Antibiotics. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

By Emma Suttie, D.Ac, AP

The term antibiotics literally means “against life.” In this case, against microbes. When most people think of antibiotics they think of antibacterial drugs, used to treat bacterial infections, but antibiotics actually covers a much larger group of medications including antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and antiparasitic drugs.

A Brief History

The History of Antibiotics : Chinese Medicine Living

Treating wounds and infections with moulds goes far back into ancient history, long before the discovery of penicillin by Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish biologist, in 1928.

  • Greeks and Indians used moulds and other plants to treat infections.
  • In Greece and Serbia, mouldy bread was traditionally used to treat wounds and infections.
  • Warm soil was used in Russia by peasants to cure infected wounds.
  • Sumerian doctors gave patients beer soup mixed with turtle shells and snake skins.
  • Babylonian doctors healed the eyes using a mixture of frog bile and sour milk.
  • Sri Lankan army used oil cake (sweetmeat) to serve both as desiccant and antibacterial.

The discovery of penicillin from the fungus Penicillium notatum perfected the treatment of bacterial infections such as syphilis, gangrene and tuberculosis. Alexander Fleming also contributed immensely towards medical sciences with his writings on the subjects of bacteriology, immunology and chemotherapy.

One sometimes finds what one is not looking for.
– Sir Alexander Fleming on the discovery of penicillin

The discovery of antibiotics, made by a succession of cultures and people throughout the ages and perfected by a handful of scientists spanning from 1640 to 1932 was one of the most significant discoveries in Western medical history. Antibiotics have led to the eradication of many infectious diseases in the developed world and saved countless lives.

Antibiotic Resistance

The problem we face presently, is antibiotics being over prescribed, often unnecessarily and this has led to the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria and “superbugs”. Each year in the United States an estimated 2 million people are infected with such antibiotic resistant bacteria and a staggering 23,000 people die every year as a result of these infections.

Perhaps the most famous of these drug resistant bacteria is MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) which is caused by antibiotic resistant strain of staph bacteria used to treat common staph infections. About one third of people carry the staph bacteria in their nose or on their skin and have no symptoms. A MRSA infection contracted outside a medical setting usually results in a skin infection. MRSA infections are particularly dangerous to hospital workers or other health care providers which is where many MRSA infections are contracted. MRSA infections are typically associated with invasive procedures or devices, such as surgeries, intravenous tubing or artificial joints. In medical facilities, MRSA can cause life-threatening bloodstream infections, pneumonia and surgical site infections. MRSA is usually spread through contact with an infected wound or from contaminated hands or equipment. People who carry MRSA and do not have any symptoms can also spread the infection to others which is why rigid disinfecting procedures are practiced for all hospital equipment and by all medical staff that have access to patients.

This is a cute animation on what causes antibiotic resistance. Video by Kevin Woo for TED Ed

Antibiotics & Chinese Medicine

Widespread antibiotic use is something commonly seen in clinic. I have many patients who come to me for the express purpose of getting off of many of their medications and looking for more natural alternatives to treat their ailments. For serious infections antibiotics are sometimes necessary, but there are consequences to the body. Antibiotics may be good at killing the infection, but they generally weaken the body and cause imbalances in other organ systems that need to be corrected.

Many infections in Chinese medicine are seen as a combination of heat and dampness. Antibiotics are generally good at resolving many of the heat symptoms (fever, swelling, sort throat, redness), but they do nothing to treat dampness (phlegm, loose stool, vaginal discharge, dizzy, heavy feeling, edema, tiredness and a fuzzy feeling in the head). The spleen is the organ responsible for dampness is the body, so if you have an infection, chances are that your spleen is already deficient. If you add to this the fact that antibiotics are very cold in nature according to Chinese medicine, the spleen is taking another hit (the spleen likes to be warm and dry). On top of that the spleen is the main organ (paired with the stomach) of digestion, and the use of antibiotics severely decreases the amount of beneficial bacteria in the intestinal tract. There are over 500 different species of beneficial bacteria that collectively destroy pathogenic microbes while also neutralizing harmful chemical toxins that the body is trying to get rid of. When the amount of beneficial bacteria is compromised the result can a proliferation of colonies of harmful fungus and bacteria that can be detrimental to health. This beneficial bacteria is also an important part of a healthy immune system, so although use of antibiotics can deal with an infection, it can wreak havoc on the rest of the body, weakening it and making it more susceptible to future infections.

One of the important things to do after you have done a course (or many courses) of antibiotics is to get the beneficial bacteria built up again. You can do this in many ways be taking acidophilus, or eating yoghurt with a high count of beneficial bacteria (in the billions if you can). I often use Chinese herbs to strengthen the immune system and tonify the spleen after a patient has taken antibiotics to attempt to bring them back into a healthy balance.

The other thing to consider before taking antibiotics is that there are many Chinese herbal formulas with antibacterial properties that combat infections very effectively with no side effects. They do not weaken the body or immune system and attempt to restore the balance of the entire organism. Chinese herbal formulas do not use a single herb but a combination of herbs that work synergistically to treat various types of infections often in a few days. If the infection is not serious (an outpatient infection), consider seeking out a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine who can prescribe the right formula for the type of infection that you are experiencing. Repeated use of antibiotics often causes subsequent infections due to the hit on the immune system, and patients often come in who have been on one or several antibiotics that have either not worked for the initial infection, or dealt with the initial infection but have caused subsequent infections that are being treated the same way, more antibiotics. It is a bit of a vicious cycle. Many Chinese herbs have antibacterial and antiviral properties and have been well documented over thousands of years. Before getting that prescription, consider all your options.

Detoxing from Antibiotics Use

Antibiotic Resistance : Chinese Medicine Living


Drugs, both medicinal and recreational, are stored in the body long after use in various tissues such as the liver, and brain. The residues of these drugs, like alcohol, nicotine, LSD, pain medications, birth control pills and antibiotics build up in the body and their accumulation can cause reactions that cause a buildup of toxins that threaten health. A grain and vegetable based diet along with green foods helps to cleanse these residues from the body.

If the use of medications or drugs is prolonged, an excellent remedy is the herb chaparral (Larrea tridentata), also known as greasewood and creosote bush, which cleanses toxins and drug related deposits from the body. Chaparral’s medicinal properties can be extracted in water, but for maximum effectiveness the entire plant should be consumed, or it can be taken in a tincture (extracted with alcohol).

Ayurvedic medicine (the traditional medicine of India) uses an herb called calamus root (Acorus calamus) which helps to restore mental damage resulting from prolonged drug use.

Eat Your Medicine

Thankfully, there are many foods that also have antibiotic properties, and can be added to the diet in the event of an infection. Here is the list of some of the best ones:

Natural Antibiotic Foods : Chinese Medicine Living

  • Honey
  • Cabbage
  • Garlic
  • Ginger
  • Apple Cider Vinegar
  • Coconut Oil
  • Fermented Foods
  • Turmeric

Ginger Natural Antibiotic : Chinese Medicine Living


There are also herbs and tinctures with strong antibiotic properties like:

  • Tea Tree Oil
  • Oil of Oregano
  • Echinacea
  • Golden Seal
  • Olive Leaf Extract

Essential Oils Natural Antibiotics : Chinese Medicine Living

It is unfortunate that today, with more information than ever about the human body and natural medicines, that antibiotics are so overprescribed. Although sometimes they may be necessary, often times they are not. I believe that this has led to both the prolonged weakening of the immune systems of their recipients as well as the development of antibiotic resistant organisms that put both health care workers and the public in danger. Thankfully, there are numerous natural ways in which we can treat infections from various microbes, from foods to herbs to acupuncture. Chinese medicine has been developed over thousands of years and has many herbal formulas that are excellent for treating infections of various kinds often more quickly and effectively than antibiotics would, and without the damage to the immune system, side effects and risk of subsequent infections. I am a firm believer that the body has an incredible ability to heal, if we only give it what it needs to do so, and often that is a change in diet, or a rebalancing with natural but powerful medicines like acupuncture and Chinese herbs.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Healing with Whole Foods – Paul Pitchford
Explorable – History of Antibiotics

Chinese Silk Pulse Cushions : Chinese Medicine Living

Antibiotics and Chinese Medicine : Chinese Medicine Living

Privacy Preference Center