In a recent column, KEITH HANN proposed that ‘What the World Needs Now is Luck, Not Love’, given the reported declining effectiveness of pharmaceutical antibiotics. Research herbalist MONICA WILDE* disagrees
HARDLY A MONTH GOES BY without a reminder that we are running out of antibiotics: dire warnings that, in the near future, there will be so many more antibiotic-resistant bacteria that even routine operations will be problematic.
Our overuse of antibiotics is to blame, we are told. Not just patients pressurising doctors for prescriptions when bed rest will do but the wide-scale, routine use of antibiotics and bactericides in farming. The future looks grim.
There are, however, many alternatives to pharmaceutical antibiotics that DO work and very effectively: the phytochemicals made by plants and fungi that have been dealing with bacteria for over 4 million years. Plants don’t like harmful bacteria any more than we do and have developed a sophisticated and complex chemical arsenal to deal with them.
Stabilised allicin extract from garlic is an excellent antibiotic and highly effective against resistant bacteria such as MRSA (see references 1&2, below). In herbal clinical practice it is often used in conjunction with berberines – another group of highly effective plant chemicals – for patients with recurring infections that are not responsive to antibiotics. Indeed, the only failure of which I know has been in the treatment of infected root canals (tooth and jaw infections being notoriously difficult to treat, even in mainstream medicine).
Use of simple kitchen substances has been well documented: garlic (below, 3), ginger (4), honey(5), oregano(6), thyme(7). We’re often led to believe though that these won’t do the trick, but laboratory experiments consistently show that, at the right strength, they do. If you’re interested in perusing the science-backed evidence available on a wide variety of plants, I recommend Stephen Harrod Buhner’s excellent research book ‘Herbal Antibiotics’(8).
The media never report on what is right under our noses. There is an occasional a flutter of excitement about a plant found in a faraway jungle or a seaweed from the lowest reaches of the ocean floor, but what about the plants right under our noses?
Here’s an example: before the introduction of antibiotics the herbalist Charlie Abbott treated a brucellosis outbreak in Leigh, near Wigan, with a tiny weed – the mouse-ear hawkweed (Hieracium pilosella) a plant you will have walked past many times without even noticing.
Luckily, the incidence of brucellosis – transmitted from cattle to humans through infected dairy products – is low these days, thanks to rigorous cattle testing and strict hygiene standards in milk production. Treatment today would involve the application of several antibiotics simultaneously. However, the humble hawkweed contains chlorogenic acid(9) which binds to, and tears open, bacteria cell membranes, leaking out the contents and causing cell death(10).
So did it work? Anecdotally yes, but surprisingly little is known about it in scientific literature. A French study – it was used in France to treat urinary tract infections – identified an antibiotic compound (11) in it in 1953, but since then? Not a lot. Not even a study to disprove its efficacy. Nowadays, with rigorous control of brucellosis, we have forgotten the humble hawkweed (left).
That plants can also be powerful antibiotics is not by any means unknown. The PCB library at the National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) offers many Open Access journal papers on the subject. (This is a fraction of the papers available but most have to be paid for.) As an experiment, go to https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/ and type in ‘garlic’ AND ‘antibiotic’ into the search box and you will see exactly what I mean. You can repeat this with most kitchen herbs and spices, not to mention hundreds of other plants. The world of fungi is even more interesting. Indeed many of our existing antibiotics already come from mushrooms.
The real issue about antibiotics is profit or, rather, lack of it. Capitalism does not favour the sick or the needy. It requires companies to make profits, and ever-increasing profits at that.
If YOU ran a pharmaceuticals company where would YOU focus your research funds for the greatest return on investment? On developing a drug that needs to be taken daily, for life (heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes etcetera), or on developing an antibiotic that only need be taken for a week or two and will need modifying every couple of years to outwit bacterial resistance?
Or would you rather develop a really expensive medicine, such as a chemotherapy drug, for which patients will pay almost anything in order to outwit death? The problem is not that the basic material isn’t there, but that the system and politics just aren’t up to speed.
Plants and fungi outwit bacteria because of their complexity – usually employing multiple compounds together to tackle their adversary – as well as multiple attack methods. It’s hard to reduce them to a single, simple element without making it easy for the bacteria to get the upper hand. Their strength is in their complexity and their ability to evolve and react as, unlike drugs, they are living, responsive organisms. So the research is difficult and it’s a challenge to shoehorn them into the standard RCT clinical trial model.
However, this evidence model underpins NICE and the clinical commissioning system so the data must be produced or there will be no NHS antibiotics. As tempting as the traditional remedy (two cloves of crushed garlic made into a tea with honey) may sound, we have created the terrain for bacteria to become very smart so we need sophisticated solutions.
As it’s almost impossible to patent a plant extract, the reward of profits – after huge expenditure on research and development – is removed. Why would a company fund research into a product that cannot be protected from competitors, even if the future of humanity IS at stake!
There are some grants for research but it’s a highly competitive arena. They are often awarded to universities with research departments or to medical technology companies with novel and futuristic ideas, which ultimately need to generate profits.
Perhaps the impetus to lead the field should not be pharmaceutical companies but not-for-profit, state-funded entities? Perhaps the public would crowd-fund research in the same way that humanitarian disaster appeals are financed?
We certainly need some new thinking.
*ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Monica Wilde, MSc FLS is a Research Herbalist and Director of Napiers the Herbalists, founded in 1860 in Scotland. Her research interests are the beneficial concomitant prescribing of drugs, herbs and micronutrients, and forgotten herbs. She has a Masters degree in herbal medicine from the University of Lancashire (UCLAN) and is a Fellow of the Linnean Society.
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11. Duquenois P., & Greib, E. (1953). [Antibiotic element isolated from the mouse-eared hawkweed, Hieracium pilosella L]. C R Hebd Seances Acad Sci, 237(21), 1354-5. French.