Ninety years ago the discovery of antibiotics was hailed as a modern blessing against bacterial infections and deadly diseases. Today, antibiotic resistance has become an existential threat, due to the overuse of antibiotics.
Two million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection per year in the US alone, according to the CDC. A December 2014 Review On Antibiotic Resistance warned that at least 10 million people could die every year from untreatable infections – along with $100 trillion worth of economic losses through higher mortality and morbidity rates – if we fail to tackle antibiotic resistance. Meanwhile, antibiotic consumption continues to accelerate worldwide, sans regulatory mechanisms to curb the increasing use in prescriptions, animal husbandry, personal care and food supply.
The downward spiral began with a fairly common human misconception, namely our tendency to perceive the unknown as a threat. Antibiotics were the culmination point of developing armory against microbial lifeforms, without realizing that we house more than 100 trillion bacteria in our body, three times more than the total amount of human cells, that perform vital functions.
Thousands of species of bacteria live in our gut, aiding with digestion, warding off pathogens, maintaining the immune system, synthesizing vitamins, decomposing fecal matter, creating enzymes, harnessing energy from carbohydrates, absorbing fatty acids, and producing hormones. Thousands more perform vital functions on our skin, in our lungs, mouth, hair, organs, blood, and genitalia.
Useful little critters. Had we not declared war on them soon after their discovery.
“All the water . . . seemed to be alive,” observed Dutch scientist Anton Van Leeuwenhoek when he first pointed a microscope on a sample of human plaque in 1683. At first, the little critters didn’t seem to represent a threat – they were just everywhere.
Leeuwenhoek’s successor Nicolas Andry called microbes “worms” and proposed they could transfer disease. “Worms” metamorphosed into “germs”, as the hunt for pathogenic bacteria accelerated.
By the late 1800s when the scientists had isolated Black Death, cholera, chlamydia, and a handful of other notorious infectious diseases; bugs were in for a century of prejudice. We only recognized their dark side.
During the early antimicrobial revolution, the chemical industry introduced disinfectants for our homes, antiseptics for our skin, pesticides for our agriculture, while researchers were looking for the perfect weapon to eliminate any infectious threat.
The first early 20th century vaccines saved hundreds of millions of lives and brought smallpox, diphtheria, tetanus, yellow fever, whooping cough, polio, and measles under control. Yet vaccines were only able to stimulate the body’s immune system against disease, not cure it.
“If we could intervene in the antagonism between bacteria, it would offer perhaps the greatest hopes for therapeutics,” biologist Louis Pasteur wrote in 1876, expressing the idea of antibiosis (Latin for “against life”): the promise for the next generation weaponry against bugs.
“Antibiosis” means the ability to harness one microbe’s defenses against another. It was a big leap from Pasteur’s previous idea of pasteurization, which uses heat to zap bacteria (to conserve consumables, for example).
Once Pasteur and his colleague Robert Koch demonstrated that an airborne bug could inhibit anthrax, scientists began to pursue antagonistic, targetable microbes with a vengeance.
Jump to 1928, when microbiologist Alexander Fleming accidentally left his petri dish of staphylococci (common respiratory and skin bacterium in humans) exposed to a penicillin mold. The halo of dead staph bacteria on the edges of the petri dish that Fleming encountered the next morning, signaled the future of antibiotics.
Penicillin, the precursor of modern antibiotics, works by preventing enzymes in bacteria from forming new cell walls. The scope of exploitation for penicillin was limitless from day one. Tuberculosis, strep, staph, typhoid, ulcers, abscesses, food poisonings, infections from surgeries, all needed a reliable bug buster.
Mass production of penicillin began just in time for WWII, where it quickly gained a lifesaver reputation by dramatically reducing casualties from wounds and amputations. US pharmaceutical giants Merck, Squibb, Pfizer, and Abbot grew production from 21 billion units in 1943 to 6.8 trillion units in 1945.
Meanwhile, Bayer stumbled on a synthesized dye that was able to cure strep in mice, which they patented without further ado as Prontosil in 1932. The active compound was later identified as sulfanilamide, a 1906 dye industry chemical with an expired patent. This began the “sulfa craze,” with hundreds of manufacturers producing tens of thousands of tons of sulfa as the new miracle panacea. Even American first-aid kits instructed soldiers to sprinkle sulfa on “any open wound.”
Hundreds of antibiotics followed suit over the next half a century, targeting an increasingly common variety of ailments. Bronchitis. Pneumonia. Diarrhea. Sore throat.
The antibiotic revolution saved millions of lives – but triggered a microbial blowback.
By developing smart weapons against pathogens we accelerated their evolution over and beyond any other bacterial species, thereby creating an unnaturally rare breed of hostiles. Bacteria can mutate in seconds, thousands of times a day to lock in a resistant gene. Only a few of them have to survive and replicate to make their species resistant to a drug – a drug that took about a decade for our best minds to develop.
The first drug-resistant bacteria surfaced in the early 1950s. Fleming himself had warned about drug resistance in his 1945 Nobel lecture.
“The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the stretococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies.”
George Orwell is a case in point. While finishing his book 1984, Orwell developed an early antibiotic-resistant mutation of M. Tuberculosis in response to repeated prescriptions of Streptomycin. Soon after, he died from lung hemorrhage.
Superbugs didn’t receive much publicity until the end of the century when rampant hospital infections began to be routine. By then, millions of metric tons of antibiotics were routinely fed to both humans and livestock every year. Antibiotic resistance didn’t deter the health care industry from issuing prescriptions at an ever-faster rate.
In 2010, doctors prescribed 258 million courses of antibiotics for a population of 309 million people. The biggest visible impact can be seen in the number of superbug infections, 80 percent of which take place in hospitals.
The CDC records up to 1.7 million hospital infections per year, out of which at least 20 percent evolve into superbugs. One of the nastiest of these superbugs is the MRSA, Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which can cause widespread infection in vital organs, toxic shock syndrome, before finishing you off with flesh-eating pneumonia.
Two billion people carry staph naturally on their skin, nose or respiratory tract. It can only cause an infection if it enters a wound and the patient has a weak immune system. Antibiotics have essentially weaponized staph to an extremely hostile, rapidly propagating beast.
Out of 500,000 staph infections in the U.S. today, 100,000 today evolve into MRSA, of which at least 20,000 become fatal. The figure is growing fast, partly because of the prescription doctors use against MRSA, namely more antibiotics.
MRSA today also afflicts our livestock – for an obvious reason. Over 63,000 tons of antibiotics (more than the weight of the Titanic), or 80 percent of the total annual antibiotic consumption is used in animal husbandry alone. As a result, a 2011 study reported that up to 24 percent of the meat and poultry sold in U.S. grocery stores contained MRSA strains.
Foodborne superbugs such as Salmonella and Escherichia Coli have also jumped from livestock to humans. The drug-resistant strains of E. coli, for example, which causes urinary tract infections in women, can be traced back to antibiotics in chicken.
Gonorrhea and chlamydia have also developed resistance. Tuberculosis has evolved into a multi-resistant strain. The pace of proliferation isn’t slowing down. China, Brazil, India, Russia and South Africa are looking at a 100 percent increase in antibiotic consumption by 2030. Antibiotics can be found in 75 percent of liquid soaps, in Band-Aids, cleaners, and topical OTC ointments like Neosporin (also linked to MRSA).
Distribution is also heavily subsidized. 17,000 doctors received $250 million in sales commissions in 2010 from seven pharmaceutical companies alone. A 2013 survey found that doctors prescribe antibiotics to 2/3rds of patients who have symptoms of viral infections like sore throat or bronchitis with antibiotics that don’t cure viral infections. These types of prescriptions only serve to crash the immune system.
By 2050, 10 million people per year could die from antimicrobial resistance, according to KPMG and RAND Europe.
Somewhere along the line, industry profit hijacked the Hippocratic Oath – and rigged the game to maximize revenue. Today we are paying the price.
It takes a decade to develop a new antibiotic, and five seconds for a staph bacterium to mutate.
It’s time to rethink antibiotics. At least on a personal level, as the medical system fails to respond to biological reality.
”We may look back at the antibiotic era as just a passing phase in the history of medicine, an era when a great natural resource was squandered, and the bugs proved smarter than the scientists” – Cannon G. 1995
Today’s microbiologists acknowledge the human body as a microbiome – a bacterial cloud living inside another – in which the diversity of species correlates with the health of the host.
We need to learn from the hunter-gatherer tribe in the Amazon who carry natural resistance to disease and infections because of their uniquely rich microbiome. Some progressive practitioners are shifting therapeutic focus to bacterial versatility with novel approaches like fermented diets, probiotics and fecal transplants.
The drug-resistant backlash is also finally bringing some natural antimicrobials back into the medical fold. Silver, for example, used by natural healers for thousands of years against a spectrum of infectious diseases, was crossed out of medicinal books in the last century during the antibiotic revolution, but is now resurfacing as a clinically proven method to counter infections without negative side effects like antibiotic resistance (the most powerful modern variant of silver is a chelated version, that has a much longer bioavailability than regular colloidal silver)
A 1978 Science Digest article that extolled silver as the “best all-around germ fighter that kills over 650 disease-causing organisms… and it is absolutely non-toxic,” was largely ignored at the time because everyone believed in the modern antibiotic age. Today silver is wiping out superbugs in modern lab conditions, the same superbugs that antibiotics are already powerless against.
Adopting grandma’s antimicrobial wisdom such as silver and other natural alternatives (see below) can help us regain our resistance against most common and exotic infections. The key is to try and avoid the next antibiotic prescription unless the situation is acute and life-threatening so that the body can start to rebuild its own defense system. Often healthy eating and lifestyle habits that bring us into contact with a broader world of bacteria (such as gardening or carousing with nature or other living species) may help us avoid those infections in the first place, by propping our own natural resistance.
The biological reality is that we either carry or are exposed to most of the nightmare bacteria out there, but they only get an upper hand if our resistance is down. Attacking the culprit is therefore self-defeating in most cases.
As long as our bacterial commune is rich and diverse, we can count on the body to remain self-healing. That’s how we were designed by nature.
By Jan Wellmann
Founder & Health Coach
|American Goldenseal||Hydrastis canadensis||A perennial herb in the buttercup family native to southeastern Canada and the eastern United States. Often used as a multi-purpose remedy.||Treat resistant infections of the GI tract, urinary tract and skin. Also active against most food poisoning bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella. Has the ability to soothe the linings of the mucous membranes of the digestive, respiratory, genitourinary tracts while effectively clearing bacterial invasion.||Rarely, side effects can include diarrhea, nausea and skin irritation. It’s anitbactrial action can destroy good as well as harmful bacteria if used over a long period of time. Not reccomended for use in children.|
|Juniper||Juniperus spp.||Coniferous plants widely distributed throughout the Northern hemisphere, from the arctic south to tropical Africa and to the mountains in central America.||Treat resistant infections of the GI tract, urinary tract and skin.||Not to be used on a long term basis and to be used sparingly on skin. Not reccommended to use on large, open sking wounds. Increases the need to urinate when taken internally.|
|Usnea||Usnea spp.||Pale, greyish/green fructose lichen that grow anchored to trees or shrubs all over the world.||Treat resistant infections of the GI tract, urinary tract and skin. Inhibitor of gram-positive bacteria including tuberculosis, streptococcus, and pneumococcus. It functions as an antibiotic by blocking oxidative phosphorylation, an essential part of bacterial metabolism.||Has not been fully evaluated but could contain toxicity if used in high dosages. Reccommended as a topical application as opposed to internal.|
|Honey||Apis mellifera||Substance produced by bees from the nectar of plants.Considered one of the oldest known wound dressings. Healing properties mentioned in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah.||Treat resistant infections of the GI tract, urinary tract and skin. Also active against most food poisoning bacteria such as E.coli and salmonella. Has the ability to soothe the linings of the mucous membranes of the digestive, respiratory, genitourinary tracts while effectively clearing bacterial invasion. Some studies have shown that topical honey works better than systemic/ oral antibiotics in treating infected wounds.||Best if organic and raw. Not suitable for use in infants and children. Overuse can cause gastric upset and abdominal discomfort.|
|Licorice Root||Glycyrrhiza glabra and G. uralensis||A legume native to southern Europe,India and parts of Asia. Traditionally usedin Ayurveda as a medicine for rejuvenation.||Increases the activity of other herbs. Boosts inactive resistant bacteria mechanisms, increases the presence of antibacterial agents in the body and enhances immune function||Many licorice products in the US do not actually contain any licorice. The actual root interacts with many prescription medication. Not safe when consumed in high doses for more than 4 weeks. Not for use for those with high blood pressure. Interacts with estrogen in the body and may cause absence of menstruation.|
|Ginger Root||Zingiber officinale||The root of a flowering plant native to China and India.||Increases the activity of other herbs. Boosts inactive resistant bacteria mechanisms, increases the presence of antibacterial agents in the body and enhances immune function||May cause irritation when applied to the skin. Not for regular use by diabetics because it may lower blood sugar.|
|Black Pepper||Piper nigrum and P. longum||Made from the fruit of the piper nigrum plant which is dried and ground up.||Increases the activity of other herbs. Boosts inactive resistant bacteria mechanisms, increases the presence of antibacterial agents in the body and enhances immune function||May decrease how quickly the liver breaks down some medications.|
|Oregon Grape||Berberis aquifolium||The root of a plant native to western North America.||Contains a substance known as berberine, which can stop bacteria from adhering to the walls of the intestine and urinary tract. Berberine can stop bacteria dead in it’s tracts.||Not proven safe for children or pregnant mothers. Berberine in the root can cause brain damage in newborns.|
|King of Bitters||Andographis paniculata||Leaves and root of a plant widely cultivated in Southern and Southeastern Asia. Used in traditional Siddha and Ayurvedic medicine.||Disrupts the quorum-sensing system of bacteria. This system helps bacteria to attach to eachother and thrive as a community. Andographis basically helps break up the bacterial ‘party’. Beneficial to treat symptoms of upper respiratory tract infections and sinus problems. Numerous studies report its ability to reduce upper respiratory symptoms infection such as fatigue, sore throat, cough and headache. It’s potent antibacterial properties provide protectiona gainst most pathogens.||Is widely known as an abortifacient, not for use by pregnant women.|
|Manuka Honey||Specifically produced in New Zealand by bees that pollinate the manuka bush.||Used in hospital protocols for wound care. Most honey has antibacterial activity but manuka honey has a compound called methylglyoxal which is especially potent. Studies have confirmed it’s activity against a wide range of medically important bacteria including MRSA||Best if medical-grade or has a high AMF/UMF rating.|
|Garlic||Allium Sativum||A bulbous plant native to central Asia. Used as both food and medicine in many cultures for thousands of years.||Effective against antibiotic resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Studies have also showed garlic extract reduced the viability of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in mice and lowered inflammation associated with the infection. Russian soldiers used it as an antibiotic in WWII after running out of penicillin. Contains Allicin, a powerful compoung which can fight superbugs such as VRE and MRSA that have shown resistance to traditional anitbiotics. Garlic’s broad antimicrobial spectrum incorporates antifungal, antiparasitic, antiprotozoan, and antiviral attributes in one food source||Known for causing bad breath and pungent sweat. Care must be taken when applying topically, as garlic has been known to cause burns.|
|Weeping Forsythia||Forsythia Suspensia||The fruit of a flowering plant native to Asia. One of the 50 fundamental herbs used in TCM.||Oral extracts from dried forsythia fruit have proven effective in killing antibiotic-resistant Streptococcus suis, both alone and when combined with amoxicillin. Quite often referred to as a broad specturm antibiotic compound, could possibly have systemic affects.||May cause extra bleeding during and after surgery. Not known if safe for pregnant and breast-feeding women.|
|Coconut Oil||The oil of the fruit from the coconut palm tree.||Coconut fat contains high amounts of lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride. In the body, lauric acid turns into monolaurin, a monoglyceride with antibacterial properties also found in human breast milk. Nature’s antibiotics. Has the ability to kill harmful bacteria such as H.pylori. Research shows it’s also effective at fighting C.difficile, a strain of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and one of the leading causes of diarrhea in hospitals worldwide. Considered safe for children and pregnant/breastfeeding mothers.||None known.|
|Oregano Oil||Origanum Vulgare||Oil made from the leaf of the plant.||HIgh in antioxidant activity, contains antimicrobial properties that support your immune and respiratory systems. When used aromatically, can decrease airborne pathogensand boost immunity. Studies have shown that a combination of monolaurin and oil of oregano is effective against staph infections in mice, even more so than vancomycin, a type of antibiotic. An in vitro study showed that oregano oil makes conventional antibiotics more effective against E.coli, lowering the the effective dose and and subsequent side effects. Even some poultry farms have found success in using oregano to reduce the use of antibiotics in animals.||May cause mild stomach upset. May lower blood sugar levels, people with diabetes should use with caution. Not for use with anyone taking lithium-based medications.|
|Vitamin D||Can be found in small amounts in some foods but the highest concentration is obtained through exposure to sunlight. Often made in the laboratory as medicine.||Short term, megadoses of Vitamin D has antibiotic potential due to it’s expression of the gene involved in producing endogenous antimicrobial peptides, our body’s own antibiotic.||Extremely high doses can cause excessively high calcium levels in the blood. Can also increase the amount of aluminium the body absorbs.|
|Olive Leaf Extract||Olea Europaea||Extracts from the leaf of the olive tree.||Helps defend against a wide variety of viruses and bacteria. Has the ability to cut off the amino acid supply to viruses, which helps keep them from spreading. ONe study has found that exposing E.Coli to a 6% olive leaf extract completely destroyed it.||May cause temporary worsening of symptoms before it becomes effective. May cause dizziness in people who have low blood pressure. Must start with low doses to gauge effect.|
|Pau D’Arco||Tabebuia impetiginosa||The bark of a tree that grows primarily in the rainforests of Central and South America.||Rich in lapachol and beta-lapachone, two compounds with anti-viral and antibacterial properties. Shown to have effect where drug-resistant infections reside.||Possibly unsafe at high doses. Commercial teas containing Pau D’arco may not have effective dosages to treat symptoms. Not for use by people with bleeding disorders or pre/post-surgery.|
|Colloidal Silver||Mineral-based colloid consisting of silver particles suspended in liquid.||One of the most effective agents in the battle against antibiotic-resistant super pathogens. Low doses of silver can make antiobiotics up to 1000 times more effective and may even allow an antibiotic to combat an otherwise antibiotic-resistant bacteria.||If solution is not optimized for small particle size or unpure silver salts are used in the process of making colloidal silver, a rare condition called Arghyria may cause blue coloring of the skin.|
|Chelated Silver Oxide||The silver is chelated with amino acids – the building blocks of proteins – making it more bioactive and bioavailable unlike any other silver compound. Chelated Silver oxide ointment has successfully treated jellyfish and scorpio stings, sore throats, urinary tract infections, cold sores, even a food poisoning, aside from common topical infections.||Compared to colloidal silver, chelated silver oxide binds up to 2.5 hours on the skin – in comparison with 10 minutes for normal silver compounds. This is all time spent on reducing and eliminating bacteria, which makes it a much more powerful bug killer – without causing resistance or issues with immune system.||Scarce availability.|
|Echinacea||Echinacea Angustifollia||A perennial herb often used in conjunction with goldenseal to bolster the immune system.||A great general remedy for helping the body rid itself of microbial infections. May be used for infection and inflammation anywhere in the body. Is often effective against both bacterial and viral attacks.||When taken by mouth it can cause nausea, sore throat, and numbness and tingling in the mouth. Not effective alongside immunosuppressive medication.|
|Myrrh||Commiphora myrrha||An aromatic natural gum (resin) harvested from a number of small, thorny tree species native to Yemen, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.||Touted for it’s antiseptic, antibiotic and antiviral properties.Most commonly reccommended for bacterial oral infections,bronchitis and sore throats||May cause skin rash if applied directly to the skin. Large doses are considered unsafe. Can also increase a fever.|
|Thyme||Thymus Vulgaris||The flowers, leaves and oil of a popular herb,sometimes used in combination with other herbs.||Expectorant and antibacterial properties. Fequently used in preparations to support and protect the respiratory system. Considered safe for children and pregnant/breastfeeding mothers.||Can upset the digestive system. Can act like estrogen in the body and should be used cautiously by those who may be sensitive to this.|
|Bovine Colostrum||Milky fluid that comes from the breasts of cows the first few days after giving birth,before true milk appears.||Rich in immunoglobulins which strengthen your immune system and help fight off harmful bacteria and viruses such as E.Coli, Cryptosporidium parvum, Shigella flexneri, Salmonella Staphylococcus and rotavirus. Was the main source of immunoglobulins used to fight off disease before the development of antibiotics. Also proven helpful against herpes viruses and HIV and difficult to treat bacterial and fungal infections like Mycobacterium fortuitum and Mycobacterium tuberculosis , cryptosporidosis in AIDS patients and candida.||Rare reports of problems with HIV positive people. Not to be taken by anyone who is allergic to cow’s milk or milk products.|