Reader Note: Although this article discusses natural antibiotic remedies, it is always important to discuss with your healthcare practitioner before starting any new herbal supplements or medications. This article is not meant to replace a detailed evaluation and treatment plan.
Although antibiotics are a large part of the medical arsenal, they aren’t the only treatment for infections. In fact, as overuse of pharmaceutical antibiotics leads to an increasing problem with drug resistance, scientists are beginning to look to nature when considering alternative treatment options.
Several antimicrobial treatments that have been commonly used for hundreds of years are currently under medical review. As studies continue, researchers are finding scientific bases for some of these traditional remedies. Best of all, many natural antibiotics work in ways that make it unlikely pathogens will develop resistance to them.
Read on to learn about 13 natural infection-fighting remedies, aka the reason why you might want to swap your medicine cabinet for your pantry.
What are Natural Antibiotics?
Natural antibiotics are a diverse set of bioactive natural chemicals that can kill or inhibit the growth of other living organisms. In contrast to synthetic drugs, natural antibiotics are found in plants. A number of plants produce natural antimicrobials that inhibit the growth of fungi and bacteria.
13 Natural Antibiotics
Garlic is a culinary and medicinal powerhouse and is renowned for its antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antibacterial properties. Garlic contains a number of active sulfur-containing compounds that have powerful medicinal properties, including allicin. In addition to lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels, garlic has been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, boost the immune system, and even protect the digestive system.
Garlic has been shown to be highly effective against a variety of microorganisms including fungi, viruses, and bacteria. The scientific literature suggests that garlic may be an effective treatment against many forms of bacteria, including Salmonella and Escherichia coli (E. coli).
A member of the Berberidaceae family, goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is a perennial herb that is native to the eastern half of the United States. While goldenseal is sometimes consumed as a tea or a supplement, it is also used topically for the treatment of rashes and other skin problems. Some of the most common microbial infections treated with this herb include eye inflammation, respiratory tract infections, and sore gums.
In one study, researchers found that goldenseal extracts prevented methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) from damaging tissue. They hypothesize this may be thanks to berberine, an active compound in goldenseal that has been shown to kill some strains of bacteria and fungi in in vitro studies.
Cloves are the aromatic dried flower buds of the clove tree (Syzygium aromaticum), an evergreen in the myrtle family that is native to the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. Traditionally used in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, clove oil is perhaps best known as a remedy for oral conditions, including providing relief for toothache and fighting infections like periodontal disease.
In a study exploring the antifungal activity of several essential oils, researchers found that “clove oil was observed to be the essential oil with the greatest broad-spectrum inhibitory effect for growth across all fungal species.” Because of its antimicrobial properties, clove essential oils and extracts also work well to prevent food spoilage and increase the shelf life of foods.
Oregano (Origanum vulgare), a perennial, herbaceous flowering plant that belongs to the mint family, is descended from a species native to the Mediterranean region. One of the most pungent herbs in the world, oregano boasts a wide range of medicinal uses that take advantage of its antibacterial properties.
In a review of studies, researchers suggested that oregano showed strong antimicrobial activity against Staphylococcus bacteria, including the hard-to-treat S. aureus, although its mechanism of action is still being explored.
Echinacea, a member of the daisy family, is a potent immune system booster with a long history of medicinal use by Native American people. Derived from the fresh or dried roots of Echinacea purpurea, this medicinal herb is still widely used by herbalists today to treat infections, colds and flu, and a range of other ailments.
Echinacea is believed to modulate the immune system by stimulating the production of white blood cells and suppressing the inflammatory response to bacteria and viruses. Among other organisms, researchers found Legionella pneumophila, associated with Legionnaires’ disease and occasionally more severe cases of pneumonia, is very sensitive to echinacea, and the herb can inhibit the growth of proinflammatory cytokines.
A perennial member of the Zingiberaceae family, ginger is native to tropical Asia, but is now widely grown in tropical regions around the world, including Africa, India, and the Caribbean. Ginger is a popular spice and food flavoring in both Western and Eastern cultures, and is typically harvested from the rhizome of the ginger plant. In addition to its use in cooking, ginger has been used in many cultures for its medicinal properties, particularly as a treatment for nausea and vomiting.
In a review examining the efficacy of ginger on microbial pathogens, researchers found that different ginger extracts — ginger spice, ginger essential oil, and ginger oleoresin — exhibited strong antibacterial activity against a variety of bacterial strains. According to the authors, “Collectively, ginger was proved to possess significant antimicrobial activities against some common microorganisms such as P. aeruginosa both in vivo and in vitro at low concentrations.”
Manuka honey is derived from the nectar of the manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium), which is endemic to Australia and New Zealand. Since ancient times, manuka honey has been used as a medicinal agent, and is commonly applied as a natural remedy for a wide range of ailments, including asthmatic conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, and eye disorders. Rich in methylglyoxal, a rare compound that has excellent antimicrobial properties, manuka honey is also gaining popularity as a medicinal honey that can be consumed to prevent and treat infections.
There is some evidence that supports the use of manuka honey as an antibacterial agent, with clinical trials showing that application of manuka honey to wounds can prevent infection and speed up healing. In lab studies, honey has been found to be effective against a number of multiple drug resistant bacterial pathogens that show no sign of being able to develop resistance to honey’s effects, showcasing antibacterial effects “unlike any known antimicrobial.”
Myrrh, a resin derived from plants of the genus Commiphora, is a common component of herbal remedies for colds, coughs, indigestion, and diarrhea. Myrrh is an effective antiseptic and antibiotic and has also been used to heal wounds and minor cuts. In one study, researchers found that myrrh extract was effective in killing a wide range of antibiotic-resistant microbes, including E. coli, Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa and Candida albicans.
Thyme essential oil
Thyme oil has been shown to inhibit the growth of disease-causing organisms, including some that lead to skin infections.
Thyme essential oil has also been used traditionally to help treat respiratory infections. According to the authors of a study looking at 120 strains isolated from patients with various infections, “thyme oil demonstrated a good efficacy against antibiotics resistant strains of the tested bacteria.”
Red pepper is the fruit of the Capsicum annuum plant, which is indigenous to Central and South America. In addition to its culinary uses, red pepper has been employed in traditional medicine as an analgesic for the treatment of pain and swelling in joints.
The active ingredient in red pepper, capsaicin, is largely responsible for its antimicrobial properties. In a lab study, researchers found that capsaicin effectively disrupted the outer membrane of the Streptococcus pyogenes bacteria, thereby exerting a bactericidal effect. According to the authors, “The ability of low capsaicin concentrations to reduce bacterial virulence has recently been demonstrated in vitro in both Gram-positives and Gram-negatives.”
Tea tree oil
Derived from the Melaleuca alternifolia tree native to eastern Australia, tea tree oil is one of the leading essential oils for fighting acne and other skin infections. One study found that tea tree oil was equally as effective as clotrimazole, a topical antifungal cream, in treating onychomycosis, a nail infection.
When purchasing tea tree oil for topical applications, it’s important to read labels to ensure you’re receiving a pure, high-quality product. Ideally, you want to find an option that is 100% pure tea tree or melaleuca oil, as other essential oils can limit its potency. You’ll also want to look for a product with 10-45% concentrations of terpinen-4-ol (this is the powerful compound responsible for tea tree oil’s antimicrobial effects)—the higher the concentration the more effective the solution, but levels outside of this range tend to be chemically modified. Lastly, be sure to select an organic brand to ensure that it’s free of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals (note: organic brands also tend to have higher levels of terpinen-4-ol).
Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, is derived from the rhizome of the Curcuma longa plant, which is endemic to the tropical regions of India, Southeast Asia, and Indonesia. Since ancient times, turmeric has been used to treat a number of ailments, including the common cold, stomach cramps, and chest pains.
In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, there’s a growing body of evidence showing that curcumin has antibacterial activities. One study found that curcumin disrupted the membranes of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria. A more recent study found that sensitivity to curcumin was limited to certain species and strains of bacteria, but that it was very effective against those species and strains.
Apple Cider Vinegar
A popular folk remedy for everything from sore throats to hiccups, apple cider vinegar (ACV) is a natural wonder that has been used for centuries. In fact, Hippocrates himself — the “Father of Western Medicine” — recommended that his patients drink a mixture of honey and vinegar to cure their ailments.
Today, apple cider vinegar is prized for its antiseptic properties, which are thought to stem from its acetic acid content.
In a 2018 study on the efficacy of vinegar solutions on different microbial pathogens, researchers found that ACV had direct antimicrobial effects on E. coli, S. aureus and Candida. Results revealed that the apple cider vinegar solution killed off a large proportion of the microorganisms present, with the researchers suggesting that “the mechanism of ACV activity could be attributed in part to the apple polyphenol content.”