Gentle Defense
Herbs may offer an alternative to harsh antibiotics

By Dena Nishek

There's no doubt that antibiotics save lives. Since their introduction in the 1940s, these powerful medications have reduced the life-threatening danger of bacterial diseases such as meningitis (inflammation of the brain and spinal cord lining), blood infections, flesh-eating strep and even anthrax. But while they're universally praised, antibiotics have a potential downside: When taken preventively or overprescribed for viral infections, such as the common cold, most types of sore throats and the flu, antibiotics can cause side effects and, worse, antibiotic resistance—a serious global health concern.

How should you treat minor but common infections with a milder approach? Look to herbs, which can be effective and gentle alternatives to antibiotics. Several herbs interfere with and kill bacteria but simultaneously boost the immune system so it can fight an infection naturally. Also, herbs don't cause resistance or significant side effects, making them the natural first line of defense against many less-serious ailments.

Antibiotic Resistance
"Antibiotics do not selectively kill disease-causing bacteria," says Cindy L.A. Jones, PhD, author of The Antibiotic Alternative (Healing Arts Press, 2000). "They kill a variety of bacteria—the good and the bad." This take-no-prisoners approach upsets the body's healthy bacterial balance, often leading to diarrhea, weakened immunity and yeast overgrowth (see "Cultivate Balance").

Antibiotic resistance is a growing worry among health professionals. This effect stems from overusing and misusing antibiotics and results in stronger bacterial strains. "Some diseases that were once very easy to treat are becoming more and more difficult to treat," says Jones. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has noted that almost all major bacterial infections throughout the world are rapidly becoming resistant to pharmaceutical treatments.

Herbs, meanwhile, are gaining acceptance among Western health care providers even as scientists continue to discover exactly how botanicals benefit the body. "I think what we'll find is that there is probably more than one way that each herb works," says Jones. She and a growing number of medical practitioners are now recommending herbs to their clients for "uncomfortable but not life-threatening diseases," such as ear, sinus and minor skin infections; bronchitis; and uncomplicated urinary tract infections.

Take Herbs Early On
"Herbs, because they're gentle, work best at the first sign of illness," says Linda B. White, MD. "If you wait until [you're] really sick, it is less likely that you'll be successful with an herbal treatment." The following herbs get high marks for their antibiotic properties:

Garlic (Allium sativum) is one botanical to take often and early, even before the first sniffle. "Garlic is good for everything. It is both an antibiotic herb and an immune-stimulating herb," Jones says. According to the German Commission E Monographs, the daily dose of this safe antibacterial herb is 4 grams of fresh garlic or its equivalent.

Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) contains berberine, an effective agent against a variety of bacteria. It also has a soothing effect on mucous membranes. Because direct contact is most effective, gargle with 2-3 ml of goldenseal tincture in a glass of warm water at the first sign of a sore throat. "It is also good for skin infections; just dust the dry powder on your skin," Jones says. Because wild goldenseal is an endangered herb in the United States, look for products with cultivated goldenseal or substitute Oregon grape root (Mahonia aquifolium), which also contains berberine.

Grapefruit seed extract products are touted as infection fighters. In his book, Natural Alternatives to Antibiotics (Keats Publishing, 1995), Ray C. Wunderlich, MD, recommends the herb for gastrointestinal upsets, flus and colds, sore throats, parasites, and yeast-overgrowth conditions. However, there is no conclusive evidence that it fights infections in humans. Some researchers suspect its antimicrobial activity is a result of synthetic preservatives, not the herb itself (Pharmazie, 1999, vol. 54, no. 6). Until more research is done using human subjects, grapefruit seed extract's effectiveness remains in dispute.

Uva ursi (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), also known as bearberry, is typically used to treat urinary tract infections at symptom onset. This herb works best in alkaline urine, so eliminate vitamin C supplements and acidic foods from your diet during treatment. Uva ursi is a strong herb, so keep doses small, don't use it for more than two weeks, and don't take it if you are pregnant. The German Commission E recommends 1/2-ounce doses; other sources say 400-800 mg of arbutin, the herb's active constituent, daily.

With any herbal therapy, if symptoms don't improve or if they worsen after a few days, see your health care practitioner. In most cases, when infections are treated early, herbs offer a gentle way to help the body heal itself.

Dena Nishek is a freelance writer and editor.