The answer to antibiotic resistance may be a lot less complicated than you might think: research points to essential oils. Yes, the botanicals used in soaps, candles, skin care products and perfumes.
Most essential oils, which are concentrated essences of flowers, barks, leaves, roots and seeds, are naturally antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral. While oil distilled from a flower may seem like little more than a pleasant smelling decoction, there are high concentrations of potent plant chemicals inside those oils.
According to the Atlantic, “Numerous recent studies—including several done by the USDA—have shown great promise in using essential oils as an alternative to antibiotics in livestock.”
Essential oils shouldn’t be considered cure-alls—last year there were distributors making outlandish claims that the oils could “cure ebola” despite there having been no clinical studies to back up the claims. The FDA ordered the distributors to remove such language from websites. The misrepresentations of a few aside, essential oils do have a wide range of known benefits revered in folk healing traditions around the world. Science seems to be catching up to history now, too. Again, the Atlantic:
A handful of promising, real-life studies have been conducted with humans and other animals, though most of the research in that realm thus far has been conducted in the lab. More controlled trials will be required before some of these applications will be available to the public, but meanwhile, scientists have turned up exciting results in another area of use: countering the growing antibiotic-resistance crisis.
Livestock uses most of the antibiotic reserves in the U.S.—as much as 8o percent, “This rampant use of the drugs has led to ‘superbugs’ that are becoming increasingly resistant to the antibiotics that are used to treat not just farm animals, but humans as well,” the Atlantic explains. And most of the drugs aren’t used to treat an illness or infection; they’re used to enhance animal growth so they reach market weight quicker.
Antibiotic resistant bacteria are rampant in hospitals and extremely difficult to treat. These infections often call for more dangerous drugs that include higher risks to the patient. Sometimes, nothing works and antibiotic-resistant infections can kill.
The World Health Organization has warned that we’re now entering a “post-antibiotic era” where even a scraped knee could become lethal. A recent UK report estimated 10 million deaths worldwide due to antibiotic resistance by 2050.
Getting antibiotics out of the food supply would greatly decrease the number of antibiotic-resistant human infections, and it may not be difficult or expensive. According to the Atlantic, a study published in 2014 “found that chickens who consumed feed with added oregano oil had a 59 percent lower mortality rate due to ascites, a common infection in poultry, than untreated chickens.”
Not only did the oregano oil work to stave off the infections, but additional research also found oregano - along with cinnamon and chili oils - increased weight gain in the animals as well. And notes the Atlantic, a 2010 study from Poultry Science “produced similar findings with the use of extracts from turmeric, chili pepper, and shiitake mushrooms. A multi-year study is currently underway at the USDA that includes investigations into the use of citrus peels and essential oils as drug alternatives.”
The Atlantic also notes several studies where essential oils showed results in treating human infections as well, including vaginosis and staph. Even a simple hand sanitizer containing tea tree oil showed promise in preventing the spread of MRSA, the Atlantic explains, “This type of simple, inexpensive fix—an essential-oil-based hand sanitizer—could be a major boost to hospitals, in particular, since MRSA infections are so common in healthcare settings.”
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Chickens eating image via Shutterstock