How to survive the bacterial antibiotic revolution


These days, we have a pretty serious problem when it comes to our ability to kill resistant bacteria causing serious illness. People petition governments to urge action, while drug companies lament over how those pesky bacteria evolved to defeat their beautiful antibiotics - and their projected profit margins.

Yet, it's not all bad. There are a few little ways that us humans can fortify our bodies with a sturdy shield against nasty bugs.

Nurture good bacteria

Keeping your good bacteria, especially the ones in your gut, happy, robust and numerous is a great way to deflect nasty microbial attacks. Eating live good bacteria in an effort to boost health was first documented by Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), a Turkish emperor who prescribed yoghurt as a cure for the severe diarrhoea experienced by King Francis I of France.

Yoghurt, or rather the active bacteria in yoghurt, promotes a healthy microbe balance in the gut. Farm animals routinely fed dried versions of probiotics have a tremendously diminished rate of nasty Salmonella infection outbreaks, and for humans, eating probiotics has been promoted by scientists as a good way to control Clostridium difficile outbreaks, reducing the number of cases by around 65% in nursing homes and hospitals.

Probiotics thus appear to have the admirable ability to suppress the growth of dangerous bacteria, while nourishing our happy, friendly bacteria.

Give bad bacteria a hard time

While chefs rub a nice pork loin with garlic to infuse it with a tasty flavour, a great side benefit is that garlic seriously slows the growth of contaminating bacteria. What's good for a pork loin is also good for tender humans. Physicians in the Roman army used fresh crushed garlic to cure illness, harnessing its ability to fight not just bacteria, but fungi, viruses and protozoa to boot.

Garlic has little effect on good bacteria, like the helpful lactic acid ones in our gut, but packs a punch with bad bacteria - perhaps because their slightly different biologies affect susceptibility to garlic's active chemical ingredient, allicin. Pathogenic bacteria, such as E.coli, Shigella and Salmonella, isolated from the poop of patients suffering severe bouts of diarrhoea, can be effectively killed by garlic, at least as well if not better than antibiotics. Even multi-drug resistant bacteria succumb upon exposure to crude garlic extracts.

Protect places where bacteria are likely to breed

There are plenty of nasty bacteria present on or in our bodies all the time. Only when damage occurs - say, when you fall over rollerskating and scuff your knee - do these bacteria get an opportunity to wreak havoc. But open wounds can be effectively treated with a protective glaze from the kitchen cupboard. Honey, the sweet and viscous liquid produced by honey bees, has a potent natural antimicrobial activity, packed full of bee proteins, like defensin-1, which punch holes in bacterial membranes and recruit immune cells to battle invaders.

The gooiness - and high sugar content - of honey, especially Manuka honey, also sucks moisture out of injured tissues where bacteria could thrive, seals off damaged areas and stops wounds from festering. Honey is capable of efficiently killing tough disease-causing bacteria, like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a tricksy little bug that often plagues cystic fibrosis patients.

So, with bacteria currently outmanoeuvring us in the antibiotic arena, exploring the world of natural antimicrobials, perhaps by simply adding a little yoghurt, honey and garlic into our lives, might be a great way to strengthen our individual biological shields.


4 Responses to “How to survive the bacterial antibiotic revolution”

  1. Lee Turnpenny Reply | Permalink

    An interesting post; forgive me, I mean no disrespect, but it comes across in the manner of - and as manna to - those types who pass themselves off, without qualifications, as 'nutritionists' and make (often over-egged) claims for 'natural' products (especially when they're trying to sell products containing them - which I'm sure you are not).

    The fact that extracts might kill bugs in a lab dish often doesn't mean much clinically. Does this suggest that people who eat more of these 'ancient' foodstuffs are less susceptible to bacterial infections? Because if they are so effective, we might wonder why we ever needed antibiotics at all. (To risk an irrelevant anecdote...) I eat garlic and honey every day, and probiotic yoghurt occasionally (though I do not apply them externally). Yet my diet did not concern my GP when he recently deemed it necessary to prescribe me a course of antibiotics. I'm not assuming you would argue that my prescription was unnecessary or avoidable; but the 'nutritionists' might read you so.

  2. Stephanie Swift Reply | Permalink

    Hi Lee! Thanks for your comment. I am happy that my post got you thinking about the science involved.

    You are definitely right - showing that different antibiotic-resistant bugs can be killed in a dish does not equate to clinical efficacy. I remember once reading an article that implied that breast milk could cure cancer - because they squirted breast milk in a dish of cancer cells, and they all died. I would probably die if I was immersed in breast milk, too. It doesn't necessarily follow that breast milk has inherent anti-cancer properties.

    Once bad bugs have got a hold in your body, antibiotics are a wonderful way to stop them in their tracks - assuming your bad bug in question is not resistant. What I'm suggesting are easy interventions that minimise the likelihood that those bugs ever get a chance to cause disease, what I refer to as raising your biological shield. The topical application of natural antibacterial agents, such as honey and garlic, as a poultice to an open wound would have a good chance at shutting down any nasty contaminating bugs. And the same with probiotics - if eating probiotics can favour the good bugs in your gut, at the expense of the bad bugs (which there is clinical evidence for), this should minimise your chances of getting into a situation where you need antibiotic resolution.

    Hope this helps clarify things!

  3. Em Reply | Permalink

    Hi Stephanie,

    Would it be possible for the "bad" bacteria to become resistant to the active ingredients in honey and garlic in the same way if it became a regular preventative agent? If not, why not, and could this be harnessed by drug companies?

    • Stephanie Swift Reply | Permalink

      Hi Em! Thanks for your comment, and what an interesting question!

      SO, in nature, bacteria produce antibiotic compounds to kill off other bacteria that are competing with them for resources. These competitor bugs must express resistance genes to survive. That means our antibiotic prescriptions exploit a pathway that is obviously easily manipulated by bacteria. The overuse of antibiotics put bugs under a selection pressure, and they responded either on an individual level (through unique genetic mutations) or by becoming floozies - quickly and easily sharing DNA that encodes antibiotic resistance genes with each other.

      Now, bacteria also express anti-defensin genes; and defensins in honey are known to contribute to its antibacterial effects. So theoretically, yes, a similarly hugely widespread overuse of honey could drive the evolution of defensin-resistant bacteria. But lots of other things in honey (H2O2 and MGO) and garlic (allicin) have a simpler chemical approach to bug killing that might be less easy to resist. Or not. It's actually pretty tricky to predict.

      It might interest you to know that some companies have already harnessed natural compounds in preventative agents, like FDA-approved wound dressings loaded with Manuka honey.

      Hope this helps!

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