By Blair Lewis, Yoga+
Hailed as “miracle drugs” when they came into widespread use in 1941, antibiotics quickly became a panacea. Because both doctors and patients wanted quick cures, we have been throwing antibiotics at a host of ailments for the past half-century, whether they were required or not. That was a mistake.
That mistake was compounded by failing to confine the use of antibiotics to the medical community. Cattle and other livestock producers began adding antibiotics into the daily feed mix because animals on antibiotics grow faster on less feed, and because these drugs help control the bacterial infections that are the consequence of crowded feed lots. Poultry feed is laced with antibiotics and commercially raised fish get their share too. This over-consumption of antibiotics by both humans and animals gave bacteria every opportunity to develop antibiotic-resistant strains, and they did.
When bacteria are exposed to an antibiotic, many die but a few mutate, passing on their resistance to their hoards of offspring. One lone mutant bacterium can leave more than 16 million offspring in a 24-hour period, so resistance spreads like wildfire. These resistant strains can develop in animals as well as people. Resistant strains in animals are passed on to humans if the animal’s flesh is raw or undercooked. To further complicate matters, drug resistance can jump from one strain to another, as when the bacterium that causes cholera picked up a resistance to tetracycline from the E. coli bacterium, which populates the large intestines of healthy people.
Antibiotic resistance is spreading rapidly. Until recently, we were congratulating ourselves on having nearly obliterated tuberculosis in the Western world. But as resistance to antibiotics has spread in the past decade, TB has come back with a vengeance. There are only a half dozen drugs that are effective against TB, and the standard treatment requires two drugs (four if the patient’s immune system is compromised). Resistance to one of these drugs, Isoniazid, is already common. TB is only one of the better known examples — there are dozens more.
Clearly we’ve got to find an alternative to antibiotics. But where does the solution lie? And what can we do in the meantime to curb the spread of drug-resistant microbes?
A skillful homeopath, herbalist, or Ayurvedic practitioner can treat some bacterial infections with extracts of naturally occurring organic compounds. These antibacterial compounds have been recognized for centuries. In his book The Antibiotic Paradox, Stuart Levy, M.D., tells us:
Ancient writings report the application of cloths impregnated with natural substances and other forms of organic matter onto wounds in order to help them heal. We suspect that these old remedies worked because they contained microorganisms producing antibiotics or the drugs themselves. Anthropologists have unearthed traces of the antibiotic tetracycline in thousand-year-old Nubian mummies.
Learning to use these herbs and testing their effectiveness under modern laboratory conditions will greatly advance our understanding of both natural science and the nature of bacteria, a process that is already underway. For example, recent tests conducted at Viromed Labs of Minnesota demonstrated that Ayurvedic herbs stop the growth of bacteria known to cause the skin condition, acne vulgaris. The four herbs tested are used in the Bindi Problem Skin Kit developed by Pratima Raichur, N.D., a practitioner of Ayurveda for more than 20 years. According to Dr. Raichur, “It is very important for the modern world to see laboratory proof of the antibacterial properties of these ancient herbs. The herbs must be in the right combination and proportions to have therapeutic value. Furthermore, purity is important; preservatives and chemical additives can interfere with the healing properties of these herbs.”
Minimizing Antibiotic Exposure
As attractive as the idea may be, we are nowhere near the point where we can toss out antibiotics in favor of herbal remedies. But until we can, we need to minimize our exposure to antibiotics. By doing so, we will slow the spread of resistant bacteria, thus making it more likely antibiotics will be effective if we need them.
There are a number of steps we can take. One of the most far-reaching is to avoid ingesting antibiotics with our food. Flesh foods, milk, and eggs are often contaminated with antibiotic residue. True, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) permits each antibiotic only in trace amounts, but they add up. The controversial hormone rBGH is particularly hazardous in this regard because, as the FDA acknowledges, it may lead to increased amounts of pus and bacteria in the milk. In addition, cows injected with rBGH are more susceptible to disease, which increases the amount of antibiotic contamination in the milk.
We can drastically reduce our exposure to antibiotics by encouraging our local grocer to stock milk, eggs, and flesh foods (if you eat them) that are grown in an antibiotic-free environment. It’ a good idea to avoid genetically altered produce too, as some genetic modifications introduce antibiotic-resistant genes into the vegetable or fruit.
Staying healthy is another obvious way to reduce antibiotic exposure. Plenty of exercise, a moderate amount of nutritious food, and regular, restful sleep will go a long way to keeping us healthy. So will reducing how much we permit ourselves to hurry and worry. Hurried people insist on antibiotics when they become ill because they aren’t willing to give nature time to take its course. This is where yoga comes in: hurriedness dissolves as we let go of the belief in our own importance and incorporate asana, breathing practices, and relaxation exercise into our daily schedules. If we train our minds to stop focusing on unpleasant situations, our stress levels will drop and we’ll be less susceptible to illness.
When we do become ill, we can check nature’s pharmacy before seeking an antibiotic prescription. The body will heal itself naturally of many simple ailments and infections or will do so with a little assistance from the garden or a homeopathic remedy kit.
Take sinusitis, for example. This viral or bacterial infection of the sinuses can often be treated with simple home measures. Nasal stuffiness is a sign of dehydration, so before reaching for your decongestant, try drinking some warm lemon water, with a pinch of salt and a teaspoon of honey mixed in. Many people experience a loosening of the mucus 10 or 15 minutes after drinking two or three cups and ward off a deeper infection.
If a deeper infection has already developed in the sinuses, a more aggressive treatment is to take echinacea (the purple coneflower) and hydrastis (goldenseal) in tincture or capsule form three times daily. There are also numerous homeopathic remedies for this condition. If all else fails, you may need to resort to antibiotics.
If a physician or other health practitioner recommends antibiotics, you may want to ask some questions. Is the physician treating you for a specific bacterial infection or is she or he prescribing a broad-spectrum antibiotic without knowing exactly which bacteria are present? Would a less powerful antibiotic do? What are the consequences of letting the infection run its course rather than zapping it with an antibiotic?
Antibiotics may be the best treatment for a given condition, but it doesn’t hurt to know for sure. As patients, we share the responsibility for giving bacteria the opportunity to outsmart antibiotics and we share the responsibility for minimizing the misery and loss of life that have resulted as more and more infections are no longer amenable to miracle drugs. As Peace Corps recruiters used to tell us, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Blair Lewis is the author of The Happiness Revolution and has over 26 years of homeopathic experience.
The Antibiotic Paradox: How Miracle Drugs Are Destroying the Miracle. Stuart Levy, M.D., Plenum Press (p. 4), 1992.
Natural Alternatives to Over the Counter and Prescription Drugs. Michael Murray, N.D., William Morrow & Co., 1994.