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Back to the future: How plant medicine can save us from antibiotic resistance

Written by Sebastian Pole

We are reaching a crisis in modern healthcare, and the entire paradigm of how we manage human and animal infections is being questioned. The fear is that our saviour, the antibiotic, is now causing more harm than good. Antibiotics have undoubtedly saved millions of lives but the assumption that they are safe has led to their overuse and, as a result, increased microbial resistance.

MRSA, C. difficile and E. coli are just a few well-known examples of microbes showing antibiotic resistance. Given the levels of antibiotic use, it is perhaps no wonder that this is happening. In the USA, for example, by the time the average 18 year old leaves school he or she will have received 10–20 courses of antibiotics. Meanwhile, most intensively reared farm animals receive antibiotics when they are not even ill as a cheap form of insurance to prevent the spread of disease when stocking levels are high. Sow pigs receive as many eight courses of antibiotics in their short six-month life. In Britain 42% of all antibiotics are given to farm animals, and 80% of these are put into feed or water to treat a whole flock or herd at once. The widespread use of antibiotics in farming is a significant contributor to the problem of resistance among humans too.

The perception of antibiotics as a kind of magic bullet and their consequent proliferation is having three dramatic effects: escalating antibiotic resistance, a disturbed microbiome, and disrupted immuno-neurological-psychological systems in animals and humans. There is more and more evidence that the proliferation of antibiotic use since the 1940s is implicated in the explosion of Type 1 diabetes, allergies, respiratory disorders, psychological imbalances and inflammatory bowel diseases.

From the standpoint of evolutionary history, the whole concept of an antibiotic is an oxymoron. We cannot live in a microbe free world, nor do we want to: there is nothing living that does. The rhizosphere (the part of the soil that interacts with plant roots) has 100 billionmicrobial cells per gram root comprising more than 30,000 species. Our microbiome influences our innate immunity, our neurology and our psychology keeping us stronger, happier and wiser. We need to live symbiotically with the 100 trillion or so microbiota populating our body (made up of 10 trillion cells), so how can we preserve health in the face of infections without damaging this critical community that we depend upon?

It appears that the answer is right in front of us. For the past billion years of our multi-celled evolution we have been in a dialogue with the world around us. Our ancestors knew the benefits of the antimicrobial defence mechanisms that plants have developed through their co-evolutionary dance with the environment. Traditional health systems have identified that 50,000 of the 250,000 flowering species in the world have therapeutic properties. These plants still remain effective today. Mankind’s use of these species over millennia suggests that bacteria, fungi and viruses have less ability to develop resistance to a broad-spectrum botanical pharmacy than to a narrow pharmaceutical one as used in our modern health system. But why is this and how do the herbs work?

Plants contain hundreds to thousands of  plant chemicals that carry particular properties that have evolved to protect the static plant from ever-evolving microbial and environmental challenges. Essential oils, aromatic terpenes and colourful flavonoids optimise interaction with the environment enhancing the survival of the plant. Humans and animals have receptors and enzyme pathways that can harness these compounds for our benefit, which points to a positive path ahead for our future healthcare. This is the wonder of synergy as the multiple compounds work together at pharmacodynamic (what the drug does to the body) and pharmacokinetic (what the body does to the drug) levels. These multi-dimensional synergistic effects of plants optimise the chances of efficacy and reduce the likelihood of resistance via multiple mechanisms. So how do herbs work in the face of infection?

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