Botanical mythbusting: Are botanicals are more selective than conventional antibiotics?

A phrase that my friends and I throw around jokingly once in awhile is “the plant knows”.  The phrase refers to a commonly held belief that plants have the power to determine what your body needs and provide just that – no more, no less.  The reality is that, although I deeply respect the power of plants, they are not that discriminatory.  This is the idea behind adaptogenic herbs, but not all plants are adaptogens.  Some plants are even toxic.  You can’t expect to consume a toxic amount of castor seed and not see some negative effect.  

However, this idea has been applied to antimicrobial botanicals, which is very concerning.  I was very surprised one day to read an article from 2004 in which the author said:

The herb can actually kill only the bad bacteria while not harming the good; the drug does not have the wisdom to differentiate. [1]

Now let’s consider this myth logically.  If an herb is killing bacteria, it is acting like an antibiotic. 
There are only so many ways that antimicrobials target bacteria.  The plant could target the cell wall, inhibit protein synthesis or inhibit DNA replication, etc. Just like an actual pharmaceutical antibiotic! Or maybe the plant can attack the bacteria in mechanisms that we have not discovered, which makes the study of botanical antimicrobials very exciting.

So now you have this plant that’s attacking bacteria in the same ways a conventional antibiotic is.  Moving on to the second idea in this quotation, we ponder the possibility of plants being able to distinguish between good and bad bacteria.  Of course, there are many types of bacteria with varying features that set them apart from each other.  Essentially though, they have a similar make up.  It’s like saying people have unique personalities, but we’re all human.

Continuing with the human analogy, will diseases, poisons and weapons target us differently based on whether we are “good” or “bad”?  No, they will act in the same way upon all of us because we are essentially the same material.  Returning to our plants and the question of bacteria – can plants distinguish between good and bad bacteria?  No.  They cannot.

Using an antibacterial plant rather than a conventional antibiotic does not have the benefit of preserving your good bacteria.  If the plant kills bacteria by targeting the cell wall, it will kill all bacteria sensitive to that mechanism of action – whether it be a good bacterium or a bad bacterium.

Our botanicals are an amazing resource that can help us to combat infections.  Understanding their power but also their limitations will help us to use these plants more effectively.

1. Foley, C. "Herbal antibiotic alternatives." New Life Journal, 2004.