7 Effective Natural Antibiotics and How to Take Them
by Catherine Morris | March 3, 2021, updated about 2 years ago
The human body is under constant attack from invisible invaders—sneaky bacteria just waiting for you to cut your finger, eat something that’s been lingering on the counter too long, or catch a cold. Happily, our own microbiome can usually handle any assault, powering up the immune system and sending the 'good' bacteria in to hold the front line.
Unfortunately it's not a foolproof system. If you're stressed, rundown, or tired, you're more prone to catching infections and that's when you might need a helping hand from natural sources.
Of course, serious infections can be life-threatening and these require medical treatment, so if in any doubt seek assistance. The below suggestions are for those who have mild ailments and want to avoid the nasty side effects that so often come with a course of conventional antibiotics.
I always thought oregano was just a flavourful herb that made spaghetti and pizza taste amazing. Then a friend recommended it for a nasty sinus infection (with great results) and I realized I'd underestimated this powerful plant.
Now I use oregano oil for everything and there's always a bottle (or two) in my cupboards. Colds, flus, skin infections… you name it, I've killed it with oregano.
Evidence of oregano's anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral properties isn't just anecdotal. Oregano performed well in clinical trials—beating out conventional drugs to kill multidrug-resistant microbes by damaging their biofilm and essentially rendering them inactive.
How to take it
Be careful with oregano. No matter how much you love Italian food, the herb in oil form has a very strong, almost burning, taste so it's important to dilute it in juice or water.
My own solution is 3-4 drops in a glass of water, taken 3 times a day until symptoms subside, but it's best to test your tolerance and find what works for you. Start small and work your way up until you feel relief.
It's also not a good idea to take it long-term—if you don't see any relief from your mild infection within a week, stop taking it and consult your doctor.
2. Uva Ursi
There are three words guaranteed to strike terror into the heart of every woman (and a few unlucky men). Urinary. Tract. Infection.
These pesky ailments feel anything but minor when you're in the grip of one, but before rushing to the doctor, see if you can get your hands on some uva ursi. The herb (also known as bearberry) is a traditional remedy for bladder infections and UTIs as it kills E coli, the bacteria commonly involved in these types of infections.
The herb is helpful in other ways. It's a natural diuretic, meaning it'll make you pee more and therefore flush out those harmful bacteria, and it's a natural anti-inflammatory, soothing the irritated tissues in the urinary tract and bladder lining.
How to take it
Uva ursi is best used at the very first signs of infection, and shouldn't be used for longer than five days as it contains a compound, hydroquinone, that can damage the liver.
Uva ursi is widely available from herbalists and in health shops. You can usually find it in either a pill or a tincture—both are effective. Follow the directions on the label and remember to drink plenty of water while self-treating. You can also try sipping uva ursi tea, although this form is typically less concentrated and therefore less effective if you require immediate relief.
It's also a good idea to avoid bladder irritants such as sugar, alcohol and caffeine to give your body the best chance of fighting off the infection. As always, if it doesn't clear up within a week or worsens, seek medical help.
3. Tea Tree
Infected cut? Acne outbreak? Athlete's foot? Get yourself some tea tree oil, a topical antibiotic that's very effective for skin infections.
All plants produce antimicrobial compounds. What makes tea tree so special is that researchers have found a way to extract these germ-fighters and transform them into a solid coating, without losing any of their potency.
Just as tea tree can help fight bacteria on your skin by forming a protective barrier, their bioactive coatings can be used on medical devices, to keep instruments sterile in medical settings. This makes tea tree an important weapon in the fight against hospital-acquired infections and, potentially, a way of reducing our reliance on antibiotics in the future.
How to take it
Tea tree is commonly sold as an essential oil, which you can dilute and apply directly to the skin. Like many essential oils, tea tree can be toxic to pets, so be careful if applying around your fur babies.
If diluting, pick a neutral carrier oil such as almond, jojoba or coconut, or keep it simple by adding a few drops to a small amount of water. Oh, and you probably know this already but never take tea tree internally. This oil is powerful but can be poisonous if swallowed.
Given the fact that our mouths are basically filthy petri dishes, it's no surprise that teeth and gum issues are some of the most common bacterial infections among adults. Next time you feel something amiss in your mouth, reach for clove oil to treat both the symptoms and the infection itself.
Clove oil contains eugenol, which doesn't just eliminate the bacteria infesting your mouth but also provides a welcome analgesic effect—I've dabbed it on a few achy teeth in my time to kill both the agonising throbbing pain and the bacteria causing it.
In trials, clove oil was successful at eradicating some of the most common and plentiful bacteria, including names you may be familiar with such as E coli, salmonella, strep, and candida yeast.
How to take it
Clove oil is very pungent. Don't take it neat or you'll experience the full force of its burning sting. Instead, dilute a few drops in water before applying to your tender dental tissues.
For better oral health in general, add a few drops of clove oil to your regular mouthwash to ward off infections and cavities.
You can also add the oil to a diffuser—the antibacterial effect still works if inhaled and is effective at fighting respiratory infections.
Garlic is probably the oldest and most well-known antibiotic on our list. Not only is it delicious, it also works on a wide range of bacteria.
Garlic extract is effective against yeast infections, especially when applied topically to the affected area.
It can also provide much-needed relief from chronic infections that stubbornly cling on despite conventional antibiotics. A 2017 study from the University of Copenhagen found that garlic wiped out antibiotic resistant bacteria in cystic fibrosis patients, weakening the bad bugs' biofilm so it could be eradicated.
How to take it
There's no special trick to getting your garlic… just eat it. Don't do what I did and try to eat four cloves at once to get rid of a lingering cold (it worked but it also turned me into a pungent no-go zone for several weeks), but do liberally sneak it into your favourite recipes and/or put generous amounts into your bone broth.
If you hate the taste however, you can get flavourless garlic (or allicin) capsules—this has the advantage of giving you a therapeutic dose in one go. If you're on blood-thinners, speak to your doctor before starting a garlic regime as the supplement can interfere with these types of medications.
6. Grape Seed
Grape seeds are the cast-offs of the wine and grape juice industries, discarded as industrial by-products. One person's trash is another's treasure however, and this particular plant waste is a must-have for your natural first aid kit.
Compounds in grape seeds can eradicate all the usual suspects—E coli, salmonella, and listeria. Studies show it's particularly powerful against foodborne bugs so keep it handy for times when you eat something you shouldn't. It also fights yeast, making it a good weapon against candida or thrush.
How to take it
Drink lots of wine! Only kidding. Sadly wine won't do the trick (and is probably not a great idea when you're sick anyway).
Instead, browse your local pharmacy or health store for grape seed extract (GSE). This is the concentrated version of the plant product and is used as a dietary supplement in pill, liquid, or tincture form.
It's not as common, but you can also find GSE in creams to apply to wounds or skin blemishes. While these don't have as much clinical evidence supporting their use, the established antibacterial properties of GSE make them worth considering.
Elderberry is my go-to for anything respiratory related. Scratchy throat? Elderberry. Stuffy head? Elderberry. Tickle in the throat? Elderberry. You get the idea.
Elderberry is your best natural defence against the bacteria that love to cozy up in the warm lining of your respiratory tract. It's a proven flu fighter, and reduces both the symptoms and duration of respiratory infections.
How to take it
Elderberry tincture or syrup is a popular item in health stores, usually found in the 'colds and flu' or 'immune system boosters' sections. It's a delicious, sweet-tasting liquid similar to cough syrup.
Interestingly enough, research shows that elderberry is most effective when taken in the throes of the infection, rather than the early stages, and it's also a good idea to keep taking it for a while after symptoms resolve to keep up your immunity.
Interested in finding out more about natural antibiotics? Talk to one of our Which Doctor herbalists, dietitians, or naturopaths today to see how you can best use these naturally potent remedies and take your health in your own hands.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.