Herbal medicine for infectious disease

As a child, I had recurrent ear infections and suffered from the mandatory bout of tonsillitis once a year. When I got a cold it would last all winter; in the spring I’d have hayfever; in the summer I’d have a short period of respite before the whole snotty cycle began again.

Years later, I’m doing pretty well. I can’t remember the last time I had tonsillitis, the hayfever has almost disappeared and winter colds don’t last half as long. 

My renewed strength in terms of immunity has a lot to do with herbs, and I will explore those herbs in my next blog post. But the year I stopped getting tonsillitis was also the year I stopped taking antibiotics for it.

Antibiotics and us

The media reminds us periodically about the dangers of mass antibiotic consumption, information is available on the NHS website about how and when to take antibiotics. It is very important to stick to these guidelines – but it’s also important to avoid taking antibiotics unless it’s really necessary.

When we take antibiotics to cure a bacterial infection, most medications do not only wipe out the bacterial population that is causing the infection, but lots of other bacterial populations in our bodies. It is this ‘broad-spectrum’ activity that causes problems, as the bacteria in our gut, skin, genitals, hair – known collectively as the human microbiome – exists for very important reasons that we are only now beginning to understand.

Our fellow bacteria

There are more bacteria residing on a human hand than people in the whole world.

What’s really interesting is that these bugs are not only on the outside of our cells in the lining of the gut and skin – they are also inside each and every one of the cells in our body, in the form of mitochondria.

Known as the powerhouse of the cell, mitochondria are responsible for producing the energy needed to drive all cellular functions. They are now known to be derived ancestrally from bacteria, and contain ‘mitochondrial DNA’ which is essentially bacterial DNA.

From researching the human microbiome, scientists have discovered that the bacteria in our digestive system is somehow reflected in the mitochondrial DNA in our cells and therefore directly affects our energy supply. This suggests that, without a healthy bacterial community in the gut, our cells are less able to produce the energy needed for efficient function – and are more likely to contract disease.

So how should we go about caring for our ancestral microbes as we approach the winter months, in the hope of warding off infection?

Looking after our oldest friends

Fruit, vegetables, pulses, wholegrains, flaxseeds/linseeds… Gut bacteria feed on fibre, breaking it down to initiate an array of positive physiological effects via the digestive system, the immune system and the nervous system. Raw or cooked, whole or smoothied – the health benefits of fruit and vegetables are as much due to their fibre content as to vitamins and minerals.

A couple of herbs provide specific forms of fibre that have more directed effects. Slippery elm bark and Artichoke leaf contain fructooligosaccharides that act as prebiotics, providing food for the ‘good’ gut bacteria and weeding out the ‘bad’. Taking capsules of slippery elm powder can make a difference to gut health that is noticeable within days.

Some foods also contain prebiotics – onion, leek, asparagus, artichoke hearts, Jerusalem artichoke, banana – and adding these to your diet will also make a difference.

Probiotics

If you find yourself having to take antibiotics, don’t despair – there are things you can (and must) do to build up your resistance again after the course is over.

Probiotics are strains of “good” gut bacteria that come generally in a refrigerated, capsuled form to take once or twice a day. By literally injecting beneficial strains of bacteria into your system, you are providing yourself with a similar version of what you had before you took the antibiotics.

In time things will balance themselves out, but a good, broad spectrum probiotic is helpful – buy one with a high number of different strains from your local pharmacy or natural health shop.

A holistic view of infection

As well as knowing how to look after our gut health, it’s important to keep ourselves happy, fulfilled and occupied with activities that both inspire us and help us relax. A contented mind leads to a contented body and therefore a more robust one. If you become ill, make sure you take the time to eat well, sleep properly and recover healthier than before, giving your mitochondria a chance to recover.

Becoming more resistant to infection is a gradual process, but one thing is clear both from my personal experience and experience with patients – once you have built up your immunity, there is no going back.

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