Essential Oils May Replace Antibiotics

antibiotic essential oils

Story at-a-glance -

  • Scientists say the overuse of antibiotics for people and animals is lessening their effectiveness so much that even a slight injury or infection could turn into a serious medical crisis
  • Using special techniques, researchers have used the antibacterial properties of essential oils to create a bioactive coating to protect against infection, which may help prevent millions of infections every year
  • Drug-resistant bacteria has caused farmers to take a closer look at plant extracts for both people and animals, while scientists are also targeting biofilm growth on failing aquatic sensors due to marine organisms
  • Essential oils such as tea tree oil, peppermint, cinnamon and lavender have potent properties that can kill harmful bacteria strains such as salmonella and E. coli, eliminate intestinal worms and improve acne, shingles and even MRSA

By Dr. Mercola

It's quite likely that whether you visit your doctor for back pain, anxiety or an ingrown toenail, you won't leave without a prescription of some kind. Cold and flu symptoms are among the most common reasons why people visit their doctors and, often, antibiotics are the go-to remedy. Repeatedly taking antibiotics causes major problems, however, as overuse of this type of medication, both in the health care setting and in industrial agriculture, has resulted in increased resistance.

In fact, every time you take antibiotics, your body builds resistance, they become less and less effective and, worse, any bacterium that survives the medication also builds resistance. One of the worst aspects of drug-resistant bacteria, or superbugs, is that an alarming number are found on the biofilm — a thin slimy surface substance — that forms on medical devices, including implants.

In one study, Mohan Jacob, head of Electrical and Electronics Engineering at James Cook University (JCU) in Queensland, Australia and his team of Ph.D. associates used nanotechnology to harness the power of antimicrobial molecules from plants to create antibacterial coatings. Their findings were recently published in Polymers.1 Jacob cites a recent study published in Microbial Biotechnology, which reported that approximately 17 million new biofilm infections are reported every year, leading to 550,000 fatalities.

In addition, about 80 percent of the surgery-associated infections worldwide may be associated with biofilm formation.2 That's why more doctors are turning to natural agents with antibacterial properties, such as tea tree oil, as studies show it may help prevent millions of infections every year. Tea tree oil (Melaleuca alternifolia) is an essential oil that creates a bioactive coating to keep harmful bacteria from adhering to medical devices.

How a Bioactive Surface Is Made From an Essential Oil

In regard to the scientists' search for a way to turn plant compounds into bioactive coatings for medical devices to avoid having to rely on antibiotics, they used plant secondary metabolites, aka PSMs, of tea tree oil and its most important component, terpene-4-ol. Derived from essential oils and herb extracts, with relatively powerful broad-spectrum antibacterial activities, they're termed "secondary" as they're not vital to the plant's survival or function.

Jacob described them as a "low-cost renewable resource available in commercial quantities, with limited toxicity and, potentially, different mechanisms for fighting bacteria than synthetic antibiotics."3 But the biggest challenge Jacob and his team faced in developing antibacterial coatings from PSMs was converting the liquid state of the compounds into a solid without losing any of their antibacterial nature.

Medical News Today notes that scientists have used nanotechnology for this purpose for several years. Kateryna Bazaka, an adjunct senior research fellow at JCU and the study's coauthor, explained the scientists' procedure in creating polymers is somewhat like naturally occurring rubber and cellulose to make a resistant, "chain-like structure," in this case converting the PSMs of tea tree oil. She noted:

"We used plasma-enhanced techniques within a reactor containing the essential oil vapors. When the vapors are exposed to a glow discharge, they are transformed and settle on the surface of an implant as a solid biologically active coating."4

Essential Oils for Medical Device Polymers and Beyond

Plasma polymerization of this sort has been in use to create biological activity on surfaces for about 20 years. In the 2010 version of the "Handbook of Deposition Technologies for Films and Coatings," one scientist explained that plasma is the "fourth state of matter, consisting largely of ionized gas which maintains overall electrical neutrality."5

One reason the plasma technique is so effective for this kind of plant conversion is that it's environmentally friendly; no potentially harmful chemicals or solvents are used in the process that might remain in the coating or damage surfaces the coating is applied to. The upshot is that if tea tree oil can be converted to protect the surfaces of medical devices, millions of infections may be prevented every year.

According to Jacob, after publishing more than 70 research articles and six Ph.D. theses on the topic, the scientists involved in the project are bona fide pioneers in the world's development of bioactive polymers from plant compounds. But the concept has been extended. Because the thin polymer coatings are visually transparent, they're being tapped for coating contact lenses, as well as for optical windows in aquatic sensors.

Specifically, Jacob and his team are targeting biofilm growth on failing aquatic sensors due to marine organisms, working with Peter Mulvey and associate professor Jeff Warner at the JCU-based Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine. Controlled Environments notes:

"Even though synthetic antibiotics have been the best weapon for eradicating microbial infections since the arrival of penicillin, the overuse of these medications is gradually rendering them ineffective. Scientists think that if new strategies are not developed soon, medical treatments could retreat to the era where slight injuries and common infections develop into serious medical problems."6

Antibiotic Resistance Doesn't Stop There

Significantly, Cyril Gay, senior national program leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, contends that losing the reliance on antibiotics due to the growing instances of antibiotic resistance is one of the most challenging problems faced by the medical profession in the 21st century. One case in point, Cari Romm reported in 20147 that livestock consumes as much as 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S.

Between 2009 and 2012, that number increased by 16 percent, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).8 The trouble is, antibiotics are used on humans as well; about 70 percent of those used on farm animals are deemed "medically important" for humans. In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that antibiotic resistance in the U.S. caused more than 2 million illnesses and an estimated 23,000 deaths,9 which resulted in an extra $20 billion in health care costs.10

Experts in the U.K. expect the problem to only get worse, as a 2014 report projects that more than 10 million deaths will be attributed to drug-resistant microbes by the year 2050.11

The reason livestock are treated with those kinds of drugs is explained by yet another FDA report12 asserting that farmers and food manufacturers rely on them not just for infections but to speed growth and girth for the marketplace, and as a sort of go-to remedy for the many infections livestock incur in cooped-up and unsanitary conditions, now known as concentrated animal feeding operations or CAFOs.

Stuart B. Levy, hematologist and professor at Tufts University and author of the book "The Antibiotic Paradox: How the Misuse of Antibiotics Destroys Their Curative Powers," has been deeply concerned about the impact that is looming due to the overuse of antibiotics. His study in 197613 noted that chickens began developing resistant bacteria in their guts from the antibiotic tetracycline within a week.

It's unnerving to hear the rest of the story: The resistant bacteria became resistant to other antibiotics the chickens hadn't even consumed, and months later, the illnesses spread to untreated chickens and even to the farmers. According to Levy, "Resistance doesn't stay in that environment, and resistance is transferrable among bacteria of different types."14

Essential Oils: The New Antibiotics

Levy believes the lobby for continued antibiotic use is so strong that it's difficult for wiser voices to get legislation to change. Farmers still insist that drugs are their only choice to combat infection on their farms, so the problem is ongoing. The Atlantic asks:

"What's being done to confront this major contributor to this obvious, growing world health threat? The FDA has asked those in the agricultural industry to voluntarily reduce their use of antibiotics, but no one is keeping track of whether they do (nor has there been a record of the antibiotic use all these decades)."15

The key is to get farmers to see viable alternatives. Studies show that essential oils may exert greater power against infection than many realize. Here are several examples of how essential oils have been found extremely powerful for dealing with bacterial infections:

  • One study found that chickens eating feed with oregano oil added had a 59 percent lower mortality rate due to ascites, a common infection in poultry, compared with untreated chickens.16
  • Rosemary and oregano oils brought about the same growth rate in chickens as the antibiotic avilamycin.17
  • Other essential oils killed bacteria and helped reduce salmonella in chickens.18
  • A blend of oils can help keep salmonella from spreading between animals.19
  • Extracts from oregano, cinnamon and chili peppers helped chickens with weight gain and protection against an injected intestinal infection.20

So tea tree oil isn't the only type of essential oil studied for antibacterial potential. Drug-resistant bacteria have caused farmers as well as scientists to take a closer look at plant extracts for both people and animals. Usually associated with the scent of candles or body lotions, they're also used in products used for pest control and over-the-counter medications. The Atlantic notes:

"They're used in the food industry because of their preservative potency against foodborne pathogens — thanks to their antimicrobial, antibacterial and antifungal properties. Various oils have also been shown to effectively treat a wide range of common health issues such as nausea and migraines, and a rapidly growing body of research is finding that they are powerful enough to kill human cancer cells of the breast, colon, mouth, skin and more."21

Why Taking Antibiotics Wreaks Havoc in Your System

Resilient bacteria that survive can even pass that ability to resist antibiotics to other bacteria. One big problem with relying on antibiotics (by both doctors and their patients) is that it radically affects the rate it takes place, as well as the degree the resistance occurs. One thing you may not realize is that, while antibiotics are busy killing off bad bacteria that cause and prolong certain infections, they nail the good bacteria, too.

If you've heard of "good bacteria," they are what your body needs to maintain health and fight toxins naturally. When they're killed, your system is left vulnerable to all kinds of other physical problems. Are the antibiotics in the meat you eat harmful? Answer: Yes. As previously noted, the agriculture industry is responsible for 70 percent of all the antibiotics used in the U.S., which means the other 30 percent is used by humans. According to Daily Health Post:

"As the bacteria grow stronger and are no longer resistant to antibiotics, these once life-saving drugs will no longer be of any help. Minor infections will run rampant with no way to stop them. It will be like living in the Middle Ages when even a small cut could end up killing you."22

Doctors sometimes advise their patients that if they decide to take an antibiotic, to follow it with a good probiotic to make up for the damage. This is good advice (I recommend taking a high-quality probiotic both during and following antibiotic treatment); however, it's better to avoid antibiotics in the first place unless they're absolutely necessary. Even if you're not in the habit of taking antibiotics, there are other ways they can end up in your system. So what can you do? Here's a list of some healthy alternatives:

  • Consume only organic, grass fed meat and dairy products as often as possible.
  • Take an antibiotic only when absolutely necessary. Find a doctor who's aware of the issue and will only prescribe antibiotics when needed.
  • Improve and build your immune system and gut bacteria naturally.
  • Consider getting to know the properties in essential oils such as tea tree oil and others.
  • Consume fermented foods regularly.

Think Alternatively for Your Health

It's amazing how nature is already equipped to help you stay healthy and alternatively, deal with symptoms of disease naturally rather than resorting to drugs. One study, titled "Essential Oils, A New Horizon in Combating Bacterial Antibiotic Resistance," notes:

"Combination therapy combining conventional antibiotics and essential oils is currently blooming and represents a potential area for future investigations. This new generation of phytopharmaceuticals may shed light on the development of new pharmacological regimes in combating antibiotic resistance."23

Here's a short list of some of the more popular essential oils and their uses (but there are many more besides):

Eucalyptus oil aids in faster wound healing, protects from air exposure and offers antimicrobial activity

Oregano is a known protector against several bacterial strains such as E. coli, staphylococcus (Staph) and salmonella

Peppermint is useful in dental care due to its antibacterial activity and antiviral properties

Bergamot's antibacterial properties can kill parasites, help speed healing of mouth ulcers, cold sores and herpes, and combat shingles and chicken pox

Thyme is known to be effective against myriad bacteria, including MRSA and Staph infections

Lemon grass has antimicrobial properties that inhibit bacterial growth both internally and externally, i.e., urinary tract infections, malaria, typhoid, food poisoning and body odor

Lavender has antibacterial and antiseptic properties, making it good for inflammatory skin conditions like acne and psoriasis, helps speed healing of cuts, burns and sunburns and helps prevent scarring

Eucalyptus is a potent germicide and antiseptic, making it good for treating wounds, burns, cuts, ulcers, sores and abrasions

Cinnamon may be one of the strongest antibacterial oils, working against such strains as E. coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Bacillus subtilis and Staphylococcus aureus

When using essential oils, a carrier oil such a jojoba or coconut oil is often recommended because they are very potent. In many cases, a topical application of essential oils is much safer than taking antibiotics internally. When in doubt, consult an aromatherapist who can provide you with more information and exact oils for your specific condition. Healthy Focus advises:

"Combine a few drops of your chosen oil or oils with a carrier oil like coconut or jojoba and apply the oil to the affected area of your body. Massaging the oil into your abdomen is also a great way to help fight internal infections. You can also apply some diluted essential oils to help treat common skin infections like acne or even warts."24

As often as possible, look to natural alternatives instead of antibiotics. Depending on your symptoms, there are many articles covered on this website that can expand your knowledge and increase your awareness of natural instead of conventional health. Mercola.com is focused on a "whole person" approach to your entire person rather than just your symptoms. In preventive health care, providers help patients develop attitudes and lifestyles that don't just fight illness, but help prevent it, too.