One word spoken by the World Health Organization (WHO) has rocked the health world, confirming what natural health practitioners have warned us about for years: superbugs.
The overuse of antibiotics and antimicrobial treatments is creating drug resistance, a public health threat in which bacteria, a fungus, or a virus can become completely resistant to drugs – a superbug that can withstand all treatment. The WHO statement on superbugs cautioned,
This means that standard treatments no longer work; infections are harder or impossible to control; the risk of the spread of infection to others is increased; illness and hospital stays are prolonged, with added economic and social costs; and the risk of death is greater—in some cases, twice that of patients who have infections caused by non-resistant bacteria. (1)
It's no wonder that the White House's National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria report recently stated, “The development of non-traditional approaches that are less likely to drive resistance is an important step in breaking the cycle of drug development immediately followed by the development of resistance.” Included in the list of proposed non-traditional therapeutic strategies were phytochemicals and essential oils.
A Public Health Crisis
When traditional medicines are taken for their antibiotic, antiviral, and antifungal effects, far more than the targeted concern is destroyed. The gastrointestinal system probably fares the worst, with beneficial microbial life disrupted. To restore balance, energy and healing efforts are directed toward this damage, taking away from other healing and wellness efforts. Essentially, a spiral of insufficient gut flora reduces immunity, diverts restorative energy, and weakens the body, which is then susceptible to more infections that would need more treatment, and the cycle goes on. You can see how superbugs can quickly become lethal.
Superbug H041 is a sexually transmitted disease that was discovered by public health officials in Japan in 2011. Researchers and natural health professionals agree that this is a frighteningly dangerous health threat. Professor Cathy Ison of the National Reference Laboratory for Gonorrhea expects that it will become untreatable soon. (2) Health officials in the US called for over $50 million in immediate education and awareness funding to help mitigate the dangers of H041. (3)
This is just an example of superbug transmission that should concern us even if we aren't practicing unsafe sex, because it demonstrates the capability superbugs have to threaten public health.
What Are Health Officials To Do?
Should they allocate more money to engineer even stronger, more potent antibiotics that will inevitably become useless or – worse- enhance the problem as bacteria evolve permanent resistance? Or, in a novel approach, could Congress approve measures to fund research toward the best ways to use natural, established, effective solutions like essential oils? I see much more long term potential in the latter, and here are some of the reasons why.
Tea Tree Oil – Natural Antibiotic
Melaleuca Alternifolia hails from Australia, used as a traditional remedy on the eastern coast for centuries. Crushed tea tree leaves soothed cuts and wounds in medicinal poultices. Inhaled vapors treated respiratory illness and discomfort. Finally, in 1923, tea tree oil's antiseptic benefits were scientifically validated when Arthur Penfold discovered the essential oil was a dozen times stronger than carbolic acid!
With this knowledge in hand, Australians brought tea tree oil with them as they fought in World War II. Around this time, pharmaceutical antibiotics came on the scene, disparaging the use of natural remedies. Just a few short years after Western science proved the efficacy of a centuries old traditional remedy, the same science threw it by the wayside. In the ‘60s, the disdain was so heavily felt that the tea tree oil industry collapsed completely, only recently making its return to global popularity.
Tea Tree Research
Slowly, science is catching up in explaining why tea tree oil is such an effective antimicrobial agent. Over three hundred studies are returned referring to tea tree oil's antimicrobial benefits. We know that centuries of use were warranted, but now we are seeing reasoning for Melaleuca's effectiveness in traditional remedies for conditions such as:
- Bacterial infections
- Cold sores
- Congestion and respiratory tract infections
- Fungal infections
- Head lice
- Dry cuticles
- Insect bites, sores and sunburns
- Boils from staph infections
And this list doesn't even include the cosmetic and general home uses of tea tree oil, such as make-up removal, laundry freshening and deodorizing.
Returning to its basic foundation as an antibiotic, a 2013 Phytomedicine study weighed the safety factors involved with taking essential oils alongside traditional antibiotics. The essential oils, including tea tree oil, were safe and free of adverse reactions taken in conjunction with popular antibiotics ampicillin, piperacillin, cefazolin, cefuroxime, carbenicillin, ceftazidime and meropenem. What's more, the synergistic effects that we love so much with combined essential oils sometimes occurred with the antibiotics, potentially helping to prevent some resistance. (4) If you absolutely must take an antibiotic course, it may be beneficial to add tea tree oil alongside it.
If it were up to me and some researchers, the antibiotics would never be up for use in the first place. Tea tree oil demonstrated itself as fully effective against Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus sobrinus, Streptococcus mutans, and Escherichia coli in a recent study out of Taiwan, with additional benefits as an anti-inflammatory agent. (5)
Not only does this indicate a promising natural alternative to antibiotics in terms of resistance, but as an affordable remedy, it is a cost effective solution, as well.
Although the scientific literature is very quiet regarding specific essential oil protocols, many people have found the following to be helpful:
- Apply diluted tea tree oil on the bottoms of feet. Proper dilution depends on individual sensitivity: 1 drop of EO per 3-5 drops of carrier oil is a good start for adults. For children use extra caution, and be sure to use even more carrier oil.
- Put 1 drop of tea tree + 1 drop of oregano in a gel capsule and consume. For people battling a cold, consider taking up two capsules a day.
Caution and Reassurance
As with any strong oil, potency should be considered with regard to safety, and some have suggested that tea tree may be toxic and too strong to use. Officially, thanks to a study out of the Journal of Ethnopharmocology, researchers have deemed it safe to use, just as centuries of wisdom and use have indicated. (6) Simple antibiotic safety principles should be observed, such as confirming bacterial infection before treatment, using only what you need, and protecting your esophagus by ingesting 1-2 drops in gel capsules.
A Note About Estrogen and Tea Tree
The only reason why we’re even having this discussion is because of a poorly researched 2007 New England Journal of Medicine article titled, “Prepubertal Gynecomastia Linked to Lavender and Tea Tree Oils.” The long and the short of it is that three boys obscurely developed idiopathic cases of prepubertal gynecomastia (when boys experience enlarged, tender breast buds) for a short period of time (1 – 5 months).
It was determined that all three patients were using either a shampoo, lotion, soap or balm that included lavender oil and tea tree oil as ingredients. The researchers extrapolated that these essential oils were “estrogenic” based off of a preliminary in vitro evaluation. In their words, “On the basis of the three case reports and the in vitro studies, we suspect that repeated topical application of over-the-counter products containing lavender oil or tea tree oil was the cause of gynecomastia in the three patients.” (7)
There are several epidemiological reasons why this conclusion is false and is out of the scope of this article to cover each one, but I’ll leave you with this thought: just because lavender and tea tree oils were two common ingredients in the products that these three boys were using, it does not prove that they were the cause. This is a classic statistics blunder that many make. “Correlation does not imply causation,” because there are countless other variables that not being considered (diet, environmental triggers, medicines, and etc.).
Suffice it to say that essential oils safety expert Robert Tisserand emphatically states that, “Lavender [and tea tree] oil does not mimic estrogen nor does it enhance the body’s own estrogens. It is therefore not a ‘hormone disruptor’, cannot cause breast growth in young boys (or girls of any age), and is safe to use by anyone at risk for estrogen-dependent cancer.” (8) And Tisserand’s conclusion has been supported by more recent research.
In 2013, for instance, the International Journal of Toxicology published a study confirming that lavender is not estrogenic, at least in female rats. Whether it is for humans remains to be seen, but there is literally no research to prove otherwise. (9)