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Herbal Antimicrobials for Intestinal Infections: A Summary
By Myron Lezak, M.D.


People need safe and effective substances to combat the rise in microbe-causing diseases now evident in all parts of the world. Increases in mass population movements, international travel, immigration, animal transport, improper food handling, and drug-resistant microbes have led to an explosion of intestinal diseases, and thus a need for new, safe antimicrobials.

With the arsenal of antibiotics available to treat infectious disease being progressively depleted due to microbial resistance, the need for alternative treatments is greater than ever.1,2 Fortunately, nature offers effective antimicrobial agents to treat a wide variety of illnesses caused by various microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi).3-5 Not only do these natural antimicrobial agents improve intestinal health by treating infection, but they also offer secondary support to multiple organs and body systems. This secondary support further promotes recovery from infection.

Intestinal Ecology and the Link to Systemic Disease

In order to appreciate the need for safe antimicrobial agents, it is critical to understand the relationship between intestinal health and disease. The intestinal tract performs critical digestive and immunologic functions that are necessary for good health.6 In addition, the intestinal tract acts as a barrier to prevent harmful microbes that are present in the gut environment at any given time from entering circulation.6-8 As published research suggests, intestinal infection and its negative impact on the health of intestinal tissue and barrier function can be an initiating step in many medical conditions.

When pathogenic microbes invade the intestine, a number of events take place, including inflammation and translocation. The inflammatory response initiated by microorganisms is a contributing factor to the further destruction of intestinal tissue.15-21 When intestinal barrier function is compromised due to tissue damage, translocation can result. Translocation is a process wherein microbes exit the intestines and enter the blood, lymph, or visceral organs. With the involvement of both inflammation and translocation in increasing numbers of disease processes, its becomes imperative to recognize, treat, and restore health to the intestinal tract.

Using a Combination of Effective Herbs

There exists a vast array of prescription antimicrobial medications. However, these prescription medications can produce negative side effects and, due to microbial resistance, higher doses and stronger medications are being used.

Unlike conventional medicine, various herbal therapies, such as those incorporated into traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), strive for maximum benefits with minimal side effects.23 For millennia, folk and ancient systems of medicine have used particular combinations of herbs to achieve the safest, most beneficial effects possible.

Aromatic Herbs (Phenols)

Red Thyme Oil (Thymus vulgaris)?The primary ingredient in red thyme oil is thymol, whose actions focus on the intestinal tract. Red thyme oil has been shown to inhibit the growth of a wide variety of bacteria and fungi.

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)?Like red thyme, a primary ingredient in oregano is thymol. In several studies, oregano has exhibited high levels of antimicrobial activity against a wide range of bacteria, parasites, and fungi.

Sage (Salvia officinalis)?Sage prevents the growth of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, and is therefore used in the relief of digestive problems, flatulence, inflammation of the intestines, and diarrhea.

Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)?Lemon balm supplies compounds called flavonoids, which support the actions of the immune system. Other substances found in lemon balm display potent antiviral activity; for example, by preventing further progression and multiplication of viruses, substances in lemon balm are known to neutralize viruses on contact.

Bitter Herbs (Alkaloids)

Berberine?Berberine is found in medicinal plants such as coptis (Coptis chinesis) and barberry (Berberis aristata).4,26 It has been shown to have significant antimicrobial activity against bacteria, fungi, parasites, worms, and viruses.36 In addition, berberine inhibits the formation of microbial toxins.

Coptis Decoction?A decoction of various herbs including coptis, phellodendron, rhubarb, ginger, and licorice help stabilize stomach and intestinal function. Such a decoction also improves the utilization of, and tolerance to berberine, thus complementing any formula containing high levels of berberine.

Other Antimicrobial Herbs

In addition to the herbal therapies mentioned above, the following foods have strong digestive, antimicrobial, and intestinal cleansing activity:

Garlic (Allium sativum)?The use of garlic to fight pathogens has a long history. Its use against diarrhea caused by E. coli, as well as dysentery, cholera, and other infectious intestinal diseases is repeatedly discussed in scientific literature.24,27,38 In addition, garlic has significant activity against fungi and parasites.

Ginger(Zingiber officinale)?Ginger's inhibitory effect on bacteria has been validated through in vitro experimentation.41,42 Recently, the number of Anisakis (a parasite found in many types of fish) infections in the United States has markedly increased due to the popularity of eating Japanese foods such as raw-fish dishes. Ginger has been shown to have a lethal effect on Anisakis larvae, eliminating both its viability and infectivity.43 Ginger also supports digestion and has anti-inflammatory activity.

Sour Plum (Prunus mume)?Sour plum is used to treat diarrhea and dysentery, as well as expel hookworms and roundworms. This fruit also stimulates the purging of parasites from other digestive organs, including the gallbladder and bile ducts.

Wormwood (Artemisia annua)?Wormwood has been used for the treatment of parasitic worms in China for over 1,500 years?hence the name "wormwood."38,45 The majority of current research on wormwood revolves around its use as an antiparasitic therapy.

Conclusion

As the incidence of intestinal infections continues to grow at a rapid rate, the importance of finding safe and effective therapies cannot be overlooked. While there exists a vast array of prescription medications to treat most forms of microbial infections, it is important to keep in mind the frequency and severity of adverse side effects that often accompany these types of treatments. Furthermore, as microbial resistance continues to deplete the effectiveness of existing medications, the need for alternative therapies becomes more and more clear. Through the utilization of various antimicrobial herbs, safe and effective therapies for many infectious diseases may finally be realized.

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