The discovery and use of antibiotics represented a giant leap forward for humankind. It allowed us to overcome many previously deadly infections with a quick round of treatment, but these days both the overuse and misuse of antibiotics has led to an increasing issue of antibiotic resistance. While medical centers struggle to cope with the influx of resistant strains, the research community is also struggling to develop new antibiotics to target the increasingly deadly varieties such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). According to the most recent data, as reported by CNN, MRSA infections caused the deaths of 1 in 8 people infected as recently as 2011.
But recently, there was a breakthrough, as discussed on a 2015 episode of the Radiolab podcast. Surprisingly the breakthrough wasn’t from some new antibiotic formulation, or a complex combination, it was from a thousand-year-old recipe from an ancient Anglo-Saxon text. This formulation, recreated by two researchers from the University of Nottingham, was for an eye salve, and the ingredients as the two scientists interpreted, were all both common and natural – specifically garlic, onion or leeks, wine and cow bile. Much to their surprise, and the surprise of the entire medical community, this strange concoction effectively killed up to 90% of the MRSA bacteria.
How could something so simple, made with such common ingredients, kill something that has been threatening the medical world for so long? It might lie in one of the most common ingredients of all – garlic.
A Brief History of Medicinal Garlic
Originating in Asia, garlic quickly spread throughout the world, both as a aromatic food and as a medicine. Allium sativum, more commonly known as garlic, is from the same family of plants as onion, leek and chive. Just like it was used during medieval times to treat infection (although the scientific backing was unbeknownst to its practitioners), it has been used throughout the ages for many other medicinal applications.
It is actually one of the oldest known medicines, with documentation from as far back as ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China and India. More recently, garlic was used during the bubonic plague by gravediggers as they buried the dead. They would drink what was essentially garlic tea to stave off infection. Even as recently as World War II, when medicines were in short supply, soldiers were using garlic to reduce the severity of infection in the trenches, specifically targeting gangrene.
Antibiotics and Garlic
Garlic contains two different compounds that are separate until combined through crushing, chopping or mincing. They are activated to create the extremely beneficial compound called allicin. This compound is responsible for the strong garlic aroma, which is diluted or killed off if cooked. Stale garlic also is significantly less potent in terms of its allicin content. Allicin is the natural antibiotic component of garlic, which when tested has been found to be at least 1/50th as powerful as penicillin. However, because different strains of bacteria react to different strains of antibiotics, its potency in comparison to more traditional antibiotics should be considered with a grain of salt. Afterall, it was part of the concoction that killed of MRSA one of the most deadly, drug resistant bacteria currently on record.
Antibiotics, normally, work so well in combating bacterial infections because they use many methods of attack. Some antibiotics target the reproduction of the bacteria, while others target their defense mechanisms. Still others break their outer cellular membranes, or target their DNA structures. There are a myriad of different ways that antibiotics can negatively affect bacteria, just as there are a myriad of different bacteria floating around waiting to cause a serious infection.
Current Research into Garlic as an Antibiotic
What was old is new again, and garlic is no exception. Beyond the rather shocking discovery that it was part of an effective MRSA treatment, there are tons of other current studies proving its potential to be an effective antibiotic:
- The bacteria known as Helicobacter Pylori infects most of the world’s digestive tract. When it is allowed to grow unchecked it can lead to stomach ulcers and stomach cancer, and unfortunately for some people it is untreatable with modern medications in about 20% of cases. Thankfully, recent research has found that garlic is able to inhibit the growth of this bacteria when all else has failed.
- One of the most common and widespread commercial medical disinfectants used to disinfect skin prior to surgery is called chlorhexidine. Garlic has been found to be just as effective as chlorhexidine, and so far, seems to create much less resistance than modern antibiotic formulations.
- Sepsis infections slowly progresses from an initially mild infection of a wound to something much more severe and ultimately to septic shock syndrome which can easily lead to death. Garlic has been found through in vivo research to effectively boost the immune system and stop the progression of this infection before it’s too late.