The widespread use of antibiotics to treat common maladies has been a topic of great concern for some years now. At the core of the issue is the evolution of antibiotic-resistant “super bugs”. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2013 that at least 2 million people every year acquire serious infections with bacteria that are resistant to one or more of the antibiotics designed to treat those infections. Also, it is estimated that at least 23,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant infections.*
The increasing number of drug-resistant infections has other consequences. They also result in a more serious course of infection, prolonged recovery time; more frequent doctor visits, ER visits and hospitalizations, and higher costs of treatment. Very powerful antibiotics have been developed to combat these problems. Unfortunately, they have harsh side-effects.
A Natural Evolution of Resistance
It is biologically normal and to be expected that bacteria becomes resistant when repeatedly exposed to drugs. Exposure ‘teaches’ bacteria to protect themselves from the drug. In effect, the super bugs become able to neutralize the attack of an antibiotic. This does not, however, just impact the existing disease-causing bacteria that confronts an antibiotic. Bacterium that survives an antibiotic treatment can then multiply and pass on its resistant properties. Also, some bacteria can transfer their drug-resistant properties to other bacteria — as if passing along a cheat sheet to help each other survive. **
Antibiotics are intended to fight infection caused by bacteria, but are often inappropriately used to viral infections, too. The Mayo Clinic has said that taking an antibiotic when you actually have a viral infection will harm the beneficial bacteria in your body and promote antibiotic-resistant properties in harmless bacteria. The Mayo Clinic also lists common ailments often inappropriately treated with antibiotics which include:
- the common cold
- most sore throats
- most coughs
- some ear infections
- some sinus infections
Other causes of antibiotic-induced problems arise in usual practices that many of us do not think of as harmful. These include:
- Receiving a prescription for antibiotics without tests to determine the cause of an infection. This greatly heightens the risk of treating viral infections with antibiotics which is inappropriate and spreads antibiotic resistance.
- Self-diagnosis of infections and requesting antibiotic prescriptions from care providers or via Internet. The likelihood of misdiagnosis is high.
- The use of borrowed or leftover antibiotics from previous treatments. This also involves self-diagnosis which is apt to be incorrect and result in inappropriate use of antibiotics to treat viral infections.
- Failure to take an antibiotic as prescribed–stopping the course of antibiotics because you feel better does not kill the bacteria being treated. Consequently, the illness can resume and antibiotic-resistance has meanwhile been spread among the disease-causing bacteria.**
Western Medicine and Chinese Medicine
The divide between modern pharmaceuticals and herbal medicines is not as wide as you may think. In fact, most modern drugs were originally derived from natural sources. One of the chief differences between lab-created compounds and Chinese herbal medicines is that the majority of herbs do not have the same harsh side-effects as lab-created drugs.
The discovery of antibiotic drugs was a significant and landmark advance in Western medicine, and is relatively recent. We have had modern antibiotics less than a century. Chinese herbalists, on the other hand, have used herbal medicines to treat infection for at least 2000 years. A traditional text in Chinese medicine called Theory of Febrile Diseases and Synopsis of the Golden Cabinet, was written by Zhang Zhongjing (150-219 AD). It and other such texts include effective herbal antibiotic formulas.
One of the greatest contributions to the treatment of infectious diseases today may lie in the effectiveness of Chinese herbal medicines. They can be helpful in treating conditions complicated by antibiotic-resistance. Chinese herbal formulas can reduce reliance upon antibiotics alone to treat bacteria-caused infectious disease. They can also treat viral and fungal infections as well.
Infection in Chinese Medicine
Chinese medicine differs from Western medicine in its conceptualization of infectious disease treatment. Traditionally, Western medicine focuses upon the ‘germ’ which invades the host to bring infection. Its cure is to kill the invader. Chinese medicine recognizes infectious organisms, but also seeks to improve the body’s immunity during treatment.
For ‘outpatient’ infections–those not involving severe bodily trauma or needing acute care–Chinese medicine offers a gentler approach. It does not promote antibiotic resistance and it seeks to strengthen the immune system to aid recovery and prevent future illness. For people with antibiotic resistance, Chinese medicine offers a viable alternative to the use of new and harsher antibiotics.
If you are in the Louisville area and would like to discuss the use of Chinese herbalism to treat infection, you can discuss this with Jeffrey Russell at his clinic, Abacus Chinese Medicine, Louisville Acupuncture and Chinese Herbalism.
You can reach him at 502 299-8900.