Research into a plant revered by Native Americans for its medicinal qualities offers a promising contribution to one of the gravest public health threats of our time.
Scientists at Emory University, in conjunction with the University of Notre Dame, published a study in The American Chemical Society’s Infectious Diseases journal in June detailing how a common shrub, the American beautyberry or bayberry, has potent properties that make it a powerful ally in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
In their laboratory tests, researchers observed that compounds extracted from bayberry leaf worked to boost the efficacy of antibiotics against resistant strains of bacteria, specifically methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, commonly known as MRSA.
When isolated extracts of the plant’s leaf were employed in conjunction with oxacillin, one of the world’s most prescribed antibiotics, the herbal extract acted as an antibiotic potentiator. Antibiotic potentiators are active compounds that, on their own, have little to no antibiotic activity, but when used in combination with antibiotic medication enhance the antimicrobial power of these drugs.
The two compounds worked in synergy to lower MRSA’s resistance to the antibiotic drug treatment, a hopeful sign for doctors struggling to treat this stubborn infection.
Native Plant Medicine a Key to Modern Health Benefits
While this medicinal attribute may not have been previously documented, bayberry leaf has a demonstrated history as a plant medicine, prompting researchers to explore why certain cultures have revered and relied upon the beautyberry bush for centuries.
Native American tribes in the Southern United States have used the roots, leaves, and bark of the beautyberry for centuries, treating a wide range of health concerns such as malaria, rheumatism, dizziness, stomachaches, and dysentery, among other ailments.
In an announcement on the findings provided by Emory Health Sciences, co-senior study author, Cassandra Quave, states, “We decided to investigate the chemical properties of the American beautyberry because it was an important medicinal plant for Native Americans.”
Quave’s unique background includes expertise in medical ethnobotany, the study of medicinal plants used by native peoples, a field of study she draws upon to unlock modern medical breakthroughs. An assistant professor in human health at Emory University, Quave is also a member of the Emory Antibiotic Resistance Center, work that informs her quest for ways to reduce the global crisis of increasing resistance to antibiotic drugs.
This study presented Quave and her team with a chance to expand on prior findings that bayberry leaf extract inhibited growth of the bacteria that causes acne. The researchers wanted to test this proven antimicrobial action for efficacy against MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus strain.
The team first sought to isolate the active antimicrobial agent within the complex botanical. “Even a single plant tissue can contain hundreds of unique molecules,” Quave says. “It’s a painstaking process to chemically separate them out, then test and retest until you find one that’s effective.” Eventually, they identified a compound belonging to a group of chemicals known as clerodane diterpenoids, used by plants to deter predation, which slightly inhibited the growth of MRSA.
In order to boost the efficacy of this action, they deployed the isolate in combination with oxacillin, a beta-lactam antibiotic used to treat staph infections. MRSA is characterized by resistance to methicillin, another antibiotic in the beta-lactam category used in the fight against staph.
“Beta-lactam antibiotics are some of the safest and least toxic that are currently available in the antibiotic arsenal, but unfortunately, MRSA has developed resistance to them,” Quave says. Bayberry leaf’s ability to lower this resistance may mean more effective antibiotic treatments for sufferers of this serious, potentially life-threatening infection.
Resistance to Antibiotics: A Threat to World Health
The rise of antibiotic resistance is a looming medical crisis that the World Health Organization describes as one of the biggest public health challenges of our time. According to CDC statistics, at least 2.8 million people get an antibiotic-resistant infection and more than 35,000 people die from these infections each year.
In “The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance,” a report commissioned by the United Kingdom, economist Jim O’Neill speculated that by 2050, 10 million people will die every year from resistant bacterial infections.
One potential solution lies in the use of antibiotic potentiators such as bayberry leaf extract and other resistance-modifying agents. To that end, the next step for this pioneering team is to test the combination of bayberry leaf extract and oxacillin in animal studies.
Ongoing analysis of the specific chemical compounds in the plant may further enhance its safe and effective use as an antibiotic potentiator in conjunction with proven antibiotic therapies. “We need to keep filling the drug-discovery pipeline with innovative solutions, including potential combination therapies, to address the ongoing and growing problem of antibiotic resistance,” says Quave.
Alternatives to Drug-Based Antibiotics
Antibiotic drugs are prescribed with alarming frequency in the United States. According to a 2018 report by The PEW Charitable Trust, nearly 270 million antibiotic prescriptions were dispensed from outpatient pharmacies in the United States in 2015 alone, amounting to 838 antibiotic prescriptions for every 1,000 people.
At least 30 percent of these antibiotic prescriptions were unnecessary, according to the PEW report. CDC research confirms these numbers, reporting that 1 in 3 antibiotic prescriptions aren’t needed and that these drugs are often misused in outpatient settings.
Healthy bacteria are essential to overall good health, as a significant and growing body of research into the importance of the microbiome clearly shows. We are just beginning to understand how this human-microbial interplay affects all aspects of our physiology, from the gut to the brain and everything in between.
A 2013 study headed by Dr. Martin Blaser, a pioneer in the field of microbiome research, reported that the delicate balance of bacteria in the gut may never recover from antibiotic overuse, which can even harm the health of future generations.
The wisdom of the past has much to teach us about alternatives to antibiotics. Skilled traditional medicine practitioners draw upon insight, knowledge, and practical wisdom passed down for thousands of years in order to restore balance to the body, rather than destroy offending microbes that allopaths attribute as the cause of illness.
Plants and herbs have evolved alongside mankind, and like traditional cultures have always known, are a worthwhile place to look in order to find what can truly heal us.
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