My mother often speaks of the father that she adored. A man that I never met. He died long before I was born of tuberculosis (TB). Only a short time before the release of the antibiotics that his family believed could have cured his disease.
The discovery of antibiotics heralded a new era. One in which people in the developed world lost their fear of bacterial infections. Indeed, when I was offered a TB vaccination at school, my mother said we should decline as TB was now curable. Yet, in this recently published expert review, researchers describe a new situation. Nowadays, modern drugs are losing their ability to protect us from disease. So, new solutions must be found. Herbal medicines are one area of intense research for potential remedies.
Herbal medicine vs antibiotics
People have used herbal medicines for millennia. But, their popularity fell into decline when antibiotic use began. Most people believed that the use of antibiotics and vaccinations meant life-threatening infections would soon be a thing of the past. As a result, they could forget about the traditional remedies their parents and grandparents had relied on.
Yet, bacteria can quickly adapt to their environment, for instance, by becoming resistant to medication. Scientists found penicillin-resistant strains soon after that first antibiotic use. And, the pharmaceutical companies have been trying to stay one step ahead ever since.
Now scientists are struggling to find newer and more potent drugs to combat drug-resistant bacteria. In fact, antibiotic resistance may be one of the most pressing global public health problems of our time.
What’s more, we may not use any new antibiotics. Instead, experts expect them to be kept in reserve, hoping to delay bacterial resistance. While this potentially means less revenue for drug companies. If we want research to continue, we may even need to pay drug manufacturers for not using these newer drugs.
Why scientists are interested in herbal medicines
On the other hand, science is once again looking at plant-based medicines. These herbal remedies have a long history of combating infections. Yet, researchers suggest that it is doubtful that microbes become resistant to medicinal plants. The lack of resistance to herbs is most likely because medicinal plants contain several therapeutic compounds. And each medicinal compound acts differently against the microbes. Herb complexity makes it much more difficult for a microbe to adapt and create resistance.
Plants produce these phytochemicals to protect themselves from microbial infection. Humans learned to take advantage of their medicinal power. The review mentions just a few herbal medicines or herbal products. Yet, there are many herbal medicines with antimicrobial activity.
For instance, the plant chemicals; terpenoids, phenolics and alkaloids. These are examples of the biologically active constituents in herbs. As a result, they can help to provide adequate protection against microbial infection. What’s more, their broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity means herbal medicines can protect against bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa.
Herbal medicine and the immune system
As well as direct antimicrobial activity, many herbal remedies also stimulate or regulate the body’s immune system. In effect boosting resistance to infections. Considering the benefits herbal medicines provide, the experts conclude that herbal medicines or herbal products could be the best weapon to win the war against multi-drug resistant microorganisms.
The modern world is entirely different to that of a hundred years ago. Global travel means infections can spread quickly across continents. But, on the other hand, it means that we have access to herbal medicines from around the globe. In Herbal Medicine Week 2018, let’s not forget that professional herbalists have years of training in the use of herbal medicines. And herbal medicines have a lot to offer in the treatment of microbial infections.
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