Physicians continue to utilize antibiotics without much thought. We focus on the misuse of painkillers, when the most dangerous thing we do is overuse antibiotics. Resistant bacteria are a more severe problem for the survival of this civilization than oil depletion, global warming, topsoil erosion, and water scarcity. —Stephen Buhner
“Stephen Harrod Buhner On Plant Intelligence, Natural Healing, And The Trouble With Pharmaceuticals”
The December issue of SUN magazine carried an insightful, though sobering, interview with an herbalist that I thought would be an inspiring and deeply meaningful article to review and share in my Health Light Newsletter blog. The interview is by Akshay Ahuja, writer for the SUN and production manager for Ploughshares, an organization that works with churches, governments and civil societies, in Canada and abroad, to advance policies and actions to prevent war and armed violence and build peace.
Stephen Buhner was born in 1952 in the Midwest where he was introduced to his healing ministry through his great-grandfather, a country physician in rural Indiana. At the age of sixteen he left home to attend college in California. From there he traveled and settled in the high mountains of Colorado, where he built a “turn-of-the-century cabin that he lived in for four years.” His path to becoming an herbalist started out with a personal healing of severe abdominal cramps with the perennial herb osha root. His encounter with this herb was more than remedial and had a spiritual and vital quality to is, as he recalls in the interview. He currently lives in Silver City, New Mexico.
I just dug up the root and began eating it. It’s got a spicy, celery-like taster. Not only did I feel my body getting better, but I could feel, inside, some living entity that cared for me. It’s difficult to explain, because it’s not something we generally talk about in the West. When you use a living medicine and get well, you feel that the world is alive and aware and wants to help you. People often talk about saving the Earth, but how many times have you experienced the Earth saving you?
I love this man’s insight into the natural botanical world of herbs and his thoughtful perspectives on both the natural healing and modern medical models. He covers a lot of territory, so it may take a couple of posts to do the interview justice. This is, I feel, a very timely and important mile-stone article.
Let’s start with the heart of his message: the overuse of antibiotics that has resulted in the evolution of bacteria into “superbugs.” To gain a perspective on how this has come about, we need to consider the history and evolution of our medical system. Buhner, who has spent his entire life exploring herbal medicine and has published several books on this and related topics, gives some very thoughtful consideration to this in the interview, which can best be presented in his own words. In his 1999 book “Herbal Antibiotics” he speaks to the heart of the “flaws” of what he calls “technological medicine.”
“By declaring war on bacteria,” he writes, “ we declared war on the underlying living structure of the planet.” Buhner maintains that, through indiscriminate use of antibiotics, we have created “superbugs” with few effective pharmaceutical treatments, wreaking havoc in hospitals and making future pandemics likely.
Asked what is wrong with the medical system in the USA, Bunher gives a very interesting synopsis of its relatively brief history, starting at the close of the nineteenth century when homeopaths were plentiful and allopaths were fewer and the poorest of the various groups of physicians. The discovery of penicillin changed all that.
Allopathic physicians argued that their training was based on science and was thus more legitimate than other medical traditions and would provide safer interventions. With a lot of lobbying, they managed to get control over medical practice and have the other approaches outlawed. After the discovery of penicillin in the 1920’s, antibiotics became a primary aspect of allopathic practice. The drugs were so effective against previously difficult-to-treat problems, such as infections in burn patients, that Western cultures completely embraced allopathic healing. In 1942 the entire world‘s supply of penicillin was 8.5 gallons – about seventy pounds. By 1999 the production of antibiotics in the U.S. alone reached 40 million pounds per year.
Unfortunately medical researchers‘ beliefs about bacteria were very wrong. Researchers said it would take roughly a million years for bacteria to develop widespread resistance to antibiotics through spontaneous mutations. They assumed bacteria were stupid, when in reality bacteria are highly sentient. They communicate by means of a sophisticated language – as sophisticated as ours. They recognize their kin. They protect their offspring. They create chemicals designed to produce specific outcomes in living systems, which certainly fits any definition of tool-making.
We‘ve tended to view bacteria as a collection of single-celled entities, but when many of them join together, it‘s more proper to look at them as a swarm intelligence. And complex organisms such as plants, animals, and insects are, in essence, communities of bacteria.
Ahuja: How does bacterial resistance challenge the current medical model?
Buhner: Since the end of World War II, the medical establishment has been promising that we are heading for some sort of disease-free future in which we will live to be 120 and never get sick. They almost imply that they can cure death. Scientists’ inability to predict the bacterial response undermines the entire world view that the allopaths disseminated – and still disseminate – about disease and the nature of the world around them. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that, in 2011, 722,000 people picked up infections in hospitals. About 75,000 of those patients died during their hospitalizations. And some sources give a much higher figure for annual deaths from hospital-acquired infections.
The allopaths’ lock on medical practice, which they insisted would create safer outcomes for the public, has not done so. All it has done is give one orientation toward healing a virtual monopoly on practice.
Ahuja: How would you treat a resistant infection with herbs?
Buhner: One woman who had undergone multiple antibiotic regimens over several years for a resistant staph infection (MRSA) came to me for help. She was about to lose her foot to the disease. It took a month to turn her condition around using an African herb called Cryptolepis sanguinolenta. Commonly used to treat malaria, it is also a broad-spectrum, systemic antibacterial with no side effects – at least, after twelve years of use, I have seen none.
Vancomycin is the antibiotic often used for staph infections. Besides being frequently ineffective, it has a long list of side effects. In general, herbal medicines have fewer or no side effects. They are composed of hundreds of synergistic compounds, whereas pharmaceuticals have just one compound, or perhaps a few. We have been at this antibiotic business only a century or so. Bacteria have been around for 3.5 billion years:
This begs the question, will not bacteria eventually become resistant to plant medicines? I love Buhner’s answer.
Buhner: With a pharmaceutical, the bacteria analyze the single compound and generate solutions to it, which they then pass on to other bacteria. Plants, on the other hand, generate multiple compounds that deactivate resistance mechanisms in the bacteria and enhance the activity of the plant’s natural antibacterials. Bacteria cannot easily counteract that kind of complexity. Also, plants aren’t trying to kill all the bacteria on Earth. They merely want to create a balance in which the plants and bacteria set limits on each other’s behavior.
Ahuja: There seems to be a general view that herbal medicine is fine for coughs and colds, but when something gets serious, you go to a conventional doctor.
Buhner: The pharmaceutical companies’ advertising campaigns are very good. We have been trained to think of technological medicine as the only reliable type and other approaches as outdated remnants of a prescientific age. Yet the majority of people I have met don’t much like doctors or hospitals. The one thing modern medicine is good at is trauma. If I get hit by a car, I will go to a hospital. But other than antibiotics and some surgeries, hospitals have little they can offer to cure disease. They can only address the symptoms.
Pharmaceutical companies are in business to make as much money as they can. They try to develop drugs you have to take for years and years, such as medicines for high blood pressure or depression. You don’t get well; you just keep taking the drug.
Buhner then cites an example of herbal practice in Africa, where the people can’t afford Western drugs and the infrastructure there doesn’t support drug manufacturing. Local healers in Nigeria, for example, were asked what herbs they were using. Researchers then took the seeds from the best and most effective herbs and gave them to the people so they could grow their own plant herbs. This had a very empowering impact upon the people, not to mention its ecological friendliness.
I will continue sharing Stephen Buhner’s perspectives in the next post. I will close this post with words of a colleague in the healing field. “Nothing is wrong. Everything matters.” Allopathic medicine has played an important role in healthcare and continues to play a crucial role in the emergency room of our hospitals. On the other hand, pharmaceutical medicine’s days are numbered. Already pharmaceutical companies are getting out of the antibiotic business for two reasons. One, they don’t make a lot of money with the drug’s short-term usage. Two, “they know antibiotics are going to fail, and they don’t want to be the one holding the bag when they do.” According to Buhner’s latest information, the U.S. Government is taking over antibiotic research and production and will take all the blame when it crashes, and crash it will. “As David Livermore, the top antibiotic resistance researcher in Britain, put it, “It is naive to think we can win.”◊
Until my next post, here’s to your health and prosperity throughout the coming New Year.
Anthony Palombo, D.C.
Visit my HealthTones.org blog for more exploratory articles in the field of healing and transformation.