Antibiotic alternatives

Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. Here's how to fight five common bacterial infections before resorting to them, plus how to make the best of it if you must

FIVE YEARS AGO, Laura Jackson, now 51, was delivering a shipment of antibiotics to a clinic in West Africa when she developed symptoms typical of a urinary tract infection. The native New Yorker held off on taking the antibiotics she coincidentally had on hand and instead started drinking unsweetened cranberry juice. Her urinary problems disappeared soon after. "My husband says now that he thought I was crazy, but I was worried that taking antibiotics unnecessarily would compromise my immune system," Jackson recalls.

The concern Jackson had back then is even more relevant now, and the problem isn't just personal but global. The improper use of antibiotics in humans as well as the animals we eat has led to a situation in which the weakest bacteria are killed and the strongest — and most dangerous — survive and thrive, proving untouchable by even the most potent antibiotics. "Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is worse today than ever before — and it isn't slowing down," says Stuart B. Levy, M.D., president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston. In fact, the process is accelerating.

That's why it's crucial to reserve antibiotics for infections that are diagnosed as bacterial and unlikely to resolve without them, says Michael A. Schmidt, Ph.D., author of 2009's Beyond Antibiotics: Strategies for Living in a World of Emerging Infections and Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. They are ineffective against viral illnesses such as colds and the flu, and taking them for these infections contributes to the problem.

Thankfully for anyone who wishes to avoid taking antibiotics unless they're absolutely necessary, there's a window of time before being diagnosed with a bacterial illness when infections can be treated using more natural remedies for which "resistance won't emerge in any real way," says Levy. In the following pages, you'll learn what leading naturopaths, herbalists, traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) practitioners and pharmacists recommend as a first line of defense.

One caution from Donielle Wilson, N.D., president of the New York Association of Naturopathic Physicians: "If your symptoms don't start improving within 24 hours of taking supplements — or if you have a fever above 100.4° F — see your doctor to determine if you need a bacterial culture, an antibiotic-susceptibility test and/or antibiotics." That said, for any particular ailment, it's safe to try whichever and however many of the following remedies as you wish.
If it feels like> STREP THROAT

Gargle with bitter orange essential oil and salt water "Both are antibacterial and anti-Inflammatory," says Wilson. In fact, the journal Phytomedicine recently reported that bitter (aka sour or Seville) orange was one of only five that inhibited bacterial growth in a study of 172 plants. BEST BUY Dissolve 1 drop bitter orange essential oil ($6 and up; mountainroseherbs.com) and ¼ teaspoon salt in ½ cup warm water; gargle twice daily (never swallow).

Use a tincture or capsule of echinacea and goldenseal "Both herbs fully prepare the body to fight a throat infection," says Wilson. "Echinacea boosts immunity, while goldenseal has berberine, an antibacterial compound." It's so antibacterial, in fact, that it inhibits bugs from organizing into "biofilms" that can make them 1,000 times more drug-resistant, a 2008 Chinese study revealed. BEST BUY Gaia Herbs Echinacea Goldenseal Propolis Throat Spray ($13; gaiaherbs.com)

Drink anti-inflammatory tea "Slippery elm bark, licorice root and marshmallow root are all demulcents, reducing inflammation that makes it easier for bacteria to infect tissues like those in the throat," says Wilson. "That speeds up healing." BEST BUY Traditional Medicinals Organic Throat Coat ($5; traditionalmedicinals.com)

Take Sang Ju Yin Wan "This TCM formula combines antibacterial chrysanthemum flowers and apricot seeds with anti-inflammatory and antiviral herbs," says Jill Blakeway, M.Sc, L.Ac., clinic director of The YinOva Center in New York City. Studies published in The American Journal of Chinese Medicine have found that it helps boost immunity in humans. BEST BUY Plum Flower Sang Ju Yin Wan ($10; heavenearthchineseherbs.com)
If it feels like> A SINUS INFECTION

Opt for a five-herb formula The blend of gentian root, black elder and primrose flowers, common sorrel and vervain is "the best clinically tested herbal formula for sinusitis in the world," says Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council. "It's a proven antibacterial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and mucus-thinning blend." BEST BUY Sinupret+ ($18; bionoricausa.com)

Consider beta-carotene "This compound is a precursor to vitamin A, which helps heal mucous membranes that get infected in sinusitis," says Jennifer Crain, M.S.O.M., LAc, a licensed herbalist in Austin, Texas. It's safer to take beta-carotene than pure vitamin A. BEST BUY Vitamin Shoppe Beta-Carotene ($3 and up; vitaminshoppe.com)

Clear sinuses with grape-seed extract A recent study confirmed its effectiveness against 10 strains of bacteria. "It also regulates sinus inflammation by reducing the body's production of histamine [a compound that causes allergy symptoms]," Crain says. BEST BUY Nature's Plus Herbal Actives Grape Seed Liquid Suspension extract ($16; naturesplus.com). Mix one dropper full (20 drops) in water, juice or tea daily.

Take N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) "This amino acid activates white blood cells in the respiratory tract; increases antioxidant activity there; and helps thin and drain mucus," says Steven Sandberg-Lewis, N.D., a professor at the National College of Natural Medicine (NCNM) in Portland, Ore. BEST BUY GNC NAC 600 ($14; gnc.com)
If it feels like> A URINARY TRACT INFECTION

Try nettle leaf tincture "Nettle is an excellent remedy for UTIs," says Crain. "Its leaves act like a diuretic, so they help to flush bacteria out of the bladder and keep them from rising to the kidneys." Furthermore, "nettle's chlorophyll decreases inflammation in the urinary tract." BEST BUY Wise Woman Herbals Urtica spp. [Aerial] (Stinging Nettle) Liquid Extract ($11 and up; wisewomanherbals.net)

Drink unsweetened cranberry or blueberry juice "Research shows that drinking 32 ounces of cranberry juice daily can treat UTIs," says Blumenthal. "Its anthocyanidins help prevent E. coli [the bacteria responsible for most UTIs] from adhering to the urinary tract." The anthocyanidins in blueberries are similarly antibacterial, he adds. BEST BUY R.W. Knudsen Family Just Cranberry or Just Blueberry ($7; knudsenjuices.com)

Take uva ursi "This herb can be used to disinfect UTIs," says Blumenthal, since active compounds like arbutin keep bacteria — 74 strains to be exact — from replicating. In a Swedish study, women who took uva ursi for one month never got another UTI that year, while 1 in 5 placebo-poppers did. BEST BUY Nature's Way Uva Ursi Standardized Extract ($14; naturesway.com). Take two capsules two times daily.

Brew plantain seed tea "This TCM remedy dries, cools and reduces inflammation specifically in the bladder, so it's harder for bacteria to thrive there," says Crain. "It also contains acubin, a compound that's been shown to kill E. coli." Like nettle, plantain seeds are a diuretic, helping to prevent a UTI from escalating into a kidney or blood infection. BEST BUY Boil one cup of water, remove from heat, then steep 1 to 2 teaspoons plantain seeds ($3; mountainroseherbs.com) for 15 to 20 minutes; drink frequently.
If it feels like> AN EAR INFECTION

Use mullein and garlic eardrops "Mullein flower is anti-inflammatory and garlic is antibacterial," says Wilson. Drop garlic in the ear, as it's sensitive to stomach acid. BEST BUY Herb Pharm Mullein/ Garlic Compound (Ear Drops) ($12; herb-pharm.com)

Take quercetin "Like vitamin C, quercetin relieves the histamine-induced swelling that jams fluid [a breeding ground for bacteria] in the ears, but unlike C, higher doses of quercetin won't cause loose stool," Wilson says. BEST BUY Natrol Quercetin ($10; natrol.com)

Chew xylitol gum "This sugar alcohol is antibacterial specifically against the pathogens that cause ear infections," says Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D., author of 2009's Prescription Alternatives. BEST BUY Spry Green Tea Gum ($9; xlear.com) or Jarrow Formulas XyliPure Xylitol powder ($10 and up; jarrow.com).

Pop a protease "Taken on an empty stomach, the same enzymes that digest protein can break down mucus and slow its production, helping clear the ears of bacteria," says Crain. Bromelain, in particular, has promising antibacterial and antiviral properties. BEST BUY Enzymedica Repair Gold ($50; enzymedica.com)
If it feels like> BRONCHITIS

Take thyme tablets Taken orally, thyme travels to the airways, where the compound thymol disinfects bacteria on contact. BEST BUY Bronchipret ($17; bionoricausa.com)

Drink black elder tea "An extract of the black elder herb is primarily antiviral, but it's also been shown to inhibit bacterial growth," says Paul Kalnins, N.D., LAc., an assistant professor at NCNM. BEST BUY Boil one cup of water, remove from heat, then steep 1 teaspoon elder flowers and ½ teaspoon elder berries ($3.50 and up; mountainroseherbs.com) for 10 minutes; add ½ teaspoon honey; drink 2 to 3 cups daily.

Swallow umckaloabo syrup Four placebo-controlled clinical trials showed that umckaloabo (a South African herb) successfully treats bronchitis; in one trial, the herb upped the odds of complete recovery by seven times. BEST BUY Nature's Way Umcka ColdCare Cherry Syrup ($15 and up; naturesway.com)

Try elecampane tincture "This herb is commonly used to treat acute bronchitis, especially when one is coughing up large amounts of yellow-green phlegm, although this symptom should always be promptly investigated to determine if antibiotics are necessary," Kalnins says. Research confirms that elecampane root is significantly antibacterial. BEST BUY Herb Pharm Elecampane ($12 and up; herb-pharm.com)
When you most take antibiotics

Down them with green tea It can make antibiotics work nearly 100 percent better and even weakens drug-resistant bacteria.

Make your multivitamin iron-free (unless blood tests reveal you're iron-deficient). "Iron actually feeds bad bacteria," says Michael A. Schmidt, Ph.D.

Take a break from tonics "Tonifying herbs like ginseng strengthen immunity but also strengthen pathogens once they've taken hold," says Jill Blakeway, M.Sc, L.Ac. Restart them after two symptom-free days.

Avoid antacids "They neutralize the very acid that helps your blood absorb antibiotics, making them up to 90 percent less effective," says Earl Mindell, R.Ph., Ph.D.

Pick the perfect probiotic Unlike yogurt, probiotics replenish your gut's "good" bacteria (which antibiotics destroy) without the immune-suppressing burden of sugar, says Ashley Koff, R.D. To help prevent diarrhea and yeast infections, get 5 billion CFUs daily — at least two hours before or after taking antibiotics and for at least two months when your dose is finished.
3 ways to reduce antibiotic resistance

Medicine and microbiology professor Stuart B. Levy, M.D., of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics in Boston, follows these superbug-stifling strategies daily — and recommends that we do the same.

1. Eat organic foods to keep antibacterial pesticides and antibiotic-pumped animal products off your plate.
2. Avoid triclosan, an ingredient in most antibacterial personal-care products; studies have shown that bacteria develop resistance to it.
3. Never stockpile antibiotics — no matter how tempting ads for free ones may be — and always finish the full course of your prescription, even if your symptoms subside. If you must throw out old drugs, learn how to do it without harming the environment at smarxtdisposal.net.

PHOTO (COLOR): Blueberry juice is effective against the bacteria responsible for urinary tract infections.

PHOTO (COLOR): Bitter orange, garlic and chrysanthemum flowers are all anti bacterial.

PHOTO (COLOR): Tea that contains licorice root will help speed healing if you have strep throat.

PHOTO (COLOR): Taking antibiotics with green tea can make the drugs nearly twice as effective.

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By Daniel Mazori

Daniel Mazori is now applying to medical school after interviewing doctors for more than a year as a Natural Health editor.

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