Essential Oils Might Be the New Antibiotics

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Faced with increasingly drug-resistant bacteria, scientists and farmers are now looking to plant extracts to keep people and animals healthy.

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

She says the situation is urgent: When she and her colleagues perform testing to determine the appropriate medication for a patient, they often find that there are no longer any effective antibiotics in existence to treat the bacteria in question. “We feel helpless in the face of this growing threat, and the answer as to why we have not made more progress on this front is simple: economics. Unfortunately, the ‘specter’ of monetary gain overshadows the perspective from ‘the trenches.'” She says that essential oils contain some of the most potent antimicrobial compounds available, and that furthering our understanding of them may lead to the development of entirely new classes of drugs. “Let us all hope the prevailing wind changes to move this field of research forward,” she says.

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Gay explains that “phytonutrients” or “phytochemicals” are chemical compounds derived from plants that have a range of health benefits, “including promoting tumor killing and increased resistance to infectious diseases, and they have been used as health-promoting agents by many cultures for several millennia.” Their potency isn’t surprising when you consider that the plant compounds that make up essential oils exist in the first place to help plants protect themselves from infection, endure temperature variations, heal from damage, and repel pests. Still, skepticism is likely in a culture like ours that is used to lab-created synthetic medicines (not to mention the bad reputation essential oils may have gained from being frequently touted as miracle cures for everything), even though some of our most important and common pharmaceuticals originated from plants. For example, aspirin is derived from willow bark, though the key compound is now synthesized by manufacturers; the treatment for malaria (still used today) is derived from fever-tree bark; morphine is derived from the poppy plant; the cancer-fighting drug paclitaxel was initially derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree; and many cold and cough medicines and muscle-relief creams have mint extract as the main ingredient. Even a newly developed Ebola treatment hinges on the use of tobacco plants.