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Natural Alternatives to Antibiotics

by Suzanne Laurie(more info)

listed in infections and inflammation, originally published in issue 97 - March 2004

Antibiotics revolutionized Western medicine with doctors believing they had found a drug capable of eradicating all infectious disease. However, less than half a century on, the bubble looks set to burst on the golden era of cure-all medicine, with the disturbing news that the drugs designed to save mankind may instead spawn an epidemic that could destroy it. This is not a surprise to many alternative practitioners, who, for years have warned of the potential consequences of antibiotic overuse, but what does perplex many of us is how safe, effective and abundant natural alternatives have been disregarded and rejected for so long






The Road to Resistance

The late 1930s saw great excitement in the medical world at the introduction of the first antibiotic medication. Doctors believed these new and powerful drugs were a weapon capable of eradicating all infectious disease and turning the tide in the war against microbial infection. Who could argue with the facts, as between the early 1940s and the late 1960s deaths due to bacterial infection plummeted and life expectancy increased.[1]

So where and why did it all go wrong? Scientists are being forced to admit that they may have vastly underestimated the adaptability of many microorganisms. As early as the 1950s there was ample evidence of the emergence of resistant strains of bacteria. Within four years of penicillin being introduced onto the market, resistant infections were being reported. Despite this obvious tendency to bacterial adaptability, by the end of the 1960s development of new classes of antibiotics had ceased and most work involved slightly altering existing antibiotics to reduce toxicity and revive drugs rendered ineffective by resistance.[2] It is therefore not surprising that the 1970s saw the evolution of penicillin resistant strains of streptococcus pneumoniae (one of the most common causes of pneumonia) spread around the world. Despite clear evidence that bacteria were fighting back, little was done to explore alternative treatments and even within the field of antibiotic research it took 30 years for the development of a new class of drug effective against multi-resistant strains of bacteria.[1] The medical world breathed a collective sigh of relief. However much to their surprise, but perhaps not to sceptical alternative practitioners, some level of resistance has already emerged to this and most other synthetic antibiotics in use.

To put the scale of the problem in perspective, Staphylococcus aureus, responsible for many dangerous and deadly surgical infections is resistant to all but one pharmaceutical antibiotic and Penicillin is effective against only a minority of the strains of Staphylococcus it used to easily eradicate.[3] The overuse of antibiotics encourages bacteria to mutate at a faster rate than would be expected in the normal process of natural selection and in the past 70 years we have encouraged the survival of resilient bacteria over inferior strains.[2]

Unlike humans, with our vast complexity of interlinking systems and organs, bacteria are simple, efficient biochemical factories that produce a new generation every twenty minutes. The reason they can respond and adapt to synthetic antibiotics with such speed and ease is because most pharmaceutical preparations are made from one or two chemical constituents and are straightforward substances for bacteria to counter. Plants, on the other hand, have a much more complex chemistry. The irony is that many modern antibiotics such as penicillin, tetracycline and erythromycin were developed from natural substances, and had drug companies not tried to streamline them for economical purposes, we may not be facing the predicament we are now.

Promising Alternatives

Research into alternative means of fighting infection has always been limited. However in the 1920s scientists were beginning to realize the value of certain vitamins in fighting infections and began a period of intensive research into their uses against potentially fatal diseases such as measles, TB and sepsis. Vitamin A was at the forefront of these investigations and until the 1940s was showing great promise as an anti infective agent in numerous clinical trials.4 Also, in the late 19th century scientists discovered that nature could provide its very own cure for bacterial infection. Studies indicated that every bacteria has a compliment virus, known as a bacteriophage that infects and kills its bacterial partner. Many had been already been identified, with promising results.5 So what happened to all this work? Unfortunately these trials coincided with the dawn of antibiotics, so vitamin A and bacteriophages faded into the background of the research arena where they remained almost completely ignored until the late twentieth century.

Fortunately the last 20 years has seen a resurgence of interest in the search for alternative antimicrobials, and Russia and Eastern Europe are spearheading the return of bacteriophage trials.6 However funding and time is still being ploughed into the search for new and stronger antibiotics despite the awareness that these too will become obsolete in a short time. The last 50 years has seen the development of many scientific methods for investigating the constituents and biological activity of medicinal plants. However the majority of plant species have not been investigated chemically or biologically in any great detail and even well known medicinal plants require further clinical study. So why in the face of such an obvious health care crisis is the medical profession so opposed to research and funding for natural alternatives to prescription medication? Pharmaceutical companies fund most of the research behind synthetic drugs and they are currently making billions of pounds each year as people become more reliant on medication. Although they are acknowledging natural medicine as a promising market, just how economically viable is it to invest money into research on products they cannot patent and that could potentially damage sales of the palliative drugs they are currently marketing?

Antibiotic Misuse

Even the most vociferous alternative therapist cannot ignore the fact that, on their introduction, antibiotics greatly reduced infection related deaths.[1]

Therefore it would be unreason able to dismiss them as a medical disaster. Far from it, as with many orthodox approaches to disease management they are a valid tool in promoting health. It is simply the belief that they are the ultimate cure-all, which has led to their blatant overuse and ultimate downfall. Antibiotics are commonly prescribed for all infections affecting the ear, throat, lungs, urinary tract, skin or gums. As many as 80% of these infections are viral, and antibiotics are simply not designed to destroy viral pathogens. Any relief obtained in viral infections is from the inhibition of white blood cell activity. These cells are responsible for triggering natural responses such as inflammation, phlegm production and malaise, so by inhibiting white cell production they suppress these vital responses and lower the body's natural immunity.[7] Ultimately you are then much more likely to contract opportunistic infections, take more antibiotics, suppress the immune system further, become ill and take yet more antibiotics.

The Gut Connection

We have about 500 different species of beneficial bacteria in our small and large intestines, which do a sterling job of digesting toxins that the liver dumps in the bowel, neutralizing caustic bile and aiding in the absorption of beneficial nutrients into the small intestine for circulation round the body. Antibiotics have an indiscriminate effect and destroy a good deal of these beneficial bacteria. They change the pH, providing an alkaline environment conducive to fungal growth. Candida albicans, a virulent strain of fungus, grows rapidly in this environment and secretes chemicals, which irritate and rupture the lining of cells in the small intestine. This slowly but surely lowers the immune response in the intestinal mucosa and allows infiltration of toxins into the blood stream. This condition is known as leaky gut syndrome and is a major contributing factor in many cases of food allergy, asthma and chronic infections.[8] If presented to a doctor most of these conditions would then be treated with antibiotics and a vicious circle begins.

Natural Alternatives

Prior to the twentieth century, foods and herbs had been widely and successfully used to treat bacterial infections that are now resistant to synthetic antibiotics. Unlike antibiotics, which try to take over in the attack against invaders, natural products let the body do what it is naturally programmed to do. They overcome the problems inherent with synthetic drugs, as the synergistic effect of their many constituents helps boost the body's ability to destroy microorganisms by producing antibodies for which microbes cannot develop immunity.

Here are just a few examples of the multitude of natural antimicrobials available in the UK. They are safe, easy to use and without the nasty side effects associated with antibiotics.


Echinacea is a wild flower native to North America where the plains Indians used it to treat many conditions including snakebites, toothache, wounds, mumps and measles.

The most important immune-stimulating components of Echinacea are the large polysaccharides, such as inulin, that increase the production and migratory ability of T-cells and other natural killer cells available to attack micro organisms in the blood stream. Herbalists consider Echinacea to be one of the best available blood purifiers and antibiotics and it may offer benefit in nearly all-infective diseases. The herb's primary internal application is a supportive therapy for colds and chronic infections of the respiratory tract and lower urinary tract. It can also be applied externally to poorly healing wounds and chronic ulcerations. Studies show Echinacea prevents the formation of an enzyme, which destroys a natural barrier between healthy tissue and damaging organisms. The herb is a mild antibiotic that is effective against Staph and Strep infections.[9]

Dose: As an immune system stimulant, Echinacea is best taken for a specific period of time. At the onset of a cold, it can be taken three to four times per day for ten to fourteen days. To prevent a cold, take Echinacea tablets or capsules three times per day for six to eight weeks. A 'rest' period is recommended after this, as Echinacea's effects may diminish if used longer. If preferred, powdered Echinacea, in about 900 mg amounts, can be taken. Liquid extracts are typically taken as 3-4 ml, three times per day.
People should not take Echinacea without consulting a physician if they have an autoimmune illness, such as lupus, or other progressive diseases, such as tuberculosis or multiple sclerosis.


Propolis has been used for centuries by the Grecians who noted that honeybees used it to narrow the opening into their hives, to keep out unwelcome intruders. Propolis is made by bees from a sticky resin that seeps from the buds and bark of trees, chiefly conifers, blended with wax flakes secreted from special glands in their abdomen. It is used to line the interior of brood cells in preparation for the queen's laying of eggs, and its antiseptic properties, ensure a hospital-clean environment for the rearing of her offspring. Chemically, propolis is exceedingly complex and contains a rich variety of potent terpenes and benzoic, caffeic, cinnamic, and phenolic acids. It is also high in flavonoids, which by themselves may account for many of its attributed benefits.

Research shows that propolis offers antiseptic, antibiotic, antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties and is effective against many respiratory infections such as colds and influenza. Propolis has been shown to be effective against Staphylococcus aureus, the bacterium that causes dangerous and often deadly surgical infections and a type of pneumonia and some strains of bacteria that are now resistant to antibiotics. It works against bacteria in several ways including prevention of bacterial cell division and break down of bacterial walls and cytoplasm. Those who take propolis regularly seem to develop a natural immunity to common viruses, including the various strains of flu.[12]

Dose: The general consensus now is that an effective daily dose is around 1.5 grams of the raw propolis ie 375 milligrams of a four times concentrate. For long-term use it is recommended to experiment with the dose as we all have differing needs at different times.

Essential Oils

Essential oils have been exploited for their healing and infection fighting properties for centuries. They are an excellent way of cleaning up a germ filled atmosphere and preventing as well as treating many minor infections. Many essential oils have been found to have powerful antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and immune boosting properties and they can be used separately or blended together to make powerful fragrant remedies. Essential oils can be dispersed through a room in many ways – a drop or two can be added to the pooling wax of a burning candle (away from the flame), or dabbed on a light bulb before lighting, using a diffuser or added to a bowl of boiling water. Room sprays are also a good way of using oils; simply add the oils to distilled water and store in a dark glass container.

Oils can be used about your person in many ways including inhalation, application directly to the skin or added to your bath. They need to be used repeatedly as they do not remain in the body for long after absorption and are generally released into the urine or faeces 6-14 hrs after having been applied. They should not be used internally as many are very potent or are broken down by the digestive system into less effective compounds. Many oils are too highly concentrated to be applied directly to the skin so need to be diluted in a small amount of another, usually vegetable based, oil. As a guide – for massage usually 20-40 drops are added to 175ml of carrier oil or for partial body application approx. 1 drop of essential oil to one level teaspoon of carrier oil.[13]
It is advisable to consult an aromatherapist or other professional before using essential oil products particularly if pregnant or thinking of using the products on children. Always read the label.

Oregano Oil. Oregano oil, whose active ingredient is carvacrol has been shown to be effective against many bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic infections even at low doses and has been shown to be as effective as many popular antibiotic drugs. It has the power to completely inhibit the growth of common microbes such as Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli and is effective against bacterial strains that are resistant to antibiotics.[14] Oregano oil is from wild oregano and should not be confused with common oregano found in many kitchen cupboards.

Clove oil. European doctors once breathed through clove-filled leather beaks to ward off the plague, and modern dental preparations contain clove essential oil or its main constituent eugenol, to numb toothache and teething pain and stop infection. It has potent antibacterial, antifungal, antiseptic and antiviral properties.[15] However, clove oil can cause skin and mucous membrane irritation and dermatitis so should be used in moderation only and in low dilution (less than 1%).

Tea Tree. Tea tree is useful on a wide range of infections from colds and flu to thrush and chicken pox due to its ability to tackle bacteria, fungus, viruses and parasites whilst increasing the body’s natural immunity. It stimulates the immune system by increasing the production of white blood cells and can be applied directly to cuts, stings or rashes if in a carrier oil (1 part tea tree to 9 parts oil) or added to the bath for fungal or viral infections.[13]

Thyme. Thyme oil displays similar properties to tea tree oil but is a particularly successful antibacterial as it acts on the bacteria’s enzymes and can destroy st aphylococcus bacteria even when diluted 1000 times. It is more effective as a disinfectant than most chemical lotions.[13] Thyme essential oil can irritate the skin and mucous membrane as well as increase blood pressure so should be used in low doses. It should not be used by pregnant women or children.


Although not strictly antibiotics, as they do not directly attack pathogens, antioxidants are essential for optimal immune function and have been shown in many studies to be effective in helping to ward off infectious disease. The body makes its own antioxidants using the amino acid cysteine, minerals such as copper, manganese, selenium and zinc and the B complex vitamins. However it is also reliant on ready-made antioxidants found in food such as vitamin A, C and E, carotenoids (including beta carotene) and zinc.

Antioxidants have various roles in supporting the function of the immune system cells such as neutraphils, natural killers cells and macrophages. Without adequate antioxidant intake, these cells cannot attack and engulf microbes effectively, thereby leaving the body open to infection.16 All of the antioxidant nutrients are vital to health and can be found in a wealth of whole foods including dark green leafy vegetables, dark coloured berries, carrots and other yellow, red and orange vegetables and fruit. Most processed foods are very low in antioxidants as they are removed during manufacture.

Antioxidant supplements are readily available in health food shops and chemists, however it is advisable to seek the advice of a qualified nutritional therapist before supplementing your diet in order to get the best product for your needs.


Garlic is perhaps the most widely quoted herb in the medical and alternative healthcare literature and its medicinal uses are mentioned in the world's oldest surviving medical text, the Ebers Papyrus. Its antibiotic properties were first proven in 1858 by Louis Pasteur when he demonstrated its ability to kill bacteria in a Petri dish.

Garlic contains high levels of phosphorus, potassium, sulphur and zinc plus moderate levels of other nutrients including the B vitamins and magnesium. Allicin, a pungent volatile oil found in garlic is thought to be one of the main active ingredients.

Garlic is an excellent antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal agent. It exhibits a broad spectrum against both gram positive and gram-negative bacteria and is effective against strains that have become resistant to antibiotics.[10] Complete lack of resistance has been observed repeatedly and not only does garlic kill bacteria, it has the added bonus of protecting against toxins produced by micro organisms and increasing immunity.[11] Vapour from a freshly cut clove is reported to kill bacteria from a distance of 20 cm!
Dose: 1 clove with each meal or 400-1200 mg per day in dried powder capsule form or 2-4mls of tincture (in water). Garlic oil can be taken orally 2-5ml per day (about 40-100 drops) or as ear drops for an ear infection – 2-4 drops in each ear at night or as nasal drops for sinus infections – 2-4 drops in each nostril once or twice a day.

Case Histories

Recurrent throat infection
Sarah aged 17 presented with recurrent tonsillitis (every couple of months) lasting up to two weeks at a time throughout the year. Every time she went to the doctor she was prescribed a course of antibiotics and told to take Paracetamol and Lemsips.

At school Sarah consumed mainly processed food and fizzy drinks, but consumed vegetables with her evening meal most days. She ate very little fruit. I requested that Sarah include more fruits and vegetables in her diet, particularly dark green leafy vegetables and red, orange, purple and yellow fruits and vegetables. She was also asked to reduce her intake of sugary foods and drinks and asked to include whole grains in her diet. I gave her a good multi vitamin and mineral plus an extra antioxidant formula. Sarah was asked to use Echinacea tincture 3 times per day in a glass of water if she felt she was getting a throat infection and through the duration of the illness. Shortly after our consultation Sarah contracted tonsillitis but cleared the infection within 1 week. After 6 months Sarah had only one other sore throat, which cleared within a few days.

Bacterial infection
John was a 26 year old student who presented with an itchy rash
on his arms and legs. He had returned from a trip to India 3 months before and the rash had developed shortly afterwards. His GP diagnosed a bacterial infection, prescribed multiple courses of antibiotics and hydrocortisone cream to relieve the itching. Neither seemed to work. I gave John a high dose multivitamin and mineral plus extra antioxidants and asked him to include at least two cloves of garlic with his food everyday. I advised that he apply tea tree oil to the rash every morning and evening in a carrier oil and add a few drops to his bath. Within 3 weeks the rash had subsided considerably and was no longer so itchy. John continued to take his supplements and use the tea tree oil but only once per day. After 2 months only scarring remained and the itching had subsided completely


When to Use Antibiotics

It is important to realize that antibiotics are significant in our healing arsenal, but given their consequences they should be recognized as heavy duty and not given as the prescription of choice for minor infections. They should be used at acute settings for when a bacterial infection has entered the blood stream, the bone, the spinal cord or vital organs such as the heart or kidney and threatens the life and recovery of a patient. Otherwise, health care professionals should be utilizing the plethora of safe and effective alternatives that alternative practitioners have found invaluable for many years.


1. Verhoef J. Antibiotic Resistance: The Pandemic. Advances in Experimental Medical Biology. 531: 301-13. 2003.
2. Blazquez J. Mutation and Evolution of Antibiotic Resistance: Antibiotics as Promoters of Antibiotic Resistance. Current Drug Targets. 3 (4): 345-9. 2002.
3. Ug A and Ceylan O. Occurrence of Resistance to Antibiotics, Metals, and Plasmids in Clinical Strains of Staphylococcus spp. Archives of Medical Research. 34 (2): 130-6. 2003.
4. Semba R D. Vitamin A as "Anti-Infective" Therapy, 1920-1940. Journal of Nutrition. 129: 783-791. 1999.
5. Ho K. Bacteriophage therapy for bacterial infections. Rekindling a memory from the pre-antibiotic era. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine.<b> 44 (1): 1-16. 2001.
6. Duckworth D H and Gulig P A. Bacteriophages: Potential Treatment for Bacterial Infections. BioDrugs. 16: 57-62. 2002.
7. Colgan R and Powers J H. Appropriate antimicrobial prescribing: approaches that limit antibiotic resistance. American Family Physician. 15: 64 (6): 999-1004. 2001.
8. Chaitow L. Candida Albicans. 1998.
9. Barrett B. Medicinal Properties of Echinacea: a Critical Review. Phytomedicine. 10 (1): 66-86. 2003.
10. Sivam G P. Protection against Helicobacter pylori and Other Bacterial Infections by Garlic. Journal of Nutrition. 131: 1106S-1108S. 2001.
11. Alice D and Sivaprakasam K. Antibiotics and garlic clove extract – inhibitory agents of cell degrading enzymes. Hindustan Antibiotic Bulletin. 37 (1-4): 44-47. 1995.
12. Burdock G A. Review of the Biological Properties and Toxicity of Bee Propolis (Propolis). Food and Chemical Toxicology. 36 (4): 347-363. 1998.
13. Lis Balchin M. Aroma Science: The Chemistry and Bioactivity of Essential Oils. 1999.
14. Elgayyar M et al. Antimicrobial Activity of Essential Oils from Plants against Selected Pathogenic and Saprophytic Microorganisms. Journal of Food Prot. 64 (7): 1019-24. 2001.
15. Kalemba D and Kunicka A. Antibacterial and Antifungal Properties of Essential Oils. Current Medical Chemistry. 10 (10): 813-29. 2003.
16. Field C J, Johnson I R and Schley P D. Nutrients and their Role in Host Resistance to Infection. Journal of Leukocyte Biology. 71(1): 16-32. 2002.

Further Information

For information about products, contact the Nutri Centre on Tel: 020-7436 5122 (supplement orders & information centre); Tel: 020-7323 2382 (book orders & library services); or visit Nutri Centre on-line at


  1. Cecilia Reilly said..

    When I caught a urinary infection my doctor prescribed antibiotics which gave me thrush, of course needing another drug to clear it.

    When the same thing happened a few years late, I took propolis, cranberry and bearberry extracts, and thyme. The infection cleared faster than with the antibiotics and I have had no problem since.

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About Suzanne Laurie

Suzanne Laurie has a BSc (Hons) in Nutritional therapy from the University of Westminster. She lives in Cornwall and is Assistant Academic Manager for The Plaskett Nutritional Medicine College. Suzanne practices as a nutritional therapist. She can be contacted on Tel: 01566 777596;

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