stimulants. “Historically, we have thought of them as two separate issues,” says Srinivasan. “We now recognize we’re all in this together.”
To that end, the FDA is promoting the phase-out of antibiotics as animal growth agents and requiring “veterinary oversight” for the use of drugs in treating sick animals. In response, Tyson Foods has announced it is “striving to eliminate human antibiotics from our broiler chicken production by September 2017,” according to the company’s website.
Despite such efforts by governments and international public health agencies, significant challenges remain in getting antibiotic resistance under control. “People are taking it more seriously but there are enormous gaps,” says Kainer. “The CDC released seven core elements of antimicrobial stewardship; only 45% of hospitals have met them. It’s a matter of how quickly we can get there.”
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to defend yourself in a world where antibiotics are becoming increasingly unreliable. It starts with such commonsense precautions as washing produce (and your hands) thoroughly and cooking food, especially animal protein, properly.
You also might want to consider what goes on your plate. “It is time to rethink our consumption of meat and, if at all, consume less but higher-quality meat,” says Aruna Siewert, a German holistic practitioner and author of Natural Antibiotics & Botanical Treatments (Robert Rose).
While there’s no evidence that eating meat raised without antibiotics will help you avoid resistant infections, Srinivasan says increased demand for such meat “can lower overall use.”
Don’t treat antibiotics lightly. “My recommendation is to never take antibiotics unless the physician actually knows what you are infected with,” says Buhner. If you do take them, follow dosing instructions and ask about side effects. “After the antibiotic treatment I would recommend a natural treatment to restore the intestinal flora,” says Siewert. A high-quality probiotic can help.
Be especially careful if you go to the hospital. “Always remind your healthcare providers to clean their hands before they touch you,” advises Srinivasan. “Any time you have a
catheter placed, ask every day, ‘Do I still need this catheter?’” (Some hospitals are better at infection control; visit medicare.gov/hospitalcompare.) For scheduled visits, Buhner suggests “the use of immune-enhancing herbs such as Eleutherococcus senticosus or astragalus for a month or so prior.”
In fact, Buhner uses herbs to fight infections directly. He calls plants “the world’s best chemists. When the bacteria develop resistance the plants then create substances to counteract that resistance.” As a result, he says, “Plant medicines are, over time, much more sophisticated and reliable than pharmaceuticals.” For example, Buhner has recommended “the use of Cryptolepis sanguinolenta tincture for MRSA (a resistant form of staph) for over 20 years. We have never had the herb fail in clinical use.”
In the end, maintaining good health may be your best defense against antibiotic resistance. “We should take the time to cure an infection instead of fighting its symptoms with pills while ignoring the causes,” says Siewert. “Enough sleep, short walks, healthy food and rest, as well as medicinal plants, are wonderful helpers.”
Easing Children’s Ear Infections
Otitis media, or ear infection, is one of the most common reasons kids go to the pediatrician—and wind up on antibiotics. According to the National Institutes of Medicine, five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by age three.
The job of the eustachian tubes, passageways from the throat to the middle ear, is to drain liquid away from the middle ear. However, during an upper respiratory infection this area often becomes swollen and inflamed, blocking drainage and creating the warm, wet conditions in which infectious microbes can take hold. While adults can develop ear infections, otitis media occurs more readily in children because their shorter eustachian tubes allow germs easier access to the area.
Amoxicillin is often prescribed for ear infections, although the American Academy of Pediatrics states that its new guidelines “highlight more stringent criteria to use in making an accurate diagnosis of acute otitis media, which will enable clinicians to prescribe antibiotics most effectively.”
The allium plant family, of which garlic and onions are the most prominent members, are known for their antimicrobial effects. For ear infections, Aruna Siewert recommends using an onion bag twice a day: Slice one or two onions very finely, wrap in thin cotton cloth, and place on top of a hot water bottle filled with warm water. Cover the ear with skin cream and lay down with your ear on the bottle, “making sure the entire ear comes into contact with the onion bag.”
As an alternative to the onion bag, Siewert suggests finely crushing a fresh garlic clove, collecting the juice onto a clean cotton pad and gently placing the pad inside the outer ear and leaving it there for 10 minutes. This is only recommended if the eardrum is intact and after you’ve discussed the idea with your practitioner.
Researchers have discovered a link between food allergies and frequent ear infections. If your child seems to always have painful, infected ears, speak with your practitioner about this possibility. You can also consider buying an otoscope, a device for looking inside the ear, to help catch a possible infection at the earliest possible stage.