Infection seems to be a concomitant part of living within planet earth’s biosphere. Human beings live in constant contact and ecological dialogue with vast numbers of bacteria, viruses and fungi. The immune system has evolved in such a way that this interaction is only occasionally a health problem. In fact our well-being is dependent on healthy and positive relationships with a range of organisms that live within and on our body. The bacterial flora of the intestines and the micro-organisms on the skin are examples of this.
Infection occurs when the body is exposed to pathogens or organisms that are usually nonpathogenic become a threat for some reason. The immune system is involved in both cases. If the immune response is compromised in some way, the ecological balance between host and microbe changes allowing it to thrive. Either way an herbal treatment must focus on supporting immunity.
The herbal traditions of the world abound in plants that have an anti-microbial reputation, but it must be borne in mind that they do always achieve the results desired. Antibiotics are life-saving medicines when used the right way. The scourge of epidemic infectious disease has largely gone from the western world, small-pox is extinct. These are truly miraculous achievements. Phyto-therapy is not always adequate to deal with severe acute infection, especially in people with a weakened immune response, as it may not work fast enough. Such infections, meningitis for example, necessitate anti-biotic treatment. As a dedicated herbalist who recognizes the limitations of my chosen therapy, I celebrate the existence of these medicines. The role of the healer is the alleviation of suffering not the promotion of a belief system.
This is not to say that whole plant medicine has nothing to offer! There is much that can be contributed by herbal treatment including :
- Boosting the immune response, helping the body rid itself of the pathogen by using:
a. deep immune stimulants
b. surface immune stimulants
- Directly killing the offending organism. This involves some plant constituent reaching the site of infection which is not always easy.
- Toning and strengthen tissue, organs or whole systems that are the focus of the infection.
- Facilitating recuperation from the infection and also from the use of antibiotics.
In the following material we shall review the common infections found in the various systems of the body and their appropriate herbal treatments. This information does not replace the need for competent diagnosis or provide an alternative for appropriate anti-biotic treatment where necessary.
The phyto-pharmacological journals abound in reports of plants having anti-microbial effects. As wonderful as it is, I find it strange then that there is such a pre-occupation with Echinacea. The practitioner should be familiar with a range of such herbs, their strengths and their limitations. The eclectics strongly recommended Wild Indigo (Baptisia tinctoria) in combination with Echinacea for acute febrile infections. It doesn’t seem to have regain its reputation amongst the herbal advertisers! Important anti-microbials in British and American herbalism include:
Aniseed Pimpinella anisum
Balsam of Peru Myroxylon pereirae
Bearberry Arctostaphylos uva-ursi
Caraway Carum carvi
Calendula Calendula officinalis
Cayenne Capsicum minimum
Clove Eugenia caryophyllata
Coriander Coriandrum sativum
Echinacea Echinacea spp.
Elecampane Inula helenium
Eucalyptus Eucalyptus spp.
Garlic Allium sativum
Gentian Gentiana lutea
Golden Seal Hydrastis canadensis
Juniper Juniperus communis
Marjoram Origanum marjorana
Myrrh Commiphora mol-mol
Olive Olea europaea
Osha Ligusticum porterii
Peppermint Mentha piperita
Rosemary Rosemarinus officinalis
Rue Ruta graveolens
St. John’s Wort Hypericum perforatum
Sage Salvia officinalis
Southernwood Artemisia abrotanum
Thyme Thymus vulgaris
Usnea Usnea spp.
Wild Indigo Baptisia tinctoria
Wormwood Artemisia absinthium
Yarrow Achillea millefolium
How they work is not always clear, but in the case of Echinacea spp.and the terpene oil containing plants research has provided many insights. What follows is simply a taste of the research underway on the anti-microbial plants and their constituents.