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There’s no doubt about it – antibiotics are a good thing. They save lives every day. We can, in part, attribute our longer lifespans, reduction in infant mortality and childhood deaths from life-threatening infections, and the near elimination of childbirth-related maternal deaths from infections in hospitals to antibiotics. As a medical doctor I am grateful to be able to prescribe them for serious bacterial and other appropriate infections, for example meningitis, kidney infections, and Lyme disease.
As with many things, more is not always better, and this is certainly the case with antibiotics.
Too Many Antibiotics
Antibiotics are being overused. It's that clear. They are given to about 30% of all women during pregnancy or labor, and these reach the baby through the mom’s blood stream. By 2 years old, 69% of children in the US have received at least one antibiotic course, and the average is 2.3 courses, for ear infections, bronchitis, sore throat, and other common childhood illnesses.
By the time our children are 18 years old, they'll have taken between 10 and 20 courses of antibiotics, and then another 10-13 rounds of antibiotics in their 20s. So by the time we’re 30 years old, on average, we’ve typically had about 30 rounds of antibiotics. Since each round is typically from 7 to 14 days long, that’s an astonishing potential 300 days – almost a year of their young lives – spent on an antibiotic! The numbers are similarly high for those 60 years old and above.
Shockingly,according to the Centers for Disease Control and other official reports, at least 50% and as many as 70% of the antibiotics prescribed for children for these and other symptoms/conditions are unnecessary and inappropriate. They are prescribed for viral infections that are not even treatable with an antibiotic – and usually just require time and simple support to clear up on their own! We are so accustomed to antibiotics being prescribed for our illnesses that we assume that they are as safe as they are common. But this is far from the truth.
We’re not just getting antibiotics that are prescribed to us by our doctors. Antibiotics are widespread in our foods, especially animal products. If you drink 2 glasses of milk each day, unless from antibiotic-free animals, you are potentially getting a daily dose of about 50 micrograms of tetracycline. At least 80 million pounds of antibiotics go into our cattle, poultry, and farmed fish each year not just to keep them “healthy” in their over-crowded feedlot conditions, but to promote their growth. Antibiotics can increase the weight of cattle, for example, by as much as 15% or more, and quickly.
Frighteningly, even organic fruit, for example, apples and pears, can be contaminated with antibiotics, which used to prevent “blights” that can damage crops. These antibiotics do not have to be disclosed to consumers as part of their organic labeling.
We are now learning the hard way that the overuse of antibiotics, both as medicines and in our foods is wreaking havoc on our health.
Here are 3 major lessons we've learned about antibiotic overuse:
Lesson 1: Antibiotic Reactions are Common
Reactions to antibiotics are responsible for at least 140,000 hospital visits annually in the US. One in every five emergency department visits due to a medication reaction is due to antibiotics, and in kids under 18 years old they are the most common cause of drug reactions.
Lesson 2: Antibiotic Resistance is a Global Health Threat
We are in the midst of a global health crisis – antibiotic resistance, which is a direct result of the overprescribing and inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics, and the overuse of antibiotics in the meat industry.
Antibiotic resistance is not something that develops just in the individual – that is, it’s not just that you become resistant to that antibiotic – it means that the bacteria themselves have learned to outwit the antibiotic so that the antibiotic is no longer effective in treating anyone who is infected with the resistant strain. Each year in the US alone over 2 million Americans acquire serious infections with bacteria that are now resistant to some or all of the antibiotics that we have to treat those organisms, and at least 23,000 people die each year as a result of antibiotic resistance. Global leaders in public health have declared that these “nightmare bacteria” pose a catastrophic threat to every person in the world!
Lesson 3: Antibiotics Cause Chronic Disease
Antibiotics kill bacteria. The problem is that antibiotics not only kill off the bad guys, they kill off the good ones, too. When we give antibiotics to children at a young age or frequently enough, some of those good guys may never fully recover. The same thing happens to us as adults.
These good gut flora, or as they are collectively called, our microbiome, are essential for the health of our immunity, our moods, our weight, and our ability to detoxify environmental toxins and hormones. We now know that damage to our microbiome significantly increases our risk for developing allergies, eczema, asthma, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease, obesity (even when a person is not over-eating), autoimmune conditions, depression, anxiety, “brain fog,” diabetes, and as a result of diabetes, increases our risks for heart disease and stroke.
Why Antibiotics are Over-Prescribed
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has been on a several decades-long campaign to get physicians to reduce their antibiotic overprescribing.
Here are the top 4 reasons that antibiotics continue to be prescribed way too often:
- Doctors think that parents expect an antibiotic prescription when they bring their child in for a sick visit – and many do – leading to 50-70% of the antibiotics that are prescribed.
- Doctors are afraid to get sued should an infection that they didn’t treat with an antibiotic turn out to be more serious than anticipated.
- Doctors don’t feel that they have time to explain the problems with antibiotics to parents in the time allocated for a child’s sick visit, whereas it is quick and easy to prescribe an antibiotic.
- Doctors aren’t knowledgeable about alternatives to antibiotics and want to prescribe something they think will help.
An Ounce of Prevention
Promoting health is the best way to avoid unnecessary antibiotics. A healthy diet of natural foods with plenty of good quality protein, good quality fats, plenty of fresh vegetables, and low sugar, can give your immune system the phytonutrients you need to support health. Additionally, several natural supplements are specifically helpful for the immune system. Here are the key ones:
Protein is very important for optimal immune function – it takes protein to make the cells that fight infections. You can get healthy sources of protein from organic meats, eggs, beans and legumes, and nuts.
Zinc is necessary for proper immune function, and specifically supports the health of the gut immune system so it can be helpful if you’ve already used antibiotics a lot in the past. Oysters and pumpkin seeds are two rich sources of dietary zinc. Iron is also important for immunity, so if you are vegan or vegetarian, it’s especially important to make sure you are getting enough iron in your diet.
Probiotics may also help heal damage from past antibiotic exposure, while boosting immunity. In fact, taking zinc and a general probiotic that contains Lactobacillus, Saccharomyces, and Bifidobacterium strains daily throughout cold and flu season has been shown to prevent common respiratory infections.
While not a nutritional approach, the daily use of saline rinses (i.e. a Neti pot) has also been shown to prevent infections during cold and flu season.
8 Herbal Antibiotic Alternatives
In addition to getting the nutrients you need to support your immune system, a number of herbal medicines can help prevent and fight infection. One of the beauties of herbal antibiotics is their non-specificity — many of them are helpful for antibacterial and viral infections. So you don’t have to worry about figuring out which of those it is or having to go to a doctor to get a diagnosis first. These herbs are generally safe for most adults and children.
Here are a few herb safety rules:
- If you have an immune system disorder or are pregnant, please check with your health provider before using any of these.
- A doctor should see babies less than 6 months if they have any signs of an infection.
- Also, anyone with a persistent fever, cough that lasts more than a week, difficulty breathing, blood in their sputum, persistent headache or neck pain with fever, persistent vomiting or abdominal pain, for example, should see their doctor for a diagnosis and appropriate medical treatment.
Here are my top 8 go-to herbs for immune boosting, infection prevention and treatment of common cold, flu, and respiratory infections. You can follow the dosage instructions on the products you purchase, unless I specify otherwise below.
Andrographis is an effective antimicrobial herb for the prevention and treatment of colds, bronchitis, viral sore throat, and sinus infections. A combination of Andrographis and Siberian ginseng has been shown to be especially helpful in the treatment of colds, especially when started within 72 hours of the onset of symptoms. Andrographis is not recommended during pregnancy, but can be used while breastfeeding. It is safe for children.
Echinacea doesn’t necessarily treat the symptoms of a cold, though it may help some, however, Echinacea is effective for cold prevention and stopping recurrence, so can be taken throughout cold and flu season, or when you have a cold to help prevent it from returning.
Elderberry has been studied and found to be effective in the treatment of flu in adults and children. It is most effective when started within 2 days of the onset of symptoms. It can be taken in pills or capsules, though I prefer the delicious tasting extracts and elderberry syrups, and feature elderberry syrup in the elderberry-echinacea recipe below. A typical dose of the syrup for flu treatment is 1 TBS three times daily for adults, and 1 TSP three times daily for children. It is a lovely tasting remedy!
- Elderberry-Echinacea Syrup: Combine equal parts of elderberry syrup and echinacea glycerite (available at Whole Foods or online from companies including Herb Pharm, Gaia Herbs, and Planetary Formulas). Give 1/2 tsp three times daily for babies 6 months to 1 year old, 1 tsp three times daily for children up to 7 years old, 1-2 tsp three times daily for kids over 7 years old, and 1-2 TBS three times daily for adults. Safe during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Garlic boosts immunity and can fight viral and bacterial infections. The best way to use garlic for prevention is to include it abundantly in your diet, either cooked into vegetables and other foods, or preferably raw in homemade salad dressings if you tolerate the taste. A garlic clove can also be pressed and mixed with a teaspoon of honey and taken right off the spoon. This is repeated 1-2 times each day during a cold. Or make my famous Garlic-Lemonade, that even kids love!
- Garlic Lemonade: Finely mince 2 cloves of fresh garlic and place them in a 1-quart mason jar. Fill the jar with boiling water and cover for 30 minutes. Strain out the garlic, and to the liquid add the juice of 1 whole lemon. Sweeten to taste with honey. Give warm, and offer as much as the child can drink. For babies under 1, use maple syrup instead of honey. Do not give to babies under 6 months old. Safe during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
Ginger fights viral infections and also helps with aches, pains, and digestive symptoms that come along with fever, colds, and flu. It also helps break up congestion that comes with a cold and cough. I love it as a tea made with lemon and honey (which is also beneficial for coughs), but you can also use capsules and liquid extracts. Miso broth with plenty of fresh grated ginger is also therapeutic.
- Ginger Tea: Make strong ginger tea by steeping 1 tablespoon of fresh grated ginger in 1 cup of boiling water for ten minutes. Cover while steeping, then add lemon and honey to taste. Drink hot, up to 4 cups daily. Safe during pregnancy up to 2 cups daily, and while breastfeeding.
Green tea, taken as a tea, 1-2 cups daily, has been shown to prevent sinus infections, a common reason people take too many antibiotics.
Umckaloabo (“Umcka” or Pelargonium) has been shown to be effective in shortening the duration of colds with cough, bronchitis, and sinus infections. For sinus infections, it may have to be taken daily for up to 3 weeks to really clear the infection.
Maitake mushrooms support the immune system and have been shown to prevent upper respiratory infections (colds with cough, ear infections, and sinus infections). They can be taken daily in pills, capsules, or an extract form for boosting overall immunity and preventing colds and flu, as well as general well-being.
I hope you'll learn to use and love these herbs as much as I do! I rarely prescribe an antibiotic in my medical practice, and herbs helped me to keep my family well, and antibiotic-free, for over 30 years! If you'd like to learn more about herbs, make sure to sign up for my weekly newsletter where I always share my latest tips and recipes.