Flowering oregano by Christian Bauer

Have you seen those PSAs for MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) that have made their way onto primetime television lately?

‘Staph’ infections are among the most common type of skin and soft tissue infections and may appear as a small infected pimple, boil under the skin, sore or insect or spider bite. Initially they generally cause swelling and redness with or without pain. The MRSA variety is one that is particularly difficult to eradicate even with the use of strong pharmaceutical antibiotics, and an infection can be fatal.

Flowering oregano by Christian Bauer

Flowering oregano by Christian Bauer

Carvacrol, a phenolic compound found at a level approaching over 93% in Mediterranean oregano oil, may be effective against MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant “superbug” that is appearing in hospitals throughout the country.

This news has been making the rounds of the mainstream press throughout the UK since November of 2008 and is based on the research of scientists at the University of the West of England in Bristol working with partners in India. They found that “tiny quantities of Carvacrol, a naturally occurring compound in oregano, is a more effective antimicrobial agent than 18 pharmaceutical drugs it was compared against.”

But — treating a dread infection such as MRSA with oil from a spice you sprinkle on salads and in pizza, rather than using an expensive space-age antibiotic? Really?

‘Heat-clearing’ herbs: Nature’s antibiotic

It’s generally believed by botanists and biochemists that the components that are found in plants that result in their pungent, spicy or bitter flavors were developed to protect the plant from pathogens and to prevent various animals from grazing them into extinction.

In a similar protective manner, spices were used on meat and various foods to slow spoilage in the days before refrigeration. People soon learned that by taking them internally and applying them topically as extracted oils, poultices or fomentations, these same stimulating antipathogenic properties were imparted to animals and people.

Before pharmaceutical antibiotics, staph infections were effectively treated both internally and topically using anti-inflammatory, ‘heat clearing’ herbs. Throughout the first three decades of the 20th century, North American echinacea probably became the most popular herb used for treating such conditions. Herbs such as thyme and oregano were similarly and widely used in Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Italy where they naturally grow.

So what happened?

Personally, I conjecture that one could practically mark the eclipse of medicinal herbs with the discovery of penicillin and consequent widespread use of antibiotics.

Pharmaceutical antibiotics: When too much of a good thing goes bad?

Even before the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928, since ancient times people learned that certain ‘greenish’ molds found on grains and fruit had antibiotic properties. It was Fleming’s accidental discovery that led to his being able to strip away the penicillin which is a byproduct of these certain types of molds, and introduce his powerful discovery to the scientific medical community.

At first and for several decades after, penicillin was a virtual panacea for all sorts of complaints.

But one thing that Fleming and his researchers either did not know or refused to give needed recognition is that bacteria, even in a relatively static environment, evolve and adjust very quickly. This allows them to develop antibiotic resistance. In response to this, many subsequent derivatives of penicillin-based antibiotics were developed to counter the new, stronger strains of bacteria.

Now, in the beginning of the 21st century, this concern has come full circle with the increasingly widespread occurrence of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria labeled as MRSA.

But even before MRSA, increasing numbers of medical doctors and patients have come to recognize the downside of antibiotics, namely that they not only destroy the virulent bacteria strains but the millions of friendly bacteria that live in our gut and are responsible for healthy digestion and a healthy immune system. (People wise to this fact have learned to always take probiotics — friendly bacteria — found in fermented foods such as yogurt, sauerkraut and miso for general health but especially when taking antibiotics.)

Herbs versus synthetic antibiotics

Considering all of these factors, herbs such as oregano, echinacea, thyme and many others too numerous to mention have much to offer.

Unlike synthetic antibiotic drugs targeted toward a specific action or type of bacteria, herbs usually combine both bactericidal (bacteria-killing) as well as bacteriostatic (bacteria proliferation-stopping) properties and are relatively independent as to what kind of bacteria are present or whether they have evolved resistant strains or not. This is not to say that there are not some virulent strains of bacteria with which herbs may not be particularly effective (such as gonorrhea, syphilis and tuberculosis, for which I would look to using a strong antibiotic drug). However, most common staph and strep infections are relatively easily treated with herbs and a diet low in refined carbohydrates.

Rather than damaging digestion like antibiotic drugs do, many of the spicy herbs such as oregano are known to specifically help digestion, suggesting that they are not so damaging to the beneficial flora of the gut.

Further, many of these herbs are broadly classified as “heat clearing,” meaning that their value as an anti-infective is not merely limited to bacteria but assist the body in fighting off viral infections as well. Thus, regardless as to whether one decides to use antibiotics or not, there is a complementary value in using heat clearing herbs synergistically to possibly promote improved recuperation and health.

In general, it’s been a slow uphill battle convincing even natural remedy-friendly people to use herbs for infections instead of going to the ‘˜doc’ for a prescription of antibiotics. Unfortunately, the first thing most people think about when they have an infection, sore throat, flu or cold is to get some antibiotics. (This is true despite the fact that many of these conditions are viral and antibiotics are not effective against viruses.)

While the value of echinacea as an alternative to antibiotics is yet to be corroborated by scientific research (currently it is still mired in dead-end studies trying to prove its efficacy for colds and flu), oregano, specifically oil from wild Mediterranean oregano, has had considerable research supporting its use as an antibiotic alternative. In addition to the Carvocrol study mentioned above, studies conducted at Georgetown University, Cornell University, and the University of Tennessee have shown oregano oil to rival the effectiveness of standard antibiotics such as Streptomycin, Penicillin, Vancomycin, Nystatin, and Amphotericin.

Do we really need more proof that herbs such as oregano still have a place even in crisis medicine, offering a safe alternative to pharmaceutical antibiotics?

How to take oregano oil

The adult dose of 4-6 drops of 100% pure essential oil of oregano diluted with approximately three parts olive oil can be taken by mouth and applied locally about 10 times daily. Children may take less according to age, 1 to 3 drops mixed with milk or juice.

The course of treatment should not exceed 10 days total.

If taken undiluted, oregano essential oil may cause minor gastric discomfort. Otherwise, if it is mixed with a carrier oil, it poses no problem.

It is probably better that it not be used during pregnancy but nothing is known regarding any possible contraindications.

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