Reader Note: Although this article discusses natural antibiotic remedies, it is always important to consult with your health care provider before starting any new herbal supplements or medications. This article is not meant to replace a detailed evaluation and treatment plan.
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, and why you might be able 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. (Source)
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 and ajoenes. 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. (Source, Source)
Compounds found in garlic have been shown to be active against bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Heliobacter pylori, as well as fungi such as Aspergillus niger and Candida albicans. (Source, Source, Source)
A member of the Ranunculaceae 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. (Source)
Goldenseal root has often been used medicinally due to its higher concentration of the alkaloid berberine, but research has found that the parts of the plant that grow above ground contain not just berberine but other compounds that work together with it to enhance its antibacterial action. So far scientific studies of goldenseal have focused on identifying its active components and have been limited to in vitro, or lab-based, studies; more research is needed into its effects in vivo, or in living organisms. (Source, Source)
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 such as periodontal disease. Clove essential oils and extracts also work well to prevent food spoilage and increase the shelf life of foods. (Source, Source)
In a study exploring the antifungal activity of several essential oils, researchers found that clove oil had the most broad-spectrum effects. The oil derived from the clove bud is 70% to 90% eugenol, which gives clove oil its antimicrobial properties. While research has found eugenol to be generally safe for topical use, it could be toxic if ingested and should be used with care. (Source, Source)
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.
Carvacrol and thymol have been identified as oregano’s antimicrobial components. 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. (Source, Source, Source)
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. (Source)
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. (Source)
It should be noted that because of its purported effect on immune function, use of echinacea is not recommended for use by those with autoimmune conditions. Additionally, like other plants in its family, echinacea can stimulate allergic reactions that may be severe. (Source, Source)
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 harvested from the rhizome (a part that grows underground) 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 published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences 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 bacteria and fungi. (Source)
Ginger also has potential anticoagulant properties, and there have been case reports of ginger enhancing the effects of warfarin, resulting in a risk of abnormal bleeding. If you are on a blood thinning medication, be sure to talk with your health care provider about whether ginger is safe for you. (Source)
Manuka honey is produced by bees that feed on the nectar of the manuka bush (Leptospermum scoparium), which is endemic to Australia and New Zealand. Manuka honey has been used as a medicinal agent since ancient times, and is commonly applied as a natural remedy for a wide range of ailments, including asthmatic conditions, gastrointestinal disorders, and eye disorders.
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 its unique antibacterial effects. (Source)
Much of manuka honey’s antibacterial properties are attributed to its high concentration of a compound called methylglyoxal. As effective as methylglyoxal is as an antimicrobial, some research suggests it may actually impair wound healing in diabetic ulcers. In any case, for safety reasons only medical grade honey, applied under medical supervision, should be used on wounds. (Source, Source)
Myrrh, a resin derived from plants of the genus Commiphora, is a common component of herbal remedies for colds, coughs, indigestion, and diarrhea. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, myrrh is an effective antiseptic and antibiotic and has also been used for thousands of years 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, S. aureus, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and C. albicans. (Source, Source)
Thyme Essential Oil
Thyme essential oil has been used traditionally to help treat respiratory infections and has been shown to inhibit the growth of disease-causing organisms, including some that lead to skin infections. Thyme oil’s efficacy is attributed to two of its phenolic compounds, thymol and carvacrol, which have been found to be effective against a wide range of bacterial strains, including many that have developed resistance to pharmaceutical antibiotics. (Source)
Chili peppers are the fruits of members of the Capsicum annuum family, indigenous to Central and South America. In addition to their culinary uses, chili peppers have been employed in traditional medicine as analgesics for the treatment of pain and swelling in joints.
Capsaicin, the alkaloid that gives chili peppers their bite, is largely responsible for their antimicrobial properties. Research has shown capsaicin is effective against many different kinds of bacteria, including many that have become dangerously resistant to traditional antibiotics. (Source)
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 the nail infection onychomycosis. (Source)
Tea tree oil (sometimes labeled as melaleuca oil) is most effective in its pure form, as it may be less potent if mixed with other oils. A 10% to 45% concentration of terpinen-4-ol, the powerful compound responsible for tea tree oil’s antimicrobial effects, is ideal. (Source)
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.
The bioactive compound in turmeric is curcumin. In addition to its anti-inflammatory benefits, there’s a growing body of evidence showing that curcumin has antimicrobial properties. While the compound has been shown in lab studies to be effective against a wide range of bacteria, research is ongoing to figure out how to best make curcumin useful as an antibiotic. (Source, Source)
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 — sometimes called the father of modern medicine — prescribed apple cider vinegar mixed with honey as an elixir for treating coughs and colds, and applied vinegar to wounds and ulcers. (Source)
Today, apple cider vinegar is prized for its antimicrobial properties, which stem from its acetic acid content. Lab studies have found ACV has direct antimicrobial effects on bacteria including E. coli and S. aureus, and the fungus C. albicans. A 2021 study published in the International Journal of Microbiology reported that ACV’s antimicrobial properties varied according to the variety of apple it was made from, with the most potent made from red delicious apples. (Source, Source)
The Bottom Line
Overuse of pharmaceutical antimicrobials can have negative consequences, including the development of antibiotic resistance. Ongoing research into the effectiveness of plant-based natural antibiotics suggests they may be used to treat a variety of infections, along with or even in place of pharmaceutical antimicrobials.
If you’re concerned about the use of antibiotics, WellTheory can help you make the most of the powerful options nature provides. Our care team’s guidance on nutrition, sleep hygiene, stress management, and movement may be just what the doctor ordered.