Nature’s Antibiotics


Throughout his life Louis Pasteur, namesake of the pasteurization process of sterilization, maintained that disease was caused by microbes invading the body and that they must be killed or destroyed in order to achieve or maintain good health. His nemesis was Anton Bechamp who espoused the theory that it was the resistance of the host that determined the success of the invading microbe and that improved general health would lead to reduced infection. The scientific community of their time came down squarely in favour of Pasteur and so was born the modern germ theory.

On his death bed Pasteur renounced his life work by stating “…the microbe is nothing, the terrain is everything”. He acceded to Bechamps’ theory but the scientific community did not heed his words – so much ego and investment had already been invested in the germ theory that the juggernaut rolled on. When penicillin was discovered it was hailed as the saviour of mankind – at last a truly effective way to kill all those pesky bacteria that cause disease.

There can be no denying the life saving benefits of penicillin and other antibiotics, but bacteria are supremely clever for such a simple organism, and they can readily adapt and mutate to be resistant to whatever antibiotic we throw at them. Super-resistant bacteria, flesh eating disease, chronic allergies, Candida infections, auto-immune dysfunctions – all may be the legacy of 40 years of indiscriminate prescribing of antibiotics.

In the holistic model of health the terrain, the internal environment, is considered to be of paramount importance. A healthy body will have innate resistance to many bacteria, and if infection occurs, can often fight it off successfully. To this end, the holistic practitioner will consider the diet and exercise habits of the patient as well as occupation, relaxation and stress factors in the lifestyle. Only once these factors have been considered will remedies be used to fight the infection directly.

Herbal anti-microbial agents usually work by interfering selectively with cell membrane functions so that metabolic processes of the bacteria are disrupted and death of the organism ensues. Usually other herbs are used as well, to strengthen the mucous membranes where infections enter, to improve the condition and quantity of mucous produced, to encourage a mildly elevated temperature to fight the microbes and enhance immune function, to enhance expectoration etc.

Two lesser known but remarkably effective anti-microbial and immuno-modulating herbs are described here:

OLD MAN’S BEARD (Usnea spp.)

Many different species of Usnea are used as medicine, including U. hirta, U. barbata, U. florida, U. longissima, U. dasypoga, U. bayle and U. lobata. It has a recorded history of therapeutic use dating back to ancient China (where it was called Sun-lo and used for cooling an overheated system and as treatment for surface infections) and it was mentioned in the Formulary of Al-kindi ca. 850 AD..


Usnea is a lichen (part fungus, part algae) which lives throughout the northern temperate zones, especially the sub-arctic and coastal rainforest areas. Usnea has a preference for old growth trees and its habitat is being steadily eroded by modern logging practices. Usnea should only be bought from certified wildcrafters who understand the ecological cycles and will not over harvest. Usnea also has the tendency to accumulate heavy metals from the air so caution is required when harvesting to ensure that there is sufficient distance from any significant sources of pollution. The plant has a greyish green color and grows as a bushy mat from a few inches to two or three feet long, hanging off the trunks and branches. It feels dry and coarse. Some species have an inner core of white material which may be exposed by gently pulling on either end of a strand. The outer coating will tear apart to reveal the tough inner cord. It is believed to provide tensile strength to the strand and may be a polysaccharide food store. These white-cored species are considered to offer the most valuable medicinal effect. When buying Usnea you should look for this white inner core.

Constituents and actions

Because of their long tradition of use as antimicrobial agents by indigenous peoples, lichens attracted attention early on in the search for antibiotics. By 1944 it was found that as many as half the lichens studied contained lichen acids which exhibited variable antibiotic activity. They are particularly active against gram positive bacteria such as streptococcus, staphylococcus and mycobacteria and are generally not effective against gram negative bacteria such as salmonella and E. Coli.

Medicinal Use of some species of Usnea

Species: Usnea hirta

Constituent: usnic, thamnolic & usnaric acids

Action: antibiotic

Usnea barbata:

  • barbatolic, usnic, lobaric &tartaric acids
  • used homeopathically against headaches and sunstroke

Usnea florida:

  • usnic, stictinic & lobaric acids
  • antibiotic and anti-tubercular

Usnea longissima:

  • usnic & evernic acids
  • expectorant

Usnic acid and its derivatives appear to be the main active constituents in Usnea spp. It is believed to work against gram positive bacteria by disrupting cell membrane functions and so preventing ATP formation and oxidative phosphorylation. Human cells are less permeable to usnic acid and so are not adversely affected

Usnic acid is only poorly water-soluble so tinctures with about 70% ethyl alcohol will allow a faster action while simple decoctions are suitable for long term use.

Unidentified constituents in Usnea spp. have also been suggested as offering an immuno-modulating effect upon the whole leucocyte protection system but this has not yet been clincally evaluated.

Usnic acid had, in an in vitro experiment, completely inhibited the growth of human tuberculosis bacillus in dilutions as low as 1 : 50,000 and weakened their growth at dilutions of only 1 : 200,000. It also inhibited the growth of streptococcus, Staphylococcus and Pneumococcus at a dilution of 1 : 20,000.

Clinical applications

(compiled from discussions with clinical herbalists, based on empirical evidence)


Effective against tinea infections such as ringworm, athletes foot and also against Candida albicans.


Effective against Trichomonas and Chlamydia in vaginal infections.


Effective against gram positive bacteria in local or systemic infections

Immune regulator & supporter – boosts the immune system in cases such as acute and chronic lung infections (pleurisy, TB and pneumonia, colds and flus and any other time of poor immune function.

Dosage and pharmacy

Traditional uses of Usnea include dusting the powdered herb directly onto open or infected wounds, making strong decoctions, and tincturing the herb in alcohol to optimize the immune enhancing effect. It is also successfully employed in a salve where fat is used as the solvent for lichen acids.

Tincture 1 : 3, 70% alcohol standard adult dose is 3 mL three times daily or more in acute cases.


Caution should be used if applying the herb directly to the skin because an allergic contact dermatitis may occur. In this event, try using the herb internally instead. There are no reported side effects of using the tincture or decoction. Many herbalists consider it a safe herb to use in auto-immune conditions, where the immune system is over active and attacks selected tissues of thebody, but I would advise caution and regular monitoring of blood components and immune fractions.

Biscuit Root (Lomatium dissectum and spp.)

First Nation people call this Indian Consumption Plant, and this genus has repeatedly demonstrated efficacy against a variety of bacterial infections including the dreaded TB that decimated the Native population in the Americas when the white man first arrived. The name Lomatium comes from the Latin loma meaning ‘border’ and refers to the winged fruits.


There are a great many species and varieties of this genus, possibly as many as 80, ranging from 20″ to 7′ in height and all appearing to exhibit medicinal activity. The root is fleshy, thick and irregularly shaped with many knobs and protuberances. The root is a grey colour exteriorly and creamy-white inside, fleshy not fibrous, and has a very distinct, acrid, resinous smell. The species Lomatium dissectum, which is considered by many to be the most medicinally active species has a very distinctive root. It contains a milky aromatic sap in the spring which turns to bitter resinous sap by the fall . The root is used for medicine although all parts of the plant are edible.


The roots can be dug from late spring through early fall. The roots are large and heavy so large amounts can be quickly harvested. A large, mature stand of Lomatium maybe many years old so care should be taken not to denude an area and to plant lots of seeds back into the ground. The whole roots are washed off then allowed to dry for a couple of days before slicing and final drying. This initial drying phase ensures that when the root is cut all the milky sap does not seep out and be absorbed onto the sheets or paper on which your roots are lying. Properly dried Lomatium may retain medicinal action for 2 – 3 years.

Constituents and actions

Lomatium spp. contain an oleo-resin rich in terpenes and sesquiterpenes. These are claimed to act as stimulating expectorants in the lungs, enhancing the liquification and consequent elimination of mucoid material from the lungs. They also exert a strong antibacterial activity, interfering with bacterial replication and inducing increased phagocytosis by leucocytes. There are a number of furano-coumarins including nodakenetin, columbianin and pyranocoumarin. These appear to be responsible for the marked anti-viral effect of Lomatium which acts quickly and strongly to prevent viral replication and host cell response.They may also be partly responsible for the phagocytic induction apparent with Lomatium.

Gums, sugars, fixed oils, valeric acid and methylamines have been identified but their activities are not yet all determined.

There is also 22% ascorbic acid in the root which undoubtably accounts for much of the immuno-regulating and antimicrobial activity of this plant.

Clinical applications


Especially in the lungs and upper respiratory tract. It can be employed for quick acting relief in all cases of viral or bacterial infection, particularly where there is a large amount of thick or sticky mucous and where infection is deep seated and persistent. Specific for pneumonia, infective bronchitis and tuberculosis. Some research has indicated a greater activity against gram positive bacteria.


Traditionally used to treat all cases of colds and flus. It has many cases of recorded success form the influenza epidemic of the 1920s in America and has been used for this purpose by Native people since white man first brought influenza to the Americas.

Its action of limiting infection makes Lomatium valuable as a mouth wash and gargle for oral and throat infections, as a douche for bacterial and viral infections as well as for Candida, as a skin wash for infected cuts or wounds, and in many other ‘first aid’ situations.

Dosage and pharmacy

Both tea and tincture are employed medicinally but there is no research into which is the most effective. The furanocoumarins are water-soluble but the oleo-resin material is not, so perhaps the most effective extraction method would be to decoct the root in water first then macerate it with a high alcohol solution (65 – 90%). Addition of the decoction to the tincture after pressing would reduce the alcohol content of the end product, perhaps down to 35 – 45% but it would contain the water soluble and insoluble fractions.

For acute bacterial or viral infections the tincture may be used 2.5 mL three – four times daily in water. A little care is required with the herb because the furanocoumarins cause a painful, itchy rash in some sensitive people It seems to occur more commonly with the strong fresh root preparation and disappears on cessation of the treatment. Using the same product a few weeks later may not elicit the same response which has raised the suggestion that it is stimulating a severe cleansing response and causing a nitrogenous elimination to occur.

Traditional uses

As well as its use for all respiratory conditions, Lomatium was a useful food item to the First Nations people of the Rocky Mountains. The dried root can be ground into a flour and used to bake biscuits which are quite sweet and palatable. The leaves are a useful pot herb. The seeds are also very nutritious and may be eaten raw, roasted or ground into a flour and used in cooking.

Lomatium was sometimes used in a tobacco mix for ritual use or was smoked deliberately as a lung medicine. Medicine men chewed pieces of the root then blew it through a hollow eagle bone onto a patient. It was thought that wherever the spray landed the healing properties of the plant would enter. It was also made into good luck charms by stuffing the seeds into a dried porcupine foot and tying this in the hair of young girls to help them find a mate.

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