December 4, 2023

Why You Shouldn’t Self-Treat With ‘Natural Antibiotics’

Natural doesn’t mean they’re safe or effective

Natural antibiotics, pills and herbs, displayed on bamboo spoons on wooden table.

When you start to feel the itch in your nose or the scratch in your throat that tells you you’re in the early stages of a cold or sinus infection, people tend to fall into one of three camps.

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One group tries to ignore it and hopes it clears up on its own.

The second runs to the doctor for some quick relief.

And then there’s the third group: The ones who rummage through their medicine cabinet or hit up their local pharmacy or health store looking for a DIY solution.

For some of those DIYers, that home relief is straight-up medication, like a decongestant. For others, it’s something a little closer to nature — something like a tea, supplement, ointment or lozenge that claims to have natural antibacterial or antiviral properties.

It’s true that some plants and herbal remedies may have antibacterial or antiviral properties (at least in test tubes, nonhuman studies or anecdotal evidence). But that doesn’t mean they’re the right solution for you. And they shouldn’t be used as a replacement for medical advice.

“The fields of functional and integrative medicine use herbal medicines a lot,” says integrative medicine physician Melissa Young, MD. “That’s based on our clinical experience, review of medical evidence and the hundreds of years of traditional use of herbs. But it can be very hard for the average consumer to know what to look for, what to stay away from and how to use natural medicines safely.”

There are a lot of options out there for so-called natural antibiotics. But it is important to know the quality and safety of herbal supplements can vary significantly. And just because a product is labeled as “natural” doesn’t mean it’s going to be safe for you. So, self-treatment with herbal medication isn’t advised.

We talked with Dr. Young about the antibiotic and antiviral properties of some plants to understand what people mean by “natural antibiotics” so you can understand their potential, their downsides and why you should seek medical advice before trying them.

What are natural antibiotics and antimicrobials?

Let’s start with a few definitions:

  • Antibiotics are prescription medications that have the power to kill bacteria.
  • Antimicrobials are compounds that have the potential to kill — or at least slow the growth of — a range of microscopic organisms. That includes bacteria, as well as things like viruses, yeast and fungi. They can come from natural sources or human-made compounds.

Typically, when people talk about “natural antibiotics,” what they’re actually talking about are natural antimicrobials — not specifically bacteria-killers, but rather, plants and plant-based products that (at least claim to) defend your body from a range of disease-causing critters.

That can include products like echinacea or elderberry, which some people believe can help fight a cold. (Though research has shown otherwise.) Or cranberries for urinary tract infections. (The science on that is mixed at best.) Or maybe you’ve heard that mouthwash made with cloves can help fight cavities. (Those claims haven’t been compared with traditional mouthwashes.)

The difference between antibiotics and antimicrobials is more than semantics. By thinking of certain plants as “antibiotics,” it can seem as if they’re an alternative to conventional antibiotics, like penicillin. But that’s not the case. More on that in a bit.

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How they’re used

Antibiotics and antimicrobials can be used in two main ways: Treatment and prevention.

Healthcare providers may suggest natural antimicrobials for some people to help prevent illness and treat very mild illnesses that don’t require a conventional antibiotic. Conventional medical attention is vital for overcoming other infections.

Dr. Young explains.

Natural products: prevention

Certain natural antimicrobials may be helpful as preventive measures when used correctly. That’s because in some cases, they’re believed to help create a healthy terrain to keep your body strong and healthy in an attempt to avoid an infection.

Think about it like this: Your body is fighting off germs all the time. And it’s only when those germs have multiplied to the hilt that you start to feel ill. Some natural products — along with lifestyle choices like a healthy diet, adequate sleep, exercise and stress management — may be one strategy to try to keep those bugs from getting out of control in the first place.

Natural products: mild illness

You’re probably aware already that overuse of prescription antibiotics can lead to resistance. Bacteria can mutate to the point that the conventional antibiotics healthcare providers prescribe can no longer kill them. The result is “superbugs” — dangerous germs that don’t respond to antibiotics. 

Antibiotic resistance is a real danger to public health. So, healthcare providers have become increasingly cautious about prescribing conventional antibiotics for some minor infections — like early sinus infections and bronchitis. Often, your body can fight those bacteria off on its own, without the use of conventional antibiotics.

In cases like that, an integrative or functional healthcare provider may suggest a natural antimicrobial product. That may help to give your immune system a little boost to help overcome those illnesses without resorting to overusing conventional antibiotics that can help spur superbugs. 

Conventional medicine: other cases

Here’s the thing to remember: Natural products aren’t thoroughly tested. They’re not backed by as much science and research as traditional pharmaceuticals are. So, there’s a lot we don’t know about natural antimicrobials. 

Rather than self-selecting a natural product when you’re down with an illness, Dr. Young says it’s important to seek medical attention if your symptoms don’t improve after a few days.

Maybe your provider will prescribe you a conventional antibiotic or maybe they’ll suggest a more natural remedy. Maybe they’ll advise just waiting it out. But it’s important to seek medical attention and make sure you take any medication — natural or conventional — as directed. 

Drawbacks and risks

Before you run to your local health store and stock up on all things natural and antimicrobial, Dr. Young offers a few words of caution.

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Herbal medicines are unregulated

When your doctor prescribes you a medication like an antibiotic, or when you pick up a decongestant at the drug store, you can be confident it has been proven to be safe and effective. That’s because foods and medications are highly regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and undergo rigorous scrutiny before hitting the market.

The natural solutions you’ll find online or in the vitamin aisle, on the other hand, aren’t regulated by the FDA the same way as pharmaceutical drugs. They’re sold as supplements, and come with warnings like, “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” 

In other words, “Take this at your own risk.”

Dr. Young advises talking with a knowledgeable medical provider, like a functional or integrative medicine specialist, for recommendations on whether natural antimicrobials are right for you. They should also guide you on which natural products and brands are more likely to be safe and effective. And an experienced healthcare professional can help point you to companies they trust, like those who undergo voluntary independent quality testing and safe-sourcing practices.

“Most people aren’t aware that some dietary supplements may not have in them what’s listed on the label, or they may not have been tested for contaminants like pesticides or heavy metals,” Dr. Young explains. “Choosing herbs and supplements from a reputable company, under the advice of a knowledgeable provider, is very important.”

You can get too much of a good thing

Natural antibiotics can be potent. Maybe too potent if taken in large quantities or over an extended period of time. They also can have dangerous interactions with certain medications.

Keeping your body healthy relies in part on a healthy balance of bacteria in your body. For instance, your gut is a hotbed of bacteria, and that’s a good thing. You need good bacteria in your body to balance out the bad. Natural antimicrobials — similarly to medication antibiotics — don’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” bacteria. So, too many natural antimicrobials can take a real toll on your system.

“I've had patients who are new to me come in with stomach issues and it turns out they’ve been self-treating with oregano oil for many months or years and have killed off some of their beneficial bacteria (gut flora) in their gut,” Dr. Young illustrates. “When they’re not used properly, natural antimicrobials can impact not only the bad bacteria, but the beneficial bacteria, too.”

Again, proper education and oversight from a healthcare provider is vital.

Shouldn’t be used by some people

Natural antimicrobials aren’t right for everyone. And expert providers will be able to counsel you about the risks of natural remedies, particularly if you:

  • Are pregnant or breastfeeding (chestfeeding).
  • Take any medication regularly, especially blood thinners and heart medications.
  • Are considering natural remedies for your child.

Before you stock up on natural remedies for colds, coughs, gut health and more, talk with a healthcare provider. They can help you weigh the pros and cons and limit the risks to your health.

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