Photo of a bottle of pills
It's time to kick the antibiotic habit and find better ways of managing our health [Image: Morguefile]

Antibiotic alternatives – your 12-point plan

25 November, 2011

Here is the truth. We use too many antibiotics. We use them for the wrong things, at the wrong times and in amounts that are dangerous for us individually and as a society.

We need to find a way out of a vicious cycle which is making essential medicines, which can be genuinely useful in certain well-defined situations, less and less effective.

The situation is now so acute that on World Health Day 2011 the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, warned of ‘a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and once again, kill unabated.’

Down on the farm

Currently more than half of all global antibiotic use is in farm animals, most commonly in the pig, poultry and dairy sectors, where they are used as stealth growth promoters and to fight the infections endemic in the unacceptably crowded, stressful and unhygienic factory farm conditions in which commercial livestock is reared.

These antibiotics enter our food chain, our soil and our water supply and find their way into our bodies.

Last week three environment and animal welfare groups, The Soil Association, Sustain and Compassion in World Farming, announced they had formed the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics – a campaign that calls for a 50% reduction in antibiotic use on farms.

The alliance throws a spotlight on the link between excessive antibiotic use on farms and the rise in antibiotic resistance and incidence of superbugs – such as E. coli and MRSA – in humans.

The Alliance’s report came as the European Commission launched a 12-point plan to tackle antibiotic resistance and called for farmers play a key role.

We must tackle the industrial scale use of antibiotics in farm animals. But we must also tackle our own reckless use of them and seek better ways of managing our health in our day-to-day lives.

Natural alternatives

A decade ago suggesting that we should seek natural alternatives to antibiotics was considered a fringe notion. The idea that herbs or essential oils or homoeopathy could be used to promote healing was tolerated but not necessarily embraced.

It’s time to embrace it. So we’ve come up with our own ’12-point plan’ of effective alternatives to antibiotics.

It begins with prevention, which is always better than a cure. The stronger your immune system is, the less likely it is that you will succumb to any kind of bug. To prevent bacteria from taking hold, or to limit the damage it can cause if it does take hold, consider the following:

1. Decrease stress

How well your immune system functions is intimately linked to the amount of stress you are under.  The value of good quality sleep and relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditations and visualisation cannot be over emphasised.

During the deepest levels of sleep potent immune enhancing compounds are released and many immune functions are greatly enhanced. Any kind of massage can help relax the body. If the stress is emotional hypnotherapy may help to release it. The point is, deal with the problem at its source. Don’t wait for a cold or flu or worse to force you to.

2. Take a daily supplement

Because of the way we have damaged our soil with pesticides and overuse of nitrogen -based fertilisers, our food is no longer as nutrient rich as it once was. We have also come to rely very heavily on read-made meals which as high in salt, fat and sugar and low in nutrition.

A quality daily supplement is, for many of us, not an option but a necessity. Apart from bolstering our general health, many nutritional factors have been shown to prevent the effects of stress on the immune system.  Adequate levels of vitamins A and C, beta-carotene, zinc and other antioxidants prevent stress and free-radical damage and boost immune function making us less vulnerable to ill health.

3. Don’t forget probiotics

The term probiotics literally means “for life”. Probiotics are organisms, such as the bacteria which make up the major portion of the intestinal flora in a healthy person, which contribute to the health and balance of the intestinal tract.

Consider supplementing with probiotics such as lactobacillus and bifidobacteria – anywhere from 1 to 10 billion viable L. acidophilous and B. biffidum cells daily is considered sufficient for most people. More may induce gastrointestinal disturbances while less may not be able to colonise the gastrointestinal tract.

The newest strain of lactobacillus, known as Lactobacillus GG is more acid stable and less likely to be destroyed by stomach acid before it reaches the gut.

4. Focus on the kitchen cupboard not the medicine cabinet

Many common herbs and spices commonly found in the kitchen cupboard boost health and some such as such as bay, cinnamon, clove and thyme have been shown to be effective at inhibiting certain bacteria both in foods and as topical preparations.

Living foods with friendly bacteria such as yoghurt, sour milk, cheese, and acidophilus milk are good for gut health and a healthy gut means a stronger immune system.

When cooking, include plenty of garlic which is beneficial in fighting a broad range of infectious agents including viruses, fungi, parasites and bacteria.

Foods like Jerusalem artichoke, onions, asparagus and garlic also act like ‘prebiotics’ – substances that feed the friendly bacteria in your gut allowing them to grow naturally.

5. Is it environmental?

Many symptoms which we associate with “bugs” are actually caused by food allergy and sensitivity as well as environmental toxins. Just eight foods – wheat, diary, eggs, citrus, fish and shellfish and something else – are responsible for 90% cent of all allergies. Chronic exposure to allergens can also depress immune function.

Consider also the toxins in and around your home.  It’s not just car fumes and factory waste which can make you ill. Cleaning products, bug sprays, air fresheners, synthetic carpets, paint fumes, formaldehyde released from particleboard furniture, cadmium released from enamelled cooking pans have all been associated with chronic illness.

Finally consider the temperature of your home during ‘cold and flu season’. A recent study found that a warm humid environment can make your nose feel more stuffy than a cool dry one. Turn down the heat and add an extra layer of clothing when indoors, and make sure you get plenty of fresh air daily even in winter.

Once you’ve tackled prevention, meaningful alternatives to antibiotics abound amongst natural medicines.