Is There Really Such A Thing As An All-Natural Antibiotic?
Natural antibiotics are a term we hear a lot in integrative and functional medicine community, but it's difficult to understand exactly what they really are. Are they a replacement for your Z-Pack? Something you can use in conjunction with other conventional treatments? For which types of conditions do they work best? Understandable, there are a lot of questions to be answered.
As integrative and functional medicine gain popularity, and as we learn more about the downside of traditional antibiotics—like overprescription and the rise of antibiotic resistance—patients are asking more and more about natural antibiotic therapy, so let's dive in.
What is an all natural antibiotic?
So what does the term "all-natural antibiotic" really mean? Well, it's used to describe plants, herbs, supplements, or other natural substances that display very strong antimicrobial properties (meaning they can help fight viral, bacterial, fungal, or parasitic infections) and functional and integrative medicine experts often recommend them for infections like mild UTI's , travelers diarrhea, candida infection in the gut, or to use right at the first sign of a cough, sore throat, or cold.
It's important to know that these natural antibiotics have limitations and aren't always the right solution. As with any infection, it's highly important to talk to your physician and never self-diagnose and treat yourself. Sometimes, you can actually make your symptoms worse or end up in the emergency room, causing more harm than good.
What are the best all natural antibiotics?
It's important to remember that working with a doctor and following their guidelines—or the instructions on the supplement label— to determine the right dose and delivery method is key. Each infection and body is different, and even though these are natural treatments, they can still be strong have side effects that you should be aware of. That being said, they can be very affective at helping my patients get healthy, all while avoiding the negative side effects of conventional antibiotics. Here are the top five natural antimicrobial agents I recommend to my patients:
1. Oregano oil.
Oregano oil is one my favorite go-to natural antibiotics, especially when dealing with bacterial, parasitic, and fungal overgrowth in the gut—especially candida overgrowth. Research has shown that it targets1 both gram-negative and gram-positive bacteria, which makes it a well-rounded broad-spectrum antibiotic to start with for a wide variety of infections. I also suggest it to patients with upper respiratory infections and colds because it has the ability to fight2 viruses, inflammation, and allergies as well. It’s my go-to supplement during the winter season to fight all those pesky seasonal infections.
How to use oregano oil: As oregano oil can have a really pungent flavor, I usually recommend oil capsules over the tincture or drops since its easily tolerated by many patients.
Many people are aware of garlic’s positive impact3 on heart disease, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels, but not many people are aware of its antibacterial properties4. Allicin, a compound found in garlic, has profound antimicrobial5 properties, and it's a wonderful first-line broad-spectrum natural antibiotic agent as well. It has been used in traditional Chinese and ayurvedic medicine for its healing properties for centuries and I tell my patients to increase their intake of garlic at the first sign of illness.
How to use garlic: Unfortunately, to achieve results, you have to eat a lot of garlic, and you have to eat it raw (cooking it deactivates many of the antimicrobial properties), which is too pungent for a lot of people. But if they can handle it, my patients take it when they have cold symptoms and notice a dramatic difference. You can also find allicin in high-potency, concentrated garlic capsules, which will also do the trick!
Uva-ursi, also known as bear’s grape or Arctostaphylos, is traditionally used to treat6 urinary tract infections. In fact, it is very similar to the antibiotics that treat urinary infections, specifically drugs in the quinolones family like ciprofloxacin. Uva-ursi has this bioactive metabolite that is eliminated in the urine that prevents bacteria from sticking to the cell wall in the bladder, which makes it an effective7 urinary tract infection treatment. Of course, if you’re allergic to quinolones, chances are uva-ursi may not be a good option for you.
How to use uva-ursi: First, always talk to your doctor before you start taking this on your own because urinary tract infections can turn bad very quickly! You can find uva-ursi as crushed leaves, as a powder, and even in capsules (these seems to be the easiest for patients to take) that you can start at the first sign of urinary discomfort.
This is another natural8 antibiotic8 I recommend a lot to my patients with GI issues who have bacterial, candida, or parasite overgrowth. It helps them tremendously due to its strong antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. It’s great for travelers’ diarrhea and acute food poisoning, too. It is not recommended for moms to-be or lactating moms because it has the potential to be harmful to the baby.
How to use berberine: I usually recommend berberine in simple capsule form for my patients to bring with them on trips or for patients who are doing a full gut healing protocol, which includes eliminating harmful bacteria, fungi, and parasites, while reenoculating the gut with beneficial probiotic bacteria.
5. Colloidal silver:
Colloidal silver (essentially, colloidal silver is silver particles suspended in water) is frequently used in the integrative medicine world when warding off bacterial infections. Historically, silver has been used as a broad-spectrum antibiotic9, and although studies have shown that it's great at attacking antibiotic-resistant bugs like MRSA10, the food and drug administration (FDA) does not recognize it as an antibiotic. It also has antiviral, anti-fungal, and anti-inflammatory properties.
How to use colloidal silver: Colloidal silver is taken in liquid form via a dropper bottle and can be applied topically, orally, or even into the eye to treat pink eye! Please be sure to check the dose and duration with your provider since it’s the dosage will vary depending on your specific ailment. You will also need to flush the silver out with lots of water, so remember to keep it on hand!
6. Manuka honey:
Honey is one of the most natural antibiotics you can get, and the use of honey to fight infection dates all the way back to 2000 B.C. This natural elixir has been used for burns, skin infections, bed sores, and more! Manuka works as an antibacterial agent because of its high sugar content and low pH, which inhibits11 the growth of bacteria. Not all honey is the same, and Manuka honey, specifically, has properties that make it a more active antibacterial12, so look at the UMF (unique Manuka factor) to ensure you’re getting something high quality. Aim for those that are labeled somewhere between 12 and 16; these are the most therapeutic. These properties also get denatured with extreme heat, so I encourage patients when using them in tea to let the drink cool down before mixing the honey in; otherwise, you lose some of the immune-boosting, antibacterial properties. Avoid giving this to children under a year old or to people who are allergic to bees.
How to use Manuka honey: You can add Manuka honey to your tea or look for products like cough drops or syrups made with it. Manuka honey is great topically as well, especially on wounds and acne, as it works to decrease inflammation and repair tissue. For a Manuka honey face mask, just spread the honey on your face and leave it for 10 minutes, then wash it off with warm water.
One last thing, make sure you don’t take even these natural antibiotics for a long time since they, too, just like antibiotics, can negatively affect your gut microflora.
Want to learn more about Manuka honey? Here's why it might be the best thing to ever happen to your skin.
Dr. Bindiya Gandhi is an American Board Family Medicine–certified physician who studied family medicine at Georgia Regents University/Medical College of Georgia. She completed her undergraduate training at the University of Georgia with a bachelor's of science in biology and psychology in 2004 and her doctor of medicine at American University of Antigua College of Medicine in 2010. She completed an integrative medicine fellowship at the University of Arizona with Dr. Andrew Weil. She is also currently working on her functional medicine training with the Institute of Functional Medicine. Her interests include integrative, holistic, and functional medicine; women's health; preventive medicine; international medicine; and health care reform. She's also a certified yoga instructor and Reiki master. She enjoys writing and educating everyone on important health matters.