The Truth About Herbal Antibiotics

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herbal antibiotics

Antibiotics are often a popular topic in preparedness circles. In addition to adding prescription antibiotics to their survival supplies, some people want to incorporate herbal antibiotics as alternatives to prescriptions. This might be from a desire to incorporate plants they can grow or forage so they have backup supplies, or because of a concern for antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misinformation that gets passed around on the Internet regarding herbal antibiotics. You have probably come across long lists of herbs that supposedly have antibiotic potential, yet there isn’t much information provided and no references are cited that would allow you to find more info. Most of the lists give the impression that you can pop a few capsules of certain herbs and immediately have the same effects of taking a pharmaceutical.

If you are skeptical of such lists, good- because they are usually more than a bit misleading. Pharmaceutical antibiotics have a systemic effect on the body. Once you take them, the body breaks down the tablet and the antibiotic becomes available in the bloodstream at levels high enough to kill bacteria. Herbs don’t typically work that way.

Only a small handful of herbs appear to have the ability to work in a systemic fashion. Other than Artemisia, which is commonly known as sweet wormwood, you may not have even heard of these other herbs. Herbs commonly touted as having antibacterial properties most likely have, at the most, only a potential to act locally when the herb comes into direct contact with an area. Things like honey, goldenseal, oregon grape, and garlic are part of this group.

Some of the most promising herbs with systemic potential for use in a SHTF scenario include:

  • Cryptolepis sanguinolenta– Native to Africa; generally known as cryptolepis in the west
  • Sida acuta– Occurs in North America; commonly called wireweed
  • Alchornea cordifolia– Native to Africa; sometimes known as Christmas bush
  • Bidens pilosa– Native to North America; also known as beggar-ticks or Spanish needle
  • Artemisia annua– Also known as sweet wormwood; native to Asia but naturalized in some areas of North America

The truth is, the topic of herbal antibiotics is much, much more complicated than finding a list of a few herbs and choosing a few bottles of capsules off the shelf at your local health food store or pharmacy. Following are a few ways that you can set yourself up for success with this type of prep.

Teach Yourself the Basics of Herbal Antibiotics

If you are interested in adding herbal antibiotics to your preparedness supplies, you should start with a detailed reference like the second edition of Stephen Harrod Buhner’s Herbal Antibiotics, 2nd Edition: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-resistant Bacteria
. Having a reference like this is incredibly important. There’s a lot of information you need to know to be able to use herbs for something as serious as this: Which herbs to use, how to prepare them, how to combine them for best results, and much more. A good reference will give you the “why” as well as the how, detail the traditional uses of the plant, and brief you on scientific studies that support the author’s claims.

Stock Up

In addition to a reference that details how to use the herbs, you will need sufficient amounts of the herbs in your preparedness supplies. Alcohol based extracts, also called tinctures, are your best bet. Dried herbs or capsules can quickly lose potency on the shelf, but a properly prepared extract can last for ten years or more. Four ounces of each extract per person is the minimum I use in my personal preps.

Store Correctly

Alcohol based extracts do need to be stored correctly to have such a lengthy shelf life. Store them in a dry place, protected from light and extreme temperatures. Amber glass bottles are a popular choice. If you are concerned about portability, then brown nalgene bottles may be more practical. Stay away from glass pippette/dropper tops and stick to plain screw cap lids. Store the droppers separately if you like, but be aware that dirty droppers can easily contaminate a bottle of extract.

Know How Much to Use

Learning to judge the proper serving size is somewhat of an art. A good reference guide will give you the basics. Remember that most herbal guidelines are based on an 150lb adult, so the serving size may need to be adjusted for someone much larger or smaller than the norm. If you don’t have the dropper tops for your extracts or choose not to use them, it’s also helpful to remember that for most purposes, a teaspoon is equivalent to thirty drops. You may also be able to use the cap as a measuring tool. Do a test and measure out a teaspoon into your cap so you can estimate the amount in a pinch.


Be Able to Grow and Harvest

If your climate and your living situation allows for it, you should consider adding the herbs to your garden, and possibly adding a good field guide that will help you identify the herbs in the wild. Foraging for a specific herb can be hit or miss even under good circumstances, so having an extra supply growing under your care where you can find it easily is preferable. You should still learn to identify the herbs in the field, but be aware that you may not be able to rely on foraging if the herb isn’t common in your area. Even if the herb is commonly available, you will need to know how long the growing season is and when to harvest for peak potency. For the leaves and upper portions of the plant, this is just prior to blooming. For roots, you will need to harvest in the fall when the plant is preparing to go dormant for the winter.   

Think Holistically

If you are going to take herbal antibiotics seriously, you also need to learn about several other classes of herbs: Adaptogens, alteratives, and lymphatics. These herbs have the potential to support the role of herbal antibiotics by working directly with our immune systems.

Adaptogens include herbs like rhodiola and astragalus that boost immunity and overall resiliency. Alteratives like red clover help the body process metabolic waste during illness. Lymphatics, such as cleavers, were traditionally used to boost immunity by supporting the function of the lymphatic system.

Whether or not you choose to incorporate herbs with antibiotic potential as part of your preparedness supplies, it’s important to remember that it’s best to approach herbalism as a unique skillset. A list of ways that you can purify water or splint an injury won’t get you very far when the SHTF, and neither will a list of herbs! But if you take the time to learn your craft, train and practice regularly, herbalism is a very satisfying way to round out your abilities and provide you with more flexibility and options, just in case you need them.   

More Resources

To learn more about herbs and natural health, here are some additional resources:

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More Resources for You:

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Agatha Noveille is the author of The Independent Herbalist: A Beginner’s Guide to Herbal Preparedness and the blog

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