These days, we have a pretty serious problem when it comes to our ability to kill resistant bacteria causing serious illness. People petition governments to urge action, while drug companies lament over how those pesky bacteria evolved to defeat their beautiful antibiotics – and their projected profit margins.
Yet, it’s not all bad. There are a few little ways that us humans can fortify our bodies with a sturdy shield against nasty bugs.
Nurture good bacteria
Keeping your good bacteria, especially the ones in your gut, happy, robust and numerous is a great way to deflect nasty microbial attacks. Eating live good bacteria in an effort to boost health was first documented by Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), a Turkish emperor who prescribed yoghurt as a cure for the severe diarrhoea experienced by King Francis I of France.
Yoghurt, or rather the active bacteria in yoghurt, promotes a healthy microbe balance in the gut. Farm animals routinely fed dried versions of probiotics have a tremendously diminished rate of nasty Salmonella infection outbreaks, and for humans, eating probiotics has been promoted by scientists as a good way to control Clostridium difficile outbreaks, reducing the number of cases by around 65% in nursing homes and hospitals.
Probiotics thus appear to have the admirable ability to suppress the growth of dangerous bacteria, while nourishing our happy, friendly bacteria.
Give bad bacteria a hard time
While chefs rub a nice pork loin with garlic to infuse it with a tasty flavour, a great side benefit is that garlic seriously slows the growth of contaminating bacteria. What’s good for a pork loin is also good for tender humans. Physicians in the Roman army used fresh crushed garlic to cure illness, harnessing its ability to fight not just bacteria, but fungi, viruses and protozoa to boot.
Garlic has little effect on good bacteria, like the helpful lactic acid ones in our gut, but packs a punch with bad bacteria – perhaps because their slightly different biologies affect susceptibility to garlic’s active chemical ingredient, allicin. Pathogenic bacteria, such as E.coli, Shigella and Salmonella, isolated from the poop of patients suffering severe bouts of diarrhoea, can be effectively killed by garlic, at least as well if not better than antibiotics. Even multi-drug resistant bacteria succumb upon exposure to crude garlic extracts.
Protect places where bacteria are likely to breed
There are plenty of nasty bacteria present on or in our bodies all the time. Only when damage occurs – say, when you fall over rollerskating and scuff your knee – do these bacteria get an opportunity to wreak havoc. But open wounds can be effectively treated with a protective glaze from the kitchen cupboard. Honey, the sweet and viscous liquid produced by honey bees, has a potent natural antimicrobial activity, packed full of bee proteins, like defensin-1, which punch holes in bacterial membranes and recruit immune cells to battle invaders.
The gooiness – and high sugar content – of honey, especially Manuka honey, also sucks moisture out of injured tissues where bacteria could thrive, seals off damaged areas and stops wounds from festering. Honey is capable of efficiently killing tough disease-causing bacteria, like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a tricksy little bug that often plagues cystic fibrosis patients.
So, with bacteria currently outmanoeuvring us in the antibiotic arena, exploring the world of natural antimicrobials, perhaps by simply adding a little yoghurt, honey and garlic into our lives, might be a great way to strengthen our individual biological shields.
Johnston BC, Ma SS, Goldenberg JZ, Thorlund K, Vandvik PO, Loeb M, & Guyatt GH (2012). Probiotics for the prevention of Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Annals of internal medicine, 157 (12), 878-88 PMID: 23362517
Karuppiah P, & Rajaram S (2012). Antibacterial effect of Allium sativum cloves and Zingiber officinale rhizomes against multiple-drug resistant clinical pathogens. Asian Pacific journal of tropical biomedicine, 2 (8), 597-601 PMID: 23569978
Kwakman PH, te Velde AA, de Boer L, Speijer D, Vandenbroucke-Grauls CM, & Zaat SA (2010). How honey kills bacteria. FASEB journal : official publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, 24 (7), 2576-82 PMID: 20228250