Being a product of the 1990s British state education system, I grew up with a very ‘conventional’ western mind-set towards science and medicine. I have always been naturally sceptic of medicine applied through plants, even while hearing the tales my grandmother had told me of Camomile lotion helping rashes, and ginger helping a bad stomach. But these were always remedies you purchased in bottles and packets, carefully tested and scrutinised by the infallible knowledge of the modern pharmaceutical scientist. Believing that plants could be used to help alleviate or cure medical problems? That was pure witchcraft, akin to dancing under a full moon on a Tuesday to help a sprained ankle, or rubbing crystals on your eyelids for the flu. To think that only a few decades later, I was putting aside the advice of registered doctors, and getting my medicine from my modest balcony garden.
The beginning of my (so far short) journey into herbal healing started when I got some pretty nasty battery acid burns, while I was working in a metal scrapyard in Australia. One of the products we recycled was the lead from lead acid batteries – the ones under the hood of every car/van. It was my job to weigh, stack, and wrap the batteries onto a pallet before sending them away for processing. It just so happened that one morning, a battery I picked up fell apart in my hands, spreading a lovely solution of 38% Sulphuric Acid on to my arms and hands. The somewhat minor burns turned into irritated skin, and due to the dirty environment I worked in, ended up being infected with the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (1). A quick trip to the doctor should get that sorted, right? Well, 4 months later, and countless courses of Bactoban, Flucloxacillin, and two other antibiotics I cannot remember, yielded nothing except a slice out of my pay check.
It was thanks to google, and a desperation not to look like my skin was falling off, that I found a forum post with many people promising that crushed garlic, cures staph infections (2). The original post states –
Numerous other studies, such as Abdou et al., 1972 have confirmed that crushed raw garlic kills staph on contact.’
This statement had my brain ticking. Peer reviewed proof that a plant can treat bacterial infections? Is this the evidence I needed to extend the true value of plants into the medical realm too? A bit more digging soon yielded much more recent journal releases on the subject, including the testing of garlic compounds on a variety of types of problematic bacteria, with positive results (4) (5) Importantly too, garlic based compounds can seemingly overcome the problems in treatment associated with antibiotic resistant strains of Staph, such as MRSA.(3) This gives us humans a good avenue for treatment of bacteria which is learning to dodge our best scientific efforts.
So, I was sold. I had found a bridge between my steadfast belief in the scientific world, and my love and belief in the intrinsic value of plant life. Maybe all those old wives tales were based in truth? After doing some reading though, I realised I could not just rush out to the shop and eat 40 garlic cloves and consider the problem fixed and do a little celebration dance. There are a few things that have to be adhered to when working with garlic as a healing agent – the garlic used must be non-irradiated, and it must be chopped or crushed and allowed to breakdown into the powerful compound allicin.(6) (For those organic pest control users out there, allicin is the compound which naturally protects the plant against pests, and can be used as a spray-solution to protect your crops (7)
To ensure you are working with non-irradiated Garlic, you are best off growing it yourself, or sourcing it from a local grower. Second to this – organic, nationally grown Garlic is your next best bet. A simple test for non-irradiated Garlic is to take a clove, and using a sharp knife, slice long-ways through the middle of the clove. You should end up with a centre that has a healthy green shoot, ensuring that the clove is still living and not blasted with radiation. Most imported garlic is irradiated to stop it sprouting and spoiling. You want to find a glove with an intact endosperm (the green bit) like this one.
For treatment of my staph infections, I made a poultice and applied to directly to my wounds I mixed it with coconut oil, as I found that using it directly was far too strong, and burnt very harshly. I also bathed in a mix of 1-4 activated garlic per bathtub. As garlic is gram-negative, and staph is a gram-positive bacteria, the garlic compound actively seeks out the staph bacteria and helps neutralise it. The allicin is not degraded further when suspended in a water solution, so chucking it in the bath will do a decent amount of good. I soaked for an hour or so, making sure I submerged my whole body every now and again.
After around a week of garlic baths, and topical application, my wounds had lost all of their redness and tenderness, and were starting to heal up. Within a few weeks, it was all seemingly gone. After such a long period of pharmaceutical medicine had failed, my doctor was amazed with the work garlic had done. But, he said to me with a touch of dismay in his voice, he would likely lose his job if he recommended it to any patients.
Globally, as we approach a post-industrial society, medical knowledge of this sort is going to become invaluable. Laboratories, factories and scientific communities will not exist in the current format forever. That understanding of a unavoidable transition away from the availability of modern medicine, coupled with the increasing resistance from bacteria towards antibiotics, makes this plant based medicine a powerful and effective tool for anybody. As permaculturists, we need to work on healing our decimated ecosystems, bringing life back to our deadened soil, and reinvigorating long-suppressed communities. In order to do this in the most effective manner, we need to be healthy, and strong. I believe that this tiny glimpse into effective herbalism provides us with proof that we can achieve true health, with a thriving garden and the correct knowledge. With something as simple and true as a few cloves of garlic. My Year 9 science teacher would be mortified.
(3) Antibacterial activity of a new, stable, aqueous extract of allicin against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15250668
(4) In vitro activity of an aqueous allicin extract and a novel allicin topical gel formulation against Lancefield group B streptococci