Natural Antibiotics from Plants and their Oils

bouquet made pf natural antibiotics herbal plants

This article is about essential oils and their potential for providing us with natural antibiotics. As the world lurches into a crisis of our own making, we are on the verge of medicine reverting to the dark ages – before antibiotics. Without these miracle drugs, even basic surgery would barely be possible and a plethora of diseases would wreak such havoc on human populations as we have not seen since the great plague of the 17th Century which may have killed as much as 60% of Europe’s population. 

We find ourselves in this position because of our insanely profligate use of antibiotics globally, which has caused the breeding of highly resistant bacterial strains. Whether or not Essential Oils can significantly add to our armory in the fight against disease and resistance remains to be seen, but this excellent article gives us some useful insights.

Essential Oils might be the New natural antibiotics

Various plant oils have been shown to effectively treat a wide range of common health issues such as nausea and migraines, and a rapidly growing body of research is finding that they are powerful enough to kill human cancer cells of the breast, colon, mouth, skin, and more.

A handful of promising, real-life studies have been conducted with humans and other animals, though most of the research in that realm thus far has been conducted in the lab.Research Service.

Drug-resistant microbes could cause more than 10 million deaths by the year 2050

As Cari Romm reported in The Atlantic, livestock consume up to 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S., and the amount actually jumped by 16 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to a recent FDA report. This rampant use of the drugs has led to “superbugs” that are becoming increasingly resistant to the antibiotics that are used to treat not just farm animals, but humans as well. In fact, almost 70 percent of the antibiotics given to these animals are classified as “medically important” for humans.

While the drugs are, of course, sometimes necessary to treat infections in livestock, the real reasons they’re overused are to speed up growth and to compensate for the cramped, unsanitary living conditions the animals endure.

Confronting the Threat of Antibiotic Resistance

What’s being done to confront this major contributor to this obvious, growing world health threat? The FDA has asked those in the agricultural industry to voluntarily reduce their use of antibiotics, but no one is keeping track of whether they do (nor has there been a record of the antibiotic use all these decades). Farmers can still say they’re using it for prevention of infections. “The lobby is so strong it’s hard to get categorical refusal to do this,” Levy says. “We really want to convince the users—the farmers—that this is a practice that should be eliminated.”

We really want to convince the farmers that this is a practice that should be eliminated

Whether farmers choose to use it or not, there is a strong alternative on the horizon. Numerous recent studies—including several done by the USDA—have shown great promise in using essential oils as an alternative to antibiotics – as natural antibiotics  –  in livestock. One of their studies, published in October 2014 in the journal Poultry Science, found that chickens who consumed feed with added oregano oil had a 59 percent lower mortality rate due to ascites, a common infection in poultry, than untreated chickens.

Other research also supports essential oils as natural antibiotics

Other research, from a 2011 issue of BMC Proceedings, showed that adding a combination of plant extracts—from oregano, cinnamon, and chili peppers—actually changed the gene expression of treated chickens, resulting in weight gain as well as protection against an injected intestinal infection.

Researchers have also directly compared the effects of commonly used antibiotics with those of various essential oils which act as natural antibiotics. One such study, from the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Animal Science, found that rosemary and oregano oils resulted in the same amount of growth in chickens as the antibiotic avilamycin, and that the oils killed bacteria, too – in fact they act as perfect natural antibiotics. Additional findings have shown that essential oils help reduce salmonella in chickens, and another study found that a blend of several oils can limit the spread of salmonella among animals.

Natural Antibiotics is an exciting new research area for essential oils

One of the co-authors of that study, Dr. Charles Hofacre, a professor at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says essential oils as natural antibiotics is such a new area of research that they don’t yet know exactly how the essential oils work, but “there is some strong evidence that they are functioning by both an antibacterial action in the intestine and also some have an effect to stimulate the intestinal cells ability to recover from disease more quickly–either by local immunity or helping keep the intestinal cells themselves healthier.”

Lavender (Florin Gorgan/Flickr) as a natural antibiotic

Of course, there is also a dire need for alternatives to antibiotics for the direct treatment of infections in humans and animals, not only for illness prevention and growth-boosting in livestock. Research investigating the use of essential oils in humans has produced encouraging results, but such studies have been small and surprisingly rare, especially given the demonstrated success of their use in livestock.

An Italian study found that a combination of thyme and clove essential oils was just as effective in treating bacterial vaginosis as the usual antibiotic treatment, and results of a study by U.S. researchers show that staph-infected wounds healed faster when they were treated with vapors of tea-tree oil than with conventional methods.

Staph-infected wounds healed faster when they were treated with vapors of tea-tree oil than with conventional methods.

In the lab, scientists have been testing all kinds of combinations of essential oils and antibiotics, and they’re repeatedly finding that the oils—used on their own and in combination with some common antibiotics—can fight numerous pathogens, including antibiotic-resistant strains of E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus (which causes staph infection), and other common types of bacteria. Results consistently show that combining essential oils and antibiotics significantly lowers the amount of antibiotic required to do the job.

For example, two recent studies showed that lavender and cinnamon essential oils killed E. coli, and when combined with the antibiotic piperacillin, the oils reversed the resistance of the E. coli bacteria to the antibiotic.

We need more research into essential oils as natural antibiotics

Further investigation is clearly needed to advance this promising area of research, but that would require time and money. “Such investment is not likely to come from the mainstream pharmaceutical industry, which has not placed much emphasis on antibiotic development for a number of reasons, including the excessive cost in bringing a single drug to market without a commensurate return,” says Dr. Nicole M. Parrish.

Dr Parish is associate professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and associate director of medical mycobacteriology at The Johns Hopkins Hospital, and she co-authored a recent review on the potential use of essential oils as alternatives or supplements to antibiotics.

Essential oils as natural antibiotics are working on the nations’ farms

On the nations’  farms, some farmers are already putting essential oils as natural antibiotics into practice. “There are a number of companies that are currently selling plant extracts as feed additive, and large integrated producers are also adding feed additives to their rations to enhance the health of animals, especially their intestinal health, during their production cycle,” Gay says.

No one seems willing to readily offer that information, though—and they don’t have to. One farmer who has talked publicly about using essential oils is Scott Sechler, owner of Bell & Evans Farms, a high-end producer of antibiotic-free poultry. Back in 2012, he told the New York Times about his use of oregano oil and cinnamon to fight infection on his farms, which now number about 140 with a total of 9 million chickens at any given time.

Cinnamon (Dennis Brekke/Flickr)

It took Sechler nearly 10 years just to get the people he works with to believe in his method, including farmers, workers at the feed mills, and his own employees, of which there are now around 1,200. He has met his share of skepticism from colleagues, too.

For someone who notes that he lacks a formal education, Sechler is at the forefront of some cutting-edge methods in the field of natural antibiotics and animal husbandry (for one, he counts Temple Grandin, the famous animal-science expert, as a friend who helped him implement a humane slaughter system).

He has been on the natural antibiotic kick for about 30 years, and he describes his current method in terms of its effects on gut bacteria—another hot topic right now. “We started with a breed of chicken that wasn’t raised to be stressed and overfed and to live in sanitary conditions,” he says.

High quality grain used with essential oils

They also feed the chickens high-quality grains enhanced with essential oils, and they avoid the use of toxic chemicals like hexane, which is commonly used by other farmers in processing their feed. “With our chicken breed, housing environment, and feeding program, we’re able to promote healthy gut bacteria—we use oregano oil to kill the bad bacteria and cinnamon oil to support the good bacteria.”

Acknowledgement and Accreditation

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