I remember my Uncle George telling a story of an infection he had on his leg as a young adult. Creams and ointments provided by the physicians of the time (around the 1940s) failed to resolve the problem. He decided to go home, leave a few slices of bread out to mold and bandage the moldy bread on his leg. In the course of a few days the infection that had persisted for a few weeks was gone—nature?s penicillin.
The advent of antibiotics in a modern world filled with infectious disease due to poor hygiene and insufficient sewage distribution systems was a boon to modern medicine. Myriad infectious diseases continue to kill millions every year, especially in developing nations. Many of these diseases are effectively treated with antibiotics—or at least they have been up to now. However, the overreliance on antibiotics, as well as the prevalence of antibiotics introduced to humans through the food chain, is contributing to a problem that may result in future plagues and uncontrollable epidemics.
Bacteria and microbes, like humans, are very adept at adapting. When continually exposed to the same antibiotic agent, microbes eventually develop a resistance to its killing effects. In the process, the little gnarlies often become stronger and more virulent. After all, whatever does not kill you makes you stronger. This is a serious challenge to the effectiveness of conventional antibiotics today.
Natural therapeutic agents have an extremely important role to play in the future of immune health, both in terms of direct anti-infectious agents and immune modulators. Following is just a smattering of what is available.
Preventing and treating colds and flus—herbally
The best-known immune-enhancing botanical in traditional Chinese medicine is astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus), a member of the pea family (Fabaceae). Traditionally it was used to enhance resistance against infectious disease. According to TCM theory, a protective barrier exists between the inner layer of skin and outer layer of muscles. Astragalus is said to reinforce this protective layer, thus providing added protection against infectious disease, especially colds and flu. Modern research seems to support this effect, as astragalus has been shown to be effective in the prevention of colds, partly through its ability to stimulate natural killer-cell activity and to promote the internal production of interferon, a key component of the body?s innate immune system. It is very appropriate for adults and children alike since it tastes relatively good, can be added to soups and teas and is very safe (according to Astragalus root: Monograph of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, 1999).
A TCM formula known as ?Jade Wind Screen Powder,? which uses astragalus as its primary ingredient, is said to ?protect you from the cold winds as if surrounded by a screen of jade.?
Echinacea has been one of the most popular of all herbal products and has been used since the late 1800s. Modern research has revealed its ability to increase macrophage infection-fighting activity, inhibit inflammation and promote wound healing. Though the results of clinical studies regarding its use for shortening the duration or severity of common colds have been disappointing, it nevertheless is still used for these purposes among modern herbal practitioners.
The key to echinacea?s effectiveness lies in the quality of the preparation and dosage. Many herbalists prefer echinacea be made from freshly dried root because echinacea loses its potency quite rapidly, and recommend doses as high as 15 g (equivalents to raw herb) the first two days of symptoms. The one study that used such a regimen yielded positive results (The Journal of Clinical Pharmacy and Therapeutics, February 2004), whereas the findings of a few lower-dose studies were mixed. Preliminary animal studies also suggest that small amounts taken regularly may preserve natural killer-cell activity (Experimental Gerontology, August 2000).
The preserved juice of elderberry is one of my all-time favorites for the first sign of colds or flu. In traditional herbal terms it is known as a warming diaphoretic, which means it helps to promote sweating. This is one of the most commonly used and most effective therapies for staving off a cold or flu. In this regard, I consider it more efficacious than echinacea, with the combination of the two making an ideal first treatment at the very first signs of cold or flu.
A limited amount of modern research, mostly conducted in Israel, has reported significant antiviral activity (Sambucus: Black Elderberry Extract, RSS Publishing, 1995). It is as delicious as it is effective, is well suited for children and is equally good for both treatment and prevention.
Herbal antimicrobial agents
Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is one of the most popularly used herbal supplements in the United States. Interest in it among American medical professionals began as early as 1782 with a presentation of its traditional uses before the American Philosophical Society. Among its earliest uses was as a wash for inflamed eyes, a practice that remains in use among professional medicinal herbalists and naturopathic physicians today.
This activity is primarily attributed to it being a rich source of berberine, an alkaloid found in many medicinal plants that include Oregon grape root (Mahonia vulgaris), barberry (Berberis spp.) and Chinese coptis (Coptis chinensis). Berberine is a strong antimicrobial with broad-spectrum activity against numerous pathogenic microbes, including Candida, Staphylococcus and E. coli. Although it is poorly absorbed—so that any systemic anti-infectious activity, if present, is limited—it is nevertheless effective for infected tissues with which it comes in contact. Because of this, it is used as an anti-inflammatory for the stomach, displaying antibacterial activity against Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria that is a causative factor in gastric ulcers. It has been estimated that up to 80 percent of the population born prior to 1950 is infected with this bacteria (Clinical Evidence 5, British Medical Journal Publishing Group, June 2001).
Historically, goldenseal has been one of the most widely used topical herbal antiseptics in North America, employed as an eyewash, a gargle for strep throat and a mouthwash for infected gums. Berberine-containing botanicals have also been widely employed worldwide in the treatment of infectious diarrhea (Goldenseal root: Monograph of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, 2001).
Gum resins: Myrrh and guggul
Gum resins have been used historically for a wide variety of infectious conditions. One of the earliest uses of myrrh (Commiphora molmol) gum was by Egyptians as an ingredient in embalming solutions and as a fumigant. Undoubtedly through trial and error, they observed that it could help to prevent the decaying of flesh and the spread of disease. It appears those ancient experimenters may have been onto something.
According to modern research, myrrh contains a group of compounds known as sesquiterpene lactones that exhibit strong antibacterial and antifungal activity against pathogenic strains of E. coli, a bacteria commonly responsible for food poisoning and diarrhea; Staphylococcus, associated with myriad internal and external infections; and Candida albicans, which is the microbe involved in yeast infections (Planta Medica, May 2000).
In addition to strong antimicrobial activity, it also has a local anesthetic activity, which makes it ideal as a wash for cuts, burns and other infections of the skin, as well as for the oral mucosa. Guggul (Commiphora mukul), widely known for its cholesterol-lowering activity, was similarly used as an ingredient in mouthwashes and externally for indolent ulcers. Modern research has revealed broad-spectrum antibacterial activity against Salmonella, Staphylococcus and E. coli (Fitoterapia, March 2004).
When the structure of a beehive is compromised or when an enterprising rodent attempts to help itself to the honey, after stinging the invader to death, the bees use propolis to patch the hive or to encase the carcass, which has the effect of preventing infection of the colony. Like ancient Egyptians, the bees stumbled upon a good result.
Propolis is one of the most widely researched natural antimicrobial substances. It contains a host of compounds, including flavonoids, phenols and various acids (Wei Sheng Yan Jiu, March 2000). Most of these are byproducts of the usually resinous materials, gathered from herbs and trees by the bees. Therefore, the constituent profile of propolis from different regions varies greatly.
Propolis has been shown to have broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity against numerous pathogenic microbes, including Staph, Strep, Shigella and candida, that can cause systemic or topical infections (Journal of Medicinal Food, Spring 2004). Propolis has been shown to be clinically effective in the treatment of chronic gingivitis and mouth ulcers. Also, a propolis ointment was shown to outperform the conventional antiviral acyclovir in promoting the healing of genital herpes lesions in men and women (Phytomedicine, March 2000).
Because it?s a bee product that is subject to cross-contamination with pollens, propolis may cause some allergic reactions in consumers. Those susceptible to allergies should use such products cautiously.
St. John?s wort
Most people are aware of the reported benefits of St. John?s wort (Hypericum perforatum) for the treatment of mild to moderate depression. However, one of the ancient and most persistent of its uses is as a topical ointment or oil for the treatment of cuts, burns and scrapes. For these purposes, the fresh or freshly dried flowers and buds of the plant are immersed in olive oil and allowed to sit in sunlight for two weeks, during which time the oil takes on the red coloring of St. John?s wort pigments.
Modern research has documented its wound-healing effects, which are attributed to the essential oil, a particular class of compounds known as phloroglucinols and flavonoids (St. John?s wort: Monograph of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, 1997). The oil, salves, ointments or tinctures can be applied to cuts, bruises, burns or bites. Internally, it also reduces the outbreak and severity of genital herpes, according to a paper presented at the 3rd International Congress on Phytomedicine in 2000.
There are numerous other herbal antimicrobial agents that can be used for treatment of various types of infection: cranberry for prevention and treatment of bladder infections; lemon balm ointment against oral herpes; chamomile as a topical anti-inflammatory and gargle; yarrow as an astringent and styptic. The botanical world is filled with countless herbal antibiotics that deserve a valued place in our homes? herbal medicine chests.
Roy Upton is trained in Western and traditional Chinese herbalism and has worked professionally as an herbalist for more than 22 years. He is vice president of the American Herbalists Guild, serves on the board of directors of the Botanical Medicine Academy, is the executive director and editor of the American Herbal Pharmacopoeia, and is general manager of the California-based herbal company Planetary Formulas.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 10/p. 100, 102