When you think of essential oils, the first things that come to mind might be luxurious day spas or fragranced candles. But essential oils’ benefits extend far beyond relaxation and potent aromas.
These plant extracts also have some impressive germ-fighting capabilities that just might change the way we fight bacterial infections. Today we’re going to explore the remarkable antibacterial properties of essential oils. We’ll also take a look at how these mighty molecules might transform our approach to combating the growing problem of antibiotic resistance and biofilms. Let’s dive in!
Antibiotic Resistance – A Growing Problem
Antibiotics are a class of medications that fight off bacterial infections by directly killing off bacteria cells and/or inhibiting their ability to grow and reproduce. The discovery and creation of antibiotic therapy is no doubt one of the most important advances in human history. But the use of these antibiotics comes with a dark side – antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Antibiotic resistance is when bacteria adapt and evolve in a way that protects them from antibiotic medications. When this happens the bacteria continue to survive and replicate despite being treated with drugs designed to kill them.1 These “superbugs” are often resistant to multiple types of antibiotics, making them challenging and sometimes even impossible to treat.
How Exactly Does Antibiotic Resistance Happen?
Bacterial species can deploy a number of defense mechanisms to defend themselves against the effects of antibiotics. Some examples of the ways bacteria can protect themselves against antibiotics include:2,3
- Restricting antibiotic access: Some bacteria can use their outer membranes to selectively prevent antibiotic drugs from being able to enter the cell.
- Processing out antibiotics: Some bacteria can use pumps in their cellular wall to filter out antibiotic drugs that make their way in.
- Destroying or altering antibiotics: Some bacteria use enzymes to alter or destroy antibiotics – rendering them useless.
- Inhibiting attachment: Some bacteria can modify the outside of their cell walls so antibiotics cannot effectively attach to them.
Another way that bacteria can evade the effects of antibiotics is through the development of biofilms.
What Is Biofilm?
A biofilm is a collection of microorganisms that adhere together and to a surface – usually that of a medical implant such as sutures, catheters, intrauterine devices, or dental implants to name a few. The biofilm allows a bacterial colony to essentially enclose itself within a slimy extracellular matrix. This matrix creates a protective barrier that's difficult or impossible for antibiotics to penetrate.
Biofilms are particularly problematic when it comes to treatment. In fact, bacterial cells housed within a biofilm colony have been found to be anywhere from 10 to a whopping 100 times more antibiotic-resistant than free-floating bacteria!4
Action of Antibiotics on Biofilms
Biofilms are particularly skillful at resisting the action of antibiotics thanks to a few strategies, including:5
- The ability to slow down or completely block the antibiotic from entering the bacterial colony.
- Altering the chemical environment within the biofilm, slowing down the effectiveness of the antibiotic.
- Modifying the genetic make-up of the cells residing in the biofilm colony to alter or hide the target sites that antibiotics bind to.
This creates an entire colony of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. And the more antibiotics these superbugs are exposed to the more they’re able to adapt to them. The superbugs study the antibiotics to find resilient and creative ways to resist antibiotics. So what can we do about it?
How Can We Reduce Antibiotic Resistance?
Hands down one of the most critical steps in reducing antibiotic resistance is improving our collective use and stewardship of these life-saving drugs.
You see, up to 50% of antibiotic use in humans (and even more so in animals and agriculture) is unwarranted and unnecessary.6 Prescribing antibiotics for non-bacterial infections is one of the main contributors to growing antibiotic resistance.
But the truth is, even if we have a massive overhaul in our antibiotic stewardship, antibiotic-resistant bacteria can only be slowed down, not eliminated. So in addition to minimizing the development and spread of these superbugs, it's vital that we continue to develop new drugs and therapies to combat bacterial infections.
And one emerging therapy that's been making its way into the limelight, is the use of essential oils.
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils (also sometimes referred to as volatile oils) are termed “essential” because they constitute the very essence of the plants they’re extracted from. Essential oils are drawn out of plants via steam distillation or mechanical expression. These techniques produce a pure and concentrated botanical extract.
Despite being dubbed “essential oils,” these extracts are technically not true “oils” because they don’t contain lipid molecules. Rather, essential oils are remarkably complex volatile compounds composed of three biosynthetically related groups known as terpenes, terpenoids, and aromatic compounds.7
These complex compounds have been found to have fascinating effects on the human body, particularly when it comes to fighting off invading microorganisms.
Are Essential Oils Really Antibacterial?
The answer is – yes! Essential oils have been found to be incredibly effective at reducing bacteria.
Different essential oils work in different ways to fight off various types of bacteria. However, while there is some variation, the overall process is similar. In a nutshell, essential oils’ antibiotic ability goes something like this:8
- Essential oils are lipophilic, meaning they dissolve in lipids or fat. This makes them adept at penetrating through bacterial cellular membranes.
- This ability to penetrate the bacteria’s cellular membrane increases the permeability of the bacterial cell. This causes ions and other cellular components to leak out of the bacterial cell.
- This destabilizes the entire cellular structure which disrupts the bacteria's ability to effectively perform cellular activities.
- Once life-sustaining activities – like energy production, nutrient transport, and the secretion of growth regulators – are disrupted it causes a domino effect that eventually leads to bacterial cellular death.
And what’s more, research is finding that essential oils may also be a natural anti-biofilm agent.
Essential Oil Biofilm Disruptor
While more studies are needed to truly understand the role essential oils may play in combating biofilms, there is mounting evidence that these plant botanicals just might be a powerful anti-biofilm agent. This means essential oils may be a key player in beating antibiotic resistance.
In fact, a number of essential oils are currently being studied as potent agents to not only inhibit the formation of new biofilms but also facilitate the dispersion of pre-formed biofilms. With such impressive antimicrobial and anti-biofilm capabilities, where exactly do essential oils fit into the fight against infectious diseases?
Can Essential Oils Replace Antibiotics?
The answer is – not exactly. Antibiotic medications are a crucial component of treatment for many bacterial infections and certainly can’t be entirely replaced by essential oils. But the combination of essential oils and antibiotics may significantly enhance our ability to combat the complexities of modern-day infections.
While essential oils may not be able to entirely replace antibiotics, the power of these potent plant extracts can be harnessed in your day-to-day life as an all-natural way to protect yourself from intruding harmful bacteria.
So, What Are the Best Antibacterial Essential Oils?
While there are numerous essential oils that have been proven to have antimicrobial properties, there are a handful of particularly potent antibacterial agents. These include:9
- Tea tree
There are a number of ways you can incorporate these germ-fighting essential oils into your life to ward off harmful pathogens. Whether you add a few drops into your tea, whip up a tasty essential oil tonic, or even mix together your own all-natural disinfectant – essential oils’ uses are endless.
One of my favorite ways to get my daily dose of health-boosting essential oils is through my Active Essential Oils – a potent blend of oregano, thyme, and clove essential oils designed to promote microbial balance to keep your gut and immune system in tip-top shape. You can even get 10% off your first order of Active Essential Oils by clicking right here.
Essential Oil Precautions
While essential oils can certainly be beneficial when it comes to boosting your health and fighting off pathogens, they are highly concentrated and potent compounds that must be used with proper education.
Before ingesting or using essential oils, I highly encourage you to seek out the proper guidance to ensure you’re using them safely. I recommend consulting with your doctor, or better yet, seeking out the guidance of an experienced Integrative and Functional Medicine Practitioner.
When It Comes to Your Health, You Are In the Driver’s Seat
There’s no denying that essential oils are uncovering some promising results that may transform our ability to address the complexities of modern-day bacterial infections. While these powerful extracts are no doubt an incredible tool when it comes to safeguarding our health, at the end of the day, they are exactly that – a tool.
There is no single advance in medicine or single lifestyle change that’s the golden ticket to a “healthy” life. The truth is, a healthy life will look different for each and every one of us. But the underlying foundation of the vibrant health and longevity we all deserve is knowledge and intentional implementation.
The day-to-day choices you make about how you move, eat, sleep, and think are the pillars of well-being. And I’m dedicated to giving you the knowledge and tools you need to create a healthy life you love. So if you enjoyed this article and are hungry for more, head over and check out my blog that’s chock-full of resources. And if you’re ready to take it even deeper, you can sign up for my newsletter by entering your name and email address in the form below.
Now it’s time to hear from you. Were you surprised to learn about the impressive antibacterial effects of essential oils? How are you using essential oils in your life? Leave your questions and thoughts in the comments below!
- About Antibiotic Resistance | Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance | CDC
- How Antibiotic Resistance Happens | Antibiotic/Antimicrobial Resistance | CDC
- Antibiotic Resistance in Biofilm | IntechOpen
- Antibiotics versus biofilm: an emerging battleground in microbial communities | Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control | Full Text (biomedcentral.com)
- The Role of Bacterial Biofilm in Antibiotic Resistance and Food Contamination (hindawi.com)
- 4-2013-508.pdf (cdc.gov)
- Essential Oils, A New Horizon in Combating Bacterial Antibiotic Resistance (nih.gov)
- Antimicrobial Properties of Plant Essential Oils against Human Pathogens and Their Mode of Action: An Updated Review (nih.gov)
- Essential Oils as Antimicrobial Agents—Myth or Real Alternative? (nih.gov)
* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. The product mentioned in this article are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. The information in this article is not intended to replace any recommendations or relationship with your physician. Please review references sited at end of article for scientific support of any claims made.