Do Natural Antibiotics Work and Are They Safe?

Natural alternatives have a long history as medical treatments. (Photo: Be Good/Shutterstock).

Ever wish you could skip a course of pricey antibiotics for an infection or an illness? Since we know antibiotics are overused and can wreak havoc on your gut, destroying the good bacteria along with the bad, you may think this is a viable option. But using "natural" antibiotics for a sickness or infection can be complicated. Here are some things to understand about using herbals and other natural food alternatives to clear infections:

"First let's define antibiotic. An antibiotic is a pharmaceutical medicine designed to kill or inhibit growth of microorganisms in the body. And there is a need for antibiotics in many situations," says Michele McRae, certified nutritionist at Rainbow Light, a natural food-based supplement product leader.

Historically, antibiotics have been very effective at killing microorganisms. Unfortunately that includes the healthy probiotic microorganisms in our gut, explains McRae. These are the good bacteria that keep us healthy and feeling well.

As scientists look for less destructive solutions to our internal ecosystems, there is significant interest in studying the natural antibiotic properties in certain foods and herbals.

Here's a look at some natural substances with antibiotic properties and how they might help.

Oregano oil

"There are many ingredients and foods that naturally have antibiotic activity. For example oregano oil contains a high concentration of thymol and carvacrol, two potent antibacterial, antifungal compounds," says McRae. These may help to prevent secondary bacterial infections. Oregano essential oil is very potent against a variety of microorganisms when tested against other antimicrobial oils. Studies show it's an effective antibiotic against Staphylococcus aureus (staph infections). Oregano oil may be useful in treating respiratory tract disorders, gastrointestinal disorders, menstrual cramps and urinary tract infections. It can also be used topically for skin conditions to control acne or dandruff.


Honey as a food has natural anti-inflammatory activity, but not all honeys are created equal. Manuka honey from New Zealand contains other actives like methylglyoxal (MG). MG is thought to give manuka honey its antibacterial properties. Manuka is best for treating wounds, however this is medical-grade honey, which is sterilized and packaged as a wound dressing.


Garlic has a long history of use as an antibacterial agent. Facing shortages of penicillin in World War II, Russian medics turned to garlic. "Today, with the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, there is renewed interest in studying allicin, the active component in garlic. Allicin breaks down in heat so it must be ingested raw. Raw garlic oil may also be effective as a topical antimicrobial," says McCrae. Common uses include treating colds and flu, skin fungal infections and warts, high blood pressure and garlic may have potential in serious disorders such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

Tea tree oil

Tea tree oil is an antiseptic and effective against certain strains of bacteria. Oil from the alternifolia species of the Melaleuca Tree have been shown to be most effective and less irritating to the skin. Tea tree oil is used in skin conditions like acne, fungal infections, and athlete's foot as well as vaginal infections, herpes and infections of the mouth or ear.

Elderberry juice

A number of recent studies emphasize the immune bolstering effect of elderberry water-based extracts and juice as having free-radical scavenging activity, able to protect cells from the damage of infections and disease. The blue or black berries have been used in fighting flu, coughs, colds and tonsillitis. Their antioxidant benefits may also play a role in lowering bad cholesterol and some cancers.


Berberine, which naturally occurs in several herbs like barberry (Berbers vulgaris), has broad-spectrum antibiotic-like activity and a long history of medicinal use in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Berberine has shown antimicrobial activity against bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoans and worms. It is widely used for preventing many kinds of infections especially eye infections and bacterial diarrhea. In one recent study, berberine and goldenseal extract both strongly inhibited influenza.


Andrographis is one of the most credible immune bolstering herbs based on several human clinical trials against upper respiratory tract infections, for reducing the severity of symptoms (especially sore throat), as well as expectoration, nasal discharge, headache, fever, earache, malaise/fatigue and sleep disturbances.

Depending on the health issue, most of these natural antibiotic properties can treat a variety of upper respiratory infections, wound healing, inflammation or infections in the body.

"Foods and herbs have the effect of being gently supportive and part of a long-term health regime rather than a solution to acute infection," says McRae. Combining researched-based potencies of complementary herbal compounds for maximum efficacy can be effective as a remedy at the first hint of infection rather than after the infection has taken hold. However, in the face of any type of infection, it's important to see your healthcare practitioner to confirm a diagnosis and get the best course of treatment — whether that's a traditional antibiotic or an herbal alternative.