A clue: it’s not the antibacterial dishwashing soap
A few years ago researchers from the Human Microbiome Project suggested that our bodies may play host to around 10,000 different species of bacteria.
Most are harmless, and in fact many play an important role in keeping us healthy.
Three cheers for that.
However, not all of our bugs are good guys.
Pathogenic bacteria can be behind a host of health conditions, some of an undeniably serious nature.
Of course, when this happens, healthcare professionals swing into action, often prescribing antibiotics.
But we’re fast learning that overprescription of antibiotic medication isn’t a great thing.
Not only can it sometimes act in a “scorched earth” kind of way, destroying our body’s good bacteria alongside its bad, but we can also develop a resistance to antibiotics.
It seems the more we take, the less effective they become.
Antibiotics have been around and in broad use since the 1950s.
But what happened to people who got bacterial infections before this?
Let’s look at that in a minute, after a quick diversion to investigate the difference between the terms “antibiotic,” “antimicrobial,” and “antibacterial.”
In the kitchen a hour or so ago, I noticed the label on the dishwashing soap proclaimed it to be “antibacterial.”
Now I suspect that chugging a mouthful of it wouldn’t have much medicinal value.
What are the definitions, then?
Well, antibiotics are substances produced by one microorganism that inhibit or kill other microorganisms.
So, for example, penicillin is an antibiotic originally derived from a fungus, which can be used to kill bacteria.
Antimicrobials perform the same function as antibiotics – they kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms – but they can either be naturally-occurring or synthetic.
All antibiotics are antimicrobials, therefore, but not all antimicrobials are antibiotics.
Then, when we drill down within the term antimicrobial, bacteria are just one type of microbe, so the description applies to antibacterials, antivirals, antifungals, and anti-protozoals.
What, then, happened when someone got hit with a bacterial infection before there were antibiotics?
Well, although there were undoubtedly many deaths which might have been avoidable today, there’s a long history of various substances being used for their antibacterial qualities.
With our current anxiety about the overuse of antibiotics, we could do a lot worse than remind ourselves of the healing power of naturally-occurring antimicrobials, many based on plants.
The use of these kinds of derivatives stopped virtually overnight in the 1950s, but sixty years later, perhaps we’d do well to remind ourselves of some of them.
Consider, for example, garlic.
One of its major components is allicin, a substance with powerful antibacterial properties.
In the lab it has even been shown effective against MRSA, the pathogen often labelled a “superbug.”
A single clove of garlic contains 4000 micrograms of allicin, but its therapeutic value is destroyed when cooked in oil.
Garlic works as an antibacterial when it’s raw, or taken as a supplement in capsule form.
Herbs with the power to defeat bacteria include tarragon and thyme, which contain caffeic acid.
In fact, caffeic acid has also been shown to be effective against viruses and fungi.
St John’s wort, which has received a great deal of attention for its reputed antidepressant qualities, contains hypericin – a substance reported to have antibacterial properties.
Another interesting plant in the herb garden is Echinacea, a flowering plant of the daisy family, native to areas east of the Rocky Mountains.
Commonly known as the purple coneflower, Echinacea was used as a traditional remedy by Great Plains Native American tribes, who valued it for its antibacterial qualities.
In fact, it was listed in the US National Formulary, a kind of official pharmacists’ “bible,” from 1916 to 1950.
There’s that year again, 1950, when we turned our back on anything that wasn’t an antibiotic.
A few more naturally occurring substances that have historically been used to beat bacteria are cabbage, green tea, and honey.
Cabbage is at its most effective when it’s raw (particularly as a juice) and can become even more potent when fermented to make sauerkraut.
Oolong green tea has been shown in the laboratory to inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria such as Vibrio cholerae, Streptococcus mutans, and Shigella.
Honey has been valued for its antibacterial and curative properties for a very long time indeed.
It was also used by the Ancient Romans to treat battlefield wounds.
Most honeys have antibacterial qualities, mainly due to the production of hydrogen peroxide.
However, Manuka honey (which comes from New Zealand and Australia, generally with an eye-popping price tag) works to defeat bacteria even when hydrogen peroxide activity is blocked, and has been shown to work against Staphylococcus aureus and Helicobacter pylori in the laboratory, although there seems no conclusive evidence working in this way in the body.
There are many other naturally occurring, and often plant-derived substances that have antibacterial qualities. A good last example is the use of chewing sticks as an oral hygiene aid (in the place of toothbrushes) in some African countries.
At least one species of plant prized as a source of chewing sticks produces a chemically active component that inhibits species of bacteria known to cause periodontal infections.
For thousands of years, humankind has had some pretty good ways of battling bacteria, but to a great extent we stopped using them when we began mass-producing and mass-prescribing antibiotics.
Maybe it’s time to open the history book and build on the work of our ancestors, before antibiotics completely run out of road?