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Herbal Antimicrobials

By Renata Trister DO



Bacterial Infections and Ayurvedic Botanicals


Bacteria are a natural, and necessary, part of life. These microscopic, single-cell entities abound on inanimate surfaces and on parts of the body that make contact with the outer world, including the skin, the mucous membranes and the lining of the intestinal tract. While we live in harmony with most bacteria, and indeed rely upon many bacteria for their beneficial properties, certain pathogenic bacteria do give rise to serious, often deadly, diseases. Since the advent of the antibiotic era in the early 1940s with the clinical use of penicillin, an ever-growing arsenal of antibiotics has provided an effective therapy against major bacterial pathogens. However, the development of antibiotic resistance is now a serious worldwide problem, caused primarily by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics. We must broaden our view of how to prevent and treat microbial infections to include alternatives that are not centered upon standard antibiotic therapy or we risk the possibility of eventually having no defense against these microbes. The Ayurvedic approach to the prevention and treatment of microbial infection recognizes the emergency use of modern drugs, but recommends traditional herbal combinations and extracts known to balance the individual and improve health, as well as herbs that help to combat or prevent microbial infections. The Indian plants possessing significant anti-microbial activity are Indian lilac or neem (azadirachta indica), long pepper fruit (piper longum), heart-leaved moonseed stem (tinospora cordifolia) and amla fruit (emblica officinalis), among others.


An Ayurvedic approach to microbial infections

Western allopathic medicine emphasizes the use of antibiotics and other medicines and approaches to defend against “germs” or microbes believed to be the primary cause of many health conditions and diseases. Ayurveda recognizes the microbial approach to some degree, but generally does not recognize microbes as the primary cause of disease. According to the Ayurvedic approach, anyone who has developed an imbalance in their bodily elements, or “doshas,” and has thereby weakened their immune system, may be subject to a microbial infection which is considered a symptom of that imbalance. Ayurveda recognizes as useful anything that will save the patient in an emergency, including antibiotics, but takes exception to the “magic bullet” approach of preventing and treating microbial infections strictly with antibiotics. Ayurveda recommends that balance be established in the individual for the prevention and treatment of microbial infection.

From the Ayurvedic perspective, an individual who is balanced and healthy has a strong immune system and, therefore, it will be difficult for microbial infection to take hold. Balance in Ayurveda is equivalent to health, which is equivalent to a strong and well-functioning immune system capable of defending against microbial infection. The Ayurvedic approach is to treat the whole person, including application of correct diet, lifestyle recommendations and herbal supplements. When a person develops an infection, the design of an Ayurvedic herbal formula reflects the holistic approach. Based on traditional use, herbs are selected and combined for their ability to inhibit microbial overgrowth in various parts of the body and support those organ systems responsible for detoxification and immune function.

The herbs listed below are traditionally used to manage cold, flu and infection. The chemical composition of each of the following plants tends to confirm their traditional use. Interestingly, each herb appears to possess properties that work on multiple biochemical pathways capable of influencing several organ systems simultaneously. The ancient practice of combining and concentrating several plants by decoction (extracting together in boiling water) that have a similar yet slightly different organ system focus, produces a finished product that treats the whole person along with the presenting complaint.

Indian lilac or neem (azadirachta indica)

  • Used traditionally in Ayurveda both topically and internally for microbial infection including those infections related to the skin such as acne, fungi, wound healing, antiseptic treatment, oral hygiene, parasite infection, fevers and general infections.
  • Neem oil is excellent for skin and hair usef skin diseases, ulcers and wounds.
  • Neem oil and two of its bitter principles, nimbidin and nimbidol, have exhibited antibacterial, antifungal and spermicidal activity.


Ginger rhizome (zingiber officinale)

  • Used traditionally for colds, other microbial infections, and the removal of mucous and toxins associated with microbial infections.
  • Most well known use as a digestive aid.


Guggulu gum (commiphora mukul)

  • Used traditionally in oral hygiene and skin diseases.
  • Acts as a bitter and carminative (prevents gas), stimulating the appetite and improving digestion.
  • The oleoresin portion of the plant causes an increase of leucocytes in the blood and stimulates phagocytosis.




Indian madder root (rubia cordifolia)

  • Used traditionally for uterine and urinary system conditions including infection.
  • Dried root acts as an emmenagogue, astringent and diuretic.


Amla fruit (emblica officinalis)

  • Used traditionally for fevers.
  • The fruit extract exhibits antibacterial and antiviral properties.



Boswellia gum resin (boswellia serrata)

  • Used traditionally for urinary disorders including infections.


Heart-leaved moonseed stem (tinospora cordifolia)

  • Used traditionally for antitoxin action and as a febrifuge (antipyretic/fever reducing)
  • Also used for urinary diseases, skin diseases and bronchitis.
  • One study showed that an ethanolic extract of tinospora cordifolia appeared to improve the phagocytic activity of the mononuclear phagocyte system in mice.


Long pepper fruit (piper longum)

  • Used traditionally for colds, other microbial infections and the removal of mucous and toxins associated with microbial infections.
  • The essential oil of the fruit shows antibacterial, antifungal and anthelmintic activity.
  • An ethanol extract of the piper longum fruit showed antiamoebic activity both in vitro and in vivo, curing 90% of rats with caecal amoebiasis.
  • An Ayurvedic herbal medicine prepared from piper longum and butea monosperma and prescribed for the treatment of chronic dysentery and worm infestations was tested for anti-giardial and immunostimulatory activity in mice infected with giardia lamblia trophozoites. The preparation produced up to 98% recovery from the infection and induced significant activation of macrophages as evidenced by increased macrophage migration index and phagocytic activity.