6 February 2017 – Last year I read two books by Stephen Harrod Buhner that challenge the modern-day narrative of pharmaceutical management of health as it pertains to bacterial and viral infections. These books seriously opened my eyes to a whole new side of treating disease that I had not previously given serious consideration. I decided it was too overwhelming to discuss both books at once, so this post is a summary of my understanding of his book on herbal antibacterials, why they’re needed, and what I’ve learned in my own life since experimenting with herbal medicine.
Stephen Harrod Buhner
Technological medicine is always judged by its successes, all other approaches by their failures. It is an intellectually dishonest approach designed to control the narrative by those in power. What is true is that all approaches have their strengths and their weaknesses. There is no approach without a shadow side. Those who fanatically support only one approach to anything — it doesn’t matter if it is medicine, science, feminism, vegetarianism, politics, anything — act within culture as ideological vigilantes who can only see those who think differently as “the other.” No society that supports freedom or the empowerment of its citizens should countenance it.
— Stephen Harrod Buhner 
Stephen Harrod Buhner comes from a family of healers, including a former Surgeon General of the United States under Eisenhower and Kennedy, and is the award winning author of twenty books. He is considered one of the foremost authorities on herbal medicine, has appeared on or in the New York Times, CNN, and Good Morning America, and continues to lecture yearly around the United States. From reading several of his books, especially the one highlighted in this post, he backs everything he says with hard evidence in published studies from all around the world and corroborated by his personal experience. His work is compelling and his words challenge our understanding of modern medicine.
Our Problem with Bacteria
Backdrop: A World Awash in Antibiotics
Buhner starts his book – Herbal Antibiotics: Natural Alternatives for Treating Drug-Resistant Bacteria – explaining just how deeply the world is drowning in antibiotics and why this is a problem. This section of the book was truly stunning for me. Since the first successful use of Penicillin in 1942, the usage of antibiotics has gone from just 64 pounds per year globally to a mind-blowing 40 million pounds per year just in the United States alone! And here’s the part that really blew me away: antibiotics don’t go away. Whether thrown away due to expiration or excreted through the human body and into hospital and municipal waste streams, those 40 million pounds of antibiotics eventually find their way back into the ecosystem. Why is this important? It is important because bacteria are masters of evolution and every 20 minutes a new generation of bacteria are born whom are better and smarter at resisting these antibiotics. [2, Pages 7-8]
Antibiotics Becoming Useless
Bacteria are one of the Earth’s oldest living creatures, surviving extinction event after extinction event. They saw the rise and fall of dinosaurs, the rise of humans, and no doubt will live to tell the tale of humanity as well. There’s a reason bacteria have survived so long – actually, there are several. Buhner describes in overwhelming detail the several adaptive mechanisms bacteria use to protect themselves against the constant onslaught of antibiotics.
Altered Uptake – Bacteria can alter the permeability of their cell membranes, which prevents antibiotics from penetrating in and killing them. [Page 14]
Target Modification – Bacteria can alter the structure of the part of their cell the antibiotics target, meaning even if the antibiotic penetrates the outer membrane that it will simply not do anything because it can’t find or bind itself to its intended target. [Page 15]
Antibiotic Modification – Bacteria can weaken or destroy invading antibiotics by “creating antibiotic-specific inactivation or disabling compounds.” [Page 15]
Efflux Pumps – In lamen’s terms, bacteria can use a sort of sump pump that literally pumps out the antibiotics as soon as they enter the cell. Some efflux pumps target specific antibiotics and others target a wide range of them (hence drug-resistant vs multi-drug-resistant).
Super Adaptability – Many bacteria have actually evolved to not only survive, but thrive, in antibiotic-rich environments such as hospitals. [Pages 16-17] If you’ve ever visited Yellowstone National Park, it should be clear that bacteria can often thrive in the unlikeliest of environments, and by surviving in these seemingly inhospitable environments they are thus fortified against the very thing that made the environment inhospitable in the first place.
Sharing Resistance – Once bacteria have evolved resistance mechanisms to fight off antibiotics, they actually share this knowledge with other bacteria, even across species lines. One way they do this is through encoding plasmids, or mobile bits of genetic material that become widely and freely exchanged between bacteria. Similarly, they can use transposons (sometimes called “jumping genes”) or integrons to send new DNA structures that contain resistance information from one bacterium to another. Bacteria can also use viruses. Basically, bacterial viruses often times integrate pieces of a bacterium’s genetic information into its own makeup and then carries it to the next bacterium it infects. Finally, bacteria can share resistance with other bacteria directly or simply extrude it and leave it behind to be picked up later. They can do this while active or even in a state of hibernation. [Pages 17-18]
Bacterial Learning – Antibiotics have a sort of pheremonic quality that attracts bacteria to them and, in low antibiotic concentrations, bacteria can actually actively adapt to them rather than be immediately killed off. Recent studies have shown that all (repeat: all) water supplies of every (repeat: every) industrialized nation now contain trace amounts of antibiotics, again because those 40 million pounds of antibiotics per year go right back into the environment. This means bacteria are constantly being subjected to small amounts that allow them to adapt rather than be killed. [Pages 19-21]
Resistance is Futile
While reading this book it literally made me think of The Borg from Star Trek. They can adapt to anything thrown at them, they quickly and effectively share resistance information with each other, and they learn and evolve rapidly. The result for bacteria, as Buhner explains, is a rapid rise in drug-resistance. Not only have bacteria become more resistant to treatment, some bacteria can no longer be treated by any antibiotics whatsoever. Some diseases once thought cured are even starting to re-emerge. [Pages 21-25] Like a snowball gaining momentum, this problem is continuously compounded by the practices of not just hospitals, but also animal factory farms where it is said that at least half of all antibiotics in the United States get used. In addition to factory farms, 150 pounds of antibiotics are pumped into every acre of commercially raised ocean salmon, and between 40,000 and 50,000 pounds are sprayed onto fruit trees (enough antibiotics to treat 22.5 million people – each year!). The [disgusting] results manifest themselves in stats such as the 42% increase in antibiotic content of Americans’ urine in just the three year period from 2003 to 2006 alone. [Pages 25-32] No wonder bacteria are evolving! They’re literally constantly subjected to it and have no other choice.
And Here’s the Sobering Moment
Buhner offers a quote from one of my favorite comedians, Chris Rock. He says, “The money’s not in the cure. The money’s in the medicine.” [Page 38] The sad truth is that drug companies are profit-motivated to produce treatments for chronic conditions like high cholesterol, or vaccines virtually guaranteed to be administered every year to all newborn children. Comparatively, there is simply no money in making golden bullet cures like antibiotics that get used only in acute illnesses only not to be needed as soon as treatment is completed. And here’s the sobering bit: there are no new antibiotics actively being developed in the United States for the conditions that need them. None. The number of new antibiotics being developed can be counted on only one hand and none of them are for gram-negative bacteria (the fastest growing category for drug-reistant bacteria). [Pages 37-39]
Buhner is fond of saying throughout his books that “plants are nature’s chemists.” Whereas we animals can run, hide, and fight, plants cannot. So, they have made genius use of chemicals to fight off the threats they face. Often times these threats are bacteria and viruses, no different than us. To combat these, they have built in defense mechanisms through very complex and rarely understood chemical synergies that thwart unwanted infections. In fact, one of the principal differences between pharmaceutical and herbal antibiotics is that whereas pharmaceuticals use one (or very few) chemicals that are easy for bacteria to adapt to, plants employ countless different chemicals that makes it very difficult for bacteria to adapt. The reason it is so hard for us to understand plant chemistry is quite possibly the same reason it is so hard for bacteria to figure them out either.
Buhner divides herbs discussed in this book into three categories: systemics, non-sytemics, and synergists. For each herb, Buhner goes into great detail regarding the history of each, where it is found, how to grow it, where to buy it, how to administer it medicinally, where it is contraindicated, what adverse affects it may have, how it interacts with pharmaceuticals, the active chemicals and exact chemical processes by which it works, and a summary of every significant clinical paper written on it. ALL the herbs mentioned in these sections are particularly effective against drug-resistant and multi-drug-resistant bacteria that often times can find no cure using pharmaceutical antibiotics.
In a nutshell, herbs that Buhner categorizes into the systemics category are those that can easily traverse membranes and therefore easily jump from the digestive tract to the bloodstream and other parts of the body. [Page 82] Here are the top five herbal systemic antibiotics Buhner identifies for treating drug-resistant infections:
I decided the post would become too lengthy to go into each of these specifically, but suffice it to say these are all strongly antibiotic herbs that can travel to most any part of the body. Depending on the infliction, some of these may be better than others, and sometimes different combinations will be taken to suit the individual circumstances. [Pages 85-148]
As the name suggests, these herbs are those that target specific areas of the body. Specifically, these normally either stay localized to the GI tract or only act on specific organs. [Page 157] Buhner identifies four key herbs that fall into this category:
- The Berberines
It’s worth giving special mention to honey, which of course is not an herb but instead takes on the medicinal qualities of the herbs visited by bees. This book honestly opened my eyes to honey in a way I’d never known possible. Buhner suggests that honey is unrivaled, even compared against pharmaceuticals, in its effectiveness as a wound disinfectant (sorry, Neosporin). As long as the pollen used to make the honey comes from wildflowers then it is chock full of vitamins A, B (the entire complex), C, D, E, and K, as well as protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, niacin, magnesium, sulphur, chlorine, potassium, iodine, sodium, copper, manganese, hydrogen peroxide, and formic acid. With over 75 compounds, 4-7% of the makeup of honey are substances so complex they have yet to be identified. However, it has to be wildflower honey. Most store-bought honeys come from commercial operations that use single crops like clover and therefore it loses the medicinal benefits the honey takes on by the bee visiting so many different plant varieties. Be sure to buy from farmers’ markets, which are almost guaranteed to have come from a wide variety of flowers. [Pages 188-192]
Put simply, synergistic herbs are those that increase the effectiveness of others. Similar to how physicians often need to turn to multi-drug paradigms for treating drug-resistant infections, multi-herb regimes can be potently more effective than single herbs. The synergists accomplish this through several means, the biggest being reducing toxic side effects of individual herbs, facilitating intracellular transport, and acting at different points along the same signalling cascade. All of these not only reduce the dose required of each herb, but also enhances the effect as well. [Pages 207-212]
Buhner points to studies aimed at finding out what happens when certain herbs were combined with antibiotics. Often times the dosage of antibiotic required to achieve the desired result were drastically reduced. The most common mechanism described by which this happens was that several herbs specifically inhibit bacteria’s ability to use efflux pumps to eject the antibiotic, therefore enabling the same effect with significantly reduced quantities of the drug. [Pages 213-216]
Below are a list of the Buhner’s top three herbal synergists:
- Licorice (not the one where the candy comes from)
- Black Pepper / Piperine
The Immune Boosters
The man is not sick because he has an illness; he has an illness because he is sick.
— Chinese proverb [Page 247]
As they say, the best medicine is preventative medicine, and this is true of herbal medicine the same as it is pharmaceutical. Therefore, in addition to the three categories of herbal antibiotics described above, Buhner provides details on eight herbs used specifically for boosting the immune system:
- Red Root
When worked into one’s regular diet, these herbs can go a long way towards strengthening the immune system and helping a person fight off bacterial infections before they become a problem. Often times, these herbs can be taken at the onset of infections in order to nip it in the bud. Buhner describes in detail how the immune system functions and where each of these herbs enhance the various functional areas of that system. [Pages 247-315]
It’s my belief that one can only know something to be true if they have experienced that something through first hand observation and their own five senses. Anything else held to be true is simply a belief that something is true based on faith in someone else’s experience. Therefore, it is impossible to know if this stuff actually works unless you try it yourself. Well, Buhner encourages his readers to get to know plants by experimenting with them. I have taken this advice to heart and have tried several of them as various situations seemed to warrant. Now, I know the following examples are no substitute for a proper clinical trial. These are just my own isolated experiences that seem to corroborate what I read. It’s also worth mentioning these herbs didn’t all come from the book being reviewed in this post. Since reading Herbal Antibitoics, I have gone on to read three other books:
- Herbal Antivirals: Natural Remedies for Emerging and Resistant Viral Infections by Stephen Harrod Buhner (416 Pages)
- Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation by Stephen Harrod Buhner (450 Pages)
- Wise Women Herbal for the Childbearing Year by Susun Weed (171 Pages)
Below are some confirmatory experiences I have had regarding a small selection of herbs.
Buhner describes licorice as a potent synergist in that it amplifies the effects of other chemicals. [Pages 216-221] To try it out, I was once taking licorice in combination with some other herbs to help fight off an incoming cold. I had no way of knowing if it really was helping the other herbs become more readily absorbed by my body, but then I had a few drinks and let’s just say those few drinks unexpectedly affected me much more strongly than they should have. I realize this is pretty weak anecdotal evidence, but I’m convinced the licorice facilitated heightened absorption into the bloodstream.
Ginger is described by Buhner as a synergist that increases the effects of other herbs and pharmaceuticals by relaxing blood vessels and increasing circulation, which allows for better transport of constituents throughout the body. It’s also excellent at boosting the immune system [2, Pages 227-231] and is a powerful anti-fungal [3, Pages 294-298]. Hoping to put its powerful anti-fungal qualities to the test, I have started regularly drinking it in a teas and let’s just say that my toenails are looking much better since I started – proof positive as far as I’m concerned.
During my wife’s last pregnancy, she began complaining about back pain. Nettle is primarily recommended during pregnancy because it is high in vitamins A, C, D, and K, as well as calcium, potassium, phosphorus, iron, and sulphur. In particular, this promotes an easing of cramps and other muscle spasms, and prevention of hemorrhage (from the vitamin K). [4, Pages 20-21] Corroborating its usefulness for backache, Nettle is also recommended for arthritis perhaps because it contains 47 parts per million of boron, a chemical recommended for use by the Rheumatoid Arthritis Foundation. [3, Pages 272-276] Indeed, shortly after working nettle infusions into her regular diet, my wife’s back pain drastically subsided, proof positive for us!
At one point later in the same pregnancy, she was having some difficulty sleeping and, oddly enough, so was I. It turns out that hops, the herb used as a preservative and/or flavor-add in beer brewing, is primarily used as a sleep-aid or sedative in herbal medicine. [Page 370] I have tested the herb both by making an infusion or mixing it directly into food and – lo and behold – it knocks you out like a light. Perhaps hops aren’t the smartest thing to add to beer after all…
When my daughter was 15 months old, she started getting eczema on her face, legs, and back. Proactiv worked but it would immediately come back upon disuse. After several months, I decided to try herbal options. Figuring most pharmaceuticals treat symptoms and not causes, I looked for an herb to assist her developing immune system since eczema is often caused by abnormal immune response. After a couple immunomodulating herbs that made the problem worse, I tried dandelion root and it worked almost instantly. Dandelion root is a powerful liver herb, and by increasing the efficiency of the liver I thought it might aid the immune system. Six drops of dandelion tincture each night cleared the eczema and when we stopped the treatments the problem never came back. [3, Page 281]
The Misunderstood are Often Hated
Why do modern doctors immediately write off any herbal medicine as the equivalent of fantasy witchcraft when so many people have benefited from them over thousands of years? Perhaps it is because enough generations of doctors have passed where now there is no understanding whatsoever of herbal medicine. In the section on Cryptolepis, Buhner refers to proof that this herb is stronger than the pharmaceutical antibiotic chloramphenicol and that it works practically without fail on drug-resistant staph infections unresponsive to multiple antibiotic regimens. However despite this, several studies have shown that the herb is ineffective, not because it actually is ineffective but because those conducting the studies did not understand that vinegar is required to be added to the solvent because the root constituents do not dissolve well in alkaline water. [2, Pages 85-96] This basic misunderstanding of the effective use of the herb has led to complete dismissal of its usefulness. This is just one example of a larger trend in herbal misunderstanding.
The discovery of penicillin and subsequent revolution in treating disease through the use of antibiotics was certainly a game changer in human history. It’s no wonder we cast aside the old medicines for the new. However, as these medicines become less and less effective, perhaps it is time we as a species revisit the non-pharmaceutical options. The most successful athletes cross-train because they know playing other sports somehow helps their game. Similarly, doctors would do well to cross-train with herbal medicine, as it would further enrich their understanding of medicine in a way that can only improve their own practice. Simply because antibiotics can be miracle-working cures does not mean that herbs can’t be equally as miracle-working if they are properly understood and implemented. It’s my belief that as this story unfolds, those doctors who become experts in both pharmaceutical and herbal medicine will be the best equipped to most effectively treat the bacterial infections of the future.
Additionally, it’s my belief that we should seriously reduce our over-use of antibiotics. It seems both intuitive and indisputable to me that over-subjecting bacteria to antibiotics makes them more resistant, therefore reducing the effectiveness of our most valued drugs, and that those drugs should be reserved for only the most critical of applications. A life-threatening infection or a sterile operating room may be two good applications, but so many other applications are probably unnecessary. Hand sanitizers, dish soap, factory farms, fruit orchards, and salmon farms probably qualify as over-use.
What I have personally taken away from this book is, first and foremost, an appreciation for alternatives to pharmaceuticals. Second, I have made it a point to reduce or eliminate wherever possible my own individual use of antibiotics. Third, I have started to read, learn, and experiment with herbs at home. I’ve begun learning how to enrich my diet with herbal supplements through infusions, tinctures, and home-brews, and I’ve started lists of herbs that I one day wish to grow on my future homestead both for my family and my animals. The better we can re-learn the lost wisdom of herbal medicine the quicker we can give ourselves additional options for keeping ourselves, our animals, and our families safe no matter what comes our way.
- Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Quoted from Facebook feed, 11 July 2016. (Source)
- Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Herbal Antibiotics. Storey Publishing, 2nd Edition, 17 July 2012. (Source)
- Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers: The Secrets of Ancient Fermentation. Brewers Publications, 18 September 1998. (Source)
- Weed, Susun. Wise Women Herbal for the Childbearing Year. Ash Tree Publishing, 11 April 1996. (Source)