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Herbal Medicine, Antibiotics and the Immune System

by Neil Clegg(more info)

listed in herbal medicine, originally published in issue 23 - November 1997

Since the discovery of Penicillin antibiotics have come a long way. Ironically today Penicillin is rarely used as bacteria have become resistant. As each new family of antibiotics is developed, the bacteria they were developed to destroy become resistant.

Phytotherapy is the prescription and dispensing of medicines derived from plants, by qualified practitioners, who after taking account of the individual needs of each patient, can meet current expectations for the safe and effective provision of these medicines by a high level of continuing training in the medical and botanical disciplines, and by carrying out their practice to rigorous professional standards.
– College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy, 1997

There were several alarming reports last year that hospitals throughout the United Kingdom were faced with patients failing to respond to antibiotics. The search is now on for a more lethal antibiotic. If not discovered soon patients will die from bacterial infections that would have been treated with antibiotics.

What is happening? Firstly bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics as a result of the over prescribing of antibiotics. Secondly patients' own immune systems have become compromised as a result of overuse of antibiotics. On one hand bacteria are becoming stronger and more resistant and on the other our immune systems are less robust.

Echinacea growing

The type of patient attending The London Clinic of Phytotherapy has changed in the last five or so years. In the earlier days patients tended to present with long standing chronic illnesses like arthritis and skin complaints. They tended to seek our treatment as a last resort having spent years battling with the NHS for a cure for their complaint. They would have also been to other complementary therapists, and without any apparent success would finally present to us. Treating a patient who has suffered with the same complaint for 10-15 years is always a challenge and although we would endeavour to return them to a state of optimal health, sometimes a compromise has to be made. After three to six months of treatment they are substantially better off and enjoying an improved quality of life. Our objective is to see patients living a drug free life and more often than not we meet our objective.

Today we see a far more varied patient base. We are now in the privileged position of seeing patients presenting with acute rather than chronic conditions. Our success rate with these patients is even higher than the rate achieved with chronically ill patients. The type of conditions we see today is not dissimilar to the type of patients a GP sees, ranging from sore throats, insomnia, menstrual problems, cystitis, migraine, tension and anxiety, acne, eczema, psoriasis, hay fever, asthma, chest infections, high blood pressure, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, constipation, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. The new patient base closely resembles the patients walking into an average GP surgery.

The Antibiotic Problem

In amongst this new client base is a new sort of patient. This patient has suffered a long string of infections. He or she has been treated with antibiotics repeatedly. Despite the extensive antibiotic regimes the patient continues to suffer chronic persistent infections. In some cases the original infection was never cleared. The antibiotics did not work. Other patients suffer from poor immune function that has left them more vulnerable to infection. This generally means a patient that comes to us after multiple doses of antibiotics, and still suffering from the original infection.

Since the discovery of Penicillin antibiotics have come a long way. Penicillin without doubt has saved countless lives. Its use in life threatening conditions undoubtedly changed the course of medicine as we know it today. Ironically today Penicillin is rarely used as its effect against bacteria is now limited. Bacteria have become resistant to Penicillin's killing power, what are known as 'Penicillin resistant bacteria'. The Pharmaceutical companies have had to come up with new and more powerful antibiotics. The search is still on. As each new family of antibiotics is developed, the bacteria they were developed to destroy become resistant. Formerly one of the strongest antibiotics, Vancomycin, reserved usually as a last resort, is now proving to be ineffective against some of the more common bacterium. There were several alarming reports last year that hospitals throughout the United Kingdom were faced with patients failing to respond to antibiotic treatment. The search is now on for a more lethal antibiotic. If not discovered soon patients will die from bacterial infections that say ten years ago would have been treated successfully with antibiotics.

What is happening? Firstly bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics as a result of the over prescribing of antibiotics, and prescribing antibiotics when not indicated, that is in viral and fungal infections. Secondly patient's own immune systems have become compromised as a result of overuse of antibiotics. On one hand bacteria are becoming stronger and more resistant and on the other our immune systems are less robust.

When an antibiotic is introduced at the early stages, conflicting messages are sent to the immune system, basically telling it to recall its troops as we can do a better job, and quicker too! Or can it? If this complicated sequence of events is interrupted the immune response is half hearted and the body fails to build up the memory cells that in future will seek out and destroy the same bacteria more rapidly. So without this inbuilt memory the patient is exposed to repeated infection, and this is what we are seeing in practice today. The other complication is that antibiotics do not always work the first time. Further prescriptions are required. Between prescriptions the bacteria regroup, multiply rapidly and also change their clothes to evade the antibiotics. This is the beginning of the scenario were the bacteria are becoming resistant to treatment. It may take up to five courses of antibiotics over a three week period to finally knock out the bacteria. This is a major problem.

When the body is confronted by a foreign intruder, for example a bacterium, either through the skin, lungs or stomach, a complex multilevel system of detection and destruction is stimulated. The immune system sends out its troops to destroy the intruder, this is taking place constantly usually unbeknown to the host. The outcome without intervention is usually successful.

Most antibiotics were developed to fight a specific bacterium. When isolated and placed in an incubator the physician is given the specific information to tell him which antibiotic to use. In general practice this process seems to be bypassed. Either due to lack of time or lack of funds, swabs are often not taken so the GP is faced with a difficult decision as to which antibiotic to use. So when in doubt they use what is known as a 'broad-spectrum antibiotic'. By definition they are active against not one bacteria but many. This includes your bodies own healthy bacteria, what we refer to as friendly bacteria or Beneficial Intestinal Flora. Likewise the skin, scalp, mouth, throat and vagina have similar beneficial bacteria. They are there to protect against opportunist infection, maintain healthy tissue and in the case of the gut to manufacture certain vitamins. They also assist in the breakdown of waste products produced by the body.

Why then do GPs use antibiotics all too frequently? Partly the patient is expecting some form of medication. It is simple to prescribe an antibiotic and will usually satisfy the patients request. But what if they have a viral infection and not a bacterial one? Well, it does not take a genius to work out that antibiotics are useless against viruses. So why does the patient appear to recover? Simply they would have got better regardless of the treatment. The immune system has done its job, most viruses run their course and after five to seven days the crisis is over. The antibiotic has allayed the patients' fear but what is the long term consequence of unnecessary medication? We do not exactly know, but it seems that the effect on the immune system can be catastrophic for the future.

When a broad spectrum antibiotic, in fact any antibiotic, is introduced into the body, some of these beneficial bacteria are wiped out. The familiar complaint of diarrhoea is a common example of this disturbance. Vaginal thrush is another, and all too familiar side effect. To restore this fine balance can take months. So not only do you see a patient with the original infection, but various other opportunist ones too. These are often worse and more distressing to the patient than say the original sore throat. Some other side effects from antibiotics include; nausea and vomiting, urticaria, fever, joint pains, anaphylactic shock, pseudomembranous colitis, sleep disturbance, confusion, irreversible aplastic anaemia and renal impairment. That's quite an alarming list considering how may thousands of patients are prescribed antibiotics each day.

The Phytotherapists' Solution

So how can the phytotherapist help? The answer is in many ways. Firstly when a patient presents with the first signs of infection we encourage bed rest, hot lemon drinks, plenty of fresh fruit and raw garlic. It sounds too simple to be effective. But the problem today is that no one wants to stay at home, or cannot take time off work, therefore not giving the body any chance to help itself. The patient is constantly exposed to advertisements showing busy people back at work with the help of an array of day medicines, night medicines, decongestants, anaesthetics for the sore throat, painkillers for the pain and so on. Together they induce a feeling of well being and encourage the patient to work and play just as hard. This it what we feel partly prolongs the infection. They just do not give themselves a chance to recover.


In addition to advising the patient to rest, we would use various herbs like Echinacea pupurea (Coneflower), Calendula officinalis (Marigold), Thymus vulgaris (Common Thyme) and Inula helenium (Elecampane) to counteract the intruder and to support the body's own immune system to detect and destroy without intervening in this multilevel response. The patient may not necessary get better immediately but they are usually guaranteed a successful outcome without repeated infections and certainly free from any unwanted side effects like thrush or diarrhoea. Not only that but nothing we give will have compromised their immune system for the future. In fact it is likely to be in a stronger state than before.

Fears of 'flesh eating bugs' and meningitis do not help patients to 'sweat' it out, especially in children with over-anxious parents. The very first hint of a fever or a runny nose, and it's straight down to the doctor for an antibiotic. We have to reeducate both doctors and patients. More time should be spent on isolating the type of infection first. If it is a virus then do not give an antibiotic. If it is a bacterial infection then first isolate it and if it is not likely to be life threatening then let the body's own immune system deal with it. That is what it is there for after all. If in doubt then keep a close eye on the patient and carefully monitor them. I would estimate that over 90% of patients with common day to day complaints would get better without any form of treatment if given the chance to rest.

In summary, the medical profession is faced with the very real possibility of having to treat patients that fail to respond to antibiotic treatment. Current reports actually show this to be happening in our hospitals today. GP's are beginning to accept that antibiotics are overused but are not admitting any long term damage. The pharmaceutical companies are eager to discover new antibiotics, which in my opinion will escalate the problem even further. We should be thinking very carefully about the reasons for treating a patient with antibiotics and consider what alternative treatments are available and use them instead. The phytotherapist today is more than adequately equipped with herbs that are not only specific in fighting bacterial, fungal and viral infections, but can also work on supporting the patients' own immune system to prevent further problems. In addition to this the patient is now calling the shots. They come to us fed up with the way they have been treated by their GP and are sick to death of taking endless prescriptions and still not feeling any better as a result. They turn to us for help. They want to know why is this happening to them? How can I stop it from happening again? What should I be doing to help myself? We have the answers and the time to explain them. That alone can make an enormous difference for the patient. We also have the solutions. Safe, natural herbs that used correctly are so effective.

The Training Clinic

The London Clinic of Phytotherapy was established 14 years ago by The School of Phytotherapy as the main training facility for both full time and correspondence students. It is the first and oldest Clinic of its type in England. Since its opening in 1983, in excess of 2000 patients have visited the Clinic. There is a similar Clinic in Leeds and one at the School in East Sussex. As the Clinic is a training facility for students, patients are offered treatment, under the supervision of qualified practitioners of phytotherapy, at specially reduced fees.

Further Information

For further information contact Neil Clegg: The London Clinic of Phytotherapy, Gemini House, 180-182 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ. Tel: 0171 378 8888 Fax: 0171 378 1666.


  1. Brian Woodman said..

    Dear Dr Clegg,
    I write seeking your professional expertise concerning my son, Alexander, 22 years old. Over the last year or so he has had some very strange symptoms which could point to Lyme bacteria, Bartonella or some other form of bacteria infection. His symptoms include anxiety attacks, cardio irregularities, neck and back stiffness, soreness in his shins, buzzing in the ears and dizziness. He is currently seeing his GP but all tests so far are negative and indicate he is in good health and very fit. Which is not the case since his symptoms are slowly getting worse. Alexander eats a very healthy diet, largely organic vegetables and meats. He avoids process foods, sugar, gluten and lactose. Alexander is currently studying human biology at South Bank Uni. He is reluctant to take any pharma antibiotics that his GP may prescribe, and instead would prefer going down a natural herbal pathway. Would it be possible for Alexander to make an appointment with yourself or a colleague at LCP?
    Thank you in advance,
    Brian Woodman

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About Neil Clegg

Neil Clegg MCPP is a fully qualified Phytotherapist. Since returning to England after training as a Naturopath in Australia in 1984, he studied Herbal Medicine at the School of Phytotherapy qualifying in 1987. Since then he has worked both as a private practitioner and as a clinical supervisor for the School. He is the practice manager and clinical supervisor of The London Clinic of Phytotherapy and Treasurer of The College of Practitioners of Phytotherapy. He can be contacted at the Clinic on 0171-378 8888.

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