If you’ve reached the point where you don’t pay attention to anything that might disturb your orthodoxy, you’re not doing science, you’re not even pursuing a discipline. All you’re doing is perpetuating a smug, closed-minded sect. – Paul Krugman
The Evolution of Antibiotics
We perhaps are at the point in time when certain established beliefs and methods need a hard look, especially the role of the widely-accepted “antibiotics”. It would be informative and important to look a bit into the history of antibiotics before we proceed any further.
In the late 1940s, the discovery of streptomycin and tetracycline created a major shift in the way modern medicine had been treating bacterial infections and diseases. Their success was so huge that in a very short period of time, they had become primary line of treatment across the globe, and created a notion that bacterial infections were basically conquered. This led to widespread misuse and outright abuse of antibacterial agents.
Challenges of Anti-Drug Resistant Bacteria
Nonetheless, we still neither fully understand nor appreciate resistance to antibacterial agents. Many important advances in the practice of medicine are actually at serious risk. Multi-drug resistant bacteria are compromising our ability to perform what is now considered routine surgical procedures. A ubiquitous phrase encountered in obituaries is “died from complications following surgery,” but what we have failed to realize is that these “complications” are quite frequently multi-drug resistant infections.
As Dr. Stephen Buhner puts it, “we are running out of weapons in the war on germs. Since germs can go through a generation in 20 minutes or so instead of the 20 years or so that it takes us humans to reproduce ourselves, it is no small wonder that the germs are evolving resistance to our chemical weapons as rapidly as we develop them.”
Can We Outsmart these Lethal Microorganisms?
Despite being smaller than one-millionth of a meter, microbes comprise about 60% of the mass of living elements on earth. Bacteria are the oldest forms of life on this planet and they have evolved extremely well to respond to threats to their survival. Most of those threats are the thousands of antibacterial substances in nature, both natural and artificial, that have existed since the very beginning.
One of the crucial learnings that the early researchers heavily ignored is that the world is already abundant in antibacterial substances, most produced by other bacteria, as well as various forms of fungi and several varieties of plants. Bacteria, in order to survive, started to learn how to respond to those substances, a very long time ago.
Evolutionary biologists had insisted that evolution in bacteria (as in all species) could come only from spontaneous, usable mutations that occur with an extremely low frequency (from one out of every 10 million to one out of every 10 billion mutations) in each generation. That bacteria could generate significant resistance to antibiotics in only 35 years was considered impossible. That the human species could be facing the end of antibiotics only 60 years after their introduction was a ludicrous thought. But in fact, bacteria are showing extremely sophisticated responses to the human “war” on the disease.
Complex Compounds in Natural Herbs
Now looking at the rate of adaptation and mutability of bacteria, it is inevitable that they will form resistance to most forms of simplistic human-made antibiotic compounds. And when everything fails we will fall back to the old biblical medicinal herbs such as Ginger, Garlic, Black Pepper, Ashwagandha, etc. These herbs not only contain dozens of mild antibiotic compounds, they are also widely available in abundance.
It is easy for a rapidly reproducing bug or bacterial species to outwit (out-evolve) a single compound by learning to break it down or even to use it in its own metabolism, but not so easy for it to outwit the complex compounds found in herbs. Scientists are now slowly recognizing this crucial fact and developing more complex compounds such as the AIDS cocktail and multiple chemotherapies for cancer and other diseases. These scientists are now also resorting to synergies of three or four compounds in their pharmaceutical formulas, something which has been a unique natural feature of most plants and herbs.
It is certainly easier to demonstrate how these two compounds can work synergistically than it is to figure out the same in 200 or 2,000 different compounds (and more, as are present in all herbs). Nature favors synergies and interplay among beneficial, plant-protective compounds within a plant species (with so many anti-bacterial, anti-feedant, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and insecticidal properties) and selects against antagonisms.
When we borrow the complex inter-woven antibiotic compounds from herbs and plants, we do better to borrow them all together as a complex compound and not just the single most powerful element among them. We lose this synergy when we take out the solitary compound. But most important, we facilitate the enemy, the germ, in its ability to outsmart the mono-chemical, relatively simpler medicine. The polychemical synergistic mix, concentrating the powers already evolved in medicinal plants, may be our best hope for confronting drug-resistant bacteria.
Are Herbs Potential Saviours?
According to Stephen Buhner, Plants have long been, and still are, humanity’s primary medicines. They possess certain attributes that pharmaceuticals never will:
- Their chemistry is extremely complex, way too much for resistance to occur—instead of a single chemical, a silver bullet, plants often contain hundreds to thousands of compounds;
- They have developed sophisticated responses to bacterial invasion over zillions of years—the complex chemicals and compounds within plants work in complex synergy with each other and are designed to deactivate and destroy invasions from pathogens through multiple mechanisms.
- They are free and in abundance; ancient sciences like Ayurveda and Chinese medicine already recognize and utilize this wisdom. Even if you buy or grow them yourself in your backyard, they are remarkably inexpensive;
- Anyone can use them for healing – infact animals already do.
- They are very safe— properly used herbal medicines cause very few side effects of any sort in the people who use them, especially when compared to the millions who are harmed every year by pharmaceuticals (adverse drug reactions are the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association.)
- They are ecologically sound. Plant medicines are a naturally renewable resource, and they don’t cause the severe kinds of environmental pollution that pharmaceuticals do—one of the factors that leads to resistance in microorganisms and severe diseases in people.
Plants are and have been mankind’s medicine and have been with us since we emerged out of the ecological matrix of this planet. Throughout ages, they always devoted their healing powers to those in need, at least to those who appreciate and adopt them. And make no mistake: we are going to need them ever so more.
If this article evoked some connectivity and curiosity in you, then I seriously recommend this treasure trove of a book “Herbal Antibiotics” by Stephen Harrod Buhner. He not only delves into what makes plants such a great choice for fighting bacterial invasions, but also describes methods of creating plant based compounds for certain common infections. A great read!!