I got curious about using Bidens species as an “herbal antibiotic” after reading about it in Stephen Buhner’s book Herbal Antibiotics (2nd edition, Storey Publishing, 2012). I usually take the clinical information in Buhner’s books with a grain of salt, as he always seems to be reporting much more on the results of research than on his own experience as a practicing herbalist. But Bidens is such a common and accessible weed, and here Buhner was claiming that it has the power to act as a systemic antibiotic in the human body, so I made a note of that.
The Background: On Bidens, Pharmaceutical Antibiotics, and Botanical Antibiotics
Bidens is the scientific name for a genus, comprised of close to 200 species of herbaceous plants, in the Aster family. Many folks would recognize Bidens by its seed (fruit) before they would recognize the plant itself. The most common Bidens species are not particularly showy, but their seeds are one of the many kinds of “hitchhiking” seeds that stick in masses to clothing and shoelaces and effectively spread themselves that way. The Latin name Bidens actually refers to the seeds, which have two barbs that claw into things, hence bi- (two) dens (teeth). Other names for Bidens species include “Beggar’s ticks” and “Spanish needles.” Bidens is thought of by many as a vile and opportunistic weed. In my experience it really does get around. On our land it seems to magically emerge whenever the clay subsoil is exposed and loosened up, as long as the spot gets a little sun. Sometimes it appears in garden soil or loamy topsoil, but it seems to really like red loose sandy clay.
I’ve used Bidens frondosa as medicine for years. I pick the leaves and flower buds just as they’re about to open and tincture them fresh, and dry some for tea as well. They are very mildly aromatic, and have a stimulating and tonifying (astringent) effect on mucous membranes—tightening without being too cold. They can be used in hay fever, but I have other herbs for that, and I usually end up using Bidens in the urinary tract and for the prostate. Its combined effect of tightening up boggy or lax tissue along with gently stimulating, warming and improving the function of that same tissue can be so helpful when the mucosa are ragged from chronic infection, or when the prostate is swollen and sodden and obstructing the flow of urine.
But I’d never heard of Bidens as an antimicrobial. First of all, I must say I’m instinctively skeptical of the whole concept of an herbal antibiotic. My philosophy leans towards seeing infectious organisms as taking advantage of a body that is already compromised for other reasons, and I focus on improving underlying health and immunity so that infections cannot gain a foothold. As Louis Pasteur, the originator of the germ theory of disease, is said to have recanted on his deathbed: “The germ is nothing; the terrain is everything!” The rise of the germ theory and the subsequent over-reliance on antibiotic drugs has had manifold negative health consequences (not the least of which has been the unintentional breeding of strains of bacteria resistant to every new antibiotic drug introduced) and allowed allopathic medicine to all but ignore “the terrain” as a factor in infectious disease.
Still, antibiotics have their appropriate uses. I have taken them before, and I would again, in the right situation. What’s more, and Buhner makes this point abundantly in the introduction to his book, herbal antibiotics might be especially useful in an age where drug companies cannot develop new antibiotics fast enough to stay ahead of bacterial resistance to antibiotics, and people are dying in hospitals because the habitual medical means of controlling infections are no longer working.
And here I want to clarify something that the sensationalist literature around antibiotic-resistant germs tends to obscure. (The marketing around Buhner’s book is unfortunately guilty of this as well.) The soundbite usually goes like this: Overuse of antibiotics is breeding new strains of hyper-virulent “superbugs” resistant to antibiotics and increasingly deadly. True enough, I guess, but it makes it sound like these new strains are beefed-up, stronger, faster, hungrier, deadlier germs-on-steroids. Let’s be clear: the new strains of bacteria are only hyper-virulent in that they are resistant to the drugs doctors use to kill them. They do not reproduce faster, spread more contagiously, become more ubiquitous in the environment, or cause more damage in your body than similar non-resistant strains. For example, MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is only deadlier than “regular” staph if your only medicine is methicillin.
Now what’s great about plants as antimicrobials is that millions of years of coevolution with bacteria has equipped plants with sophisticated suites of phytochemicals that work together to disable and eliminate bacteria. There’s rarely just one antimicrobial substance in a plant, there are several, and they are frequently teamed together with other chemicals that synergize with the antimicrobials, helping them to work better, for instance by disabling the mechanisms bacteria use to defend themselves from attack. For these reason, bacteria have a much harder time developing effective resistance to botanical antimicrobials than to pharmaceuticals. As herbalists have come to expect from plants as medicines, they will usually do a more thorough and sophisticated job than the isolated chemicals that modern medicine prefers.
But there was one more obstacle to me appreciating the suggestions that I found in Buhner’s book. This was the idea that an herb could act as a systemic oral antibiotic, in the way that pharmaceutical oral antibiotics do. I was well aware that certain herbs are powerfully antiseptic—that they would kill microbes on contact. Thus you can use Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.), containing the antiseptic yellow alkaloid berberine, on an infected wound, or take it orally if you have a bacterial G.I. infection. But the plants’ constituents won’t travel through the digestion and into the blood and act on bacteria throughout the body systemically. The best you can do for a systemic effect would be to stimulate or otherwise enhance the body’s own immune system. But in this book Buhner was asserting that in addition to herbs that act as “localized antibiotics”, there is a group of herbs that act as systemic antibiotics, and Bidens is on the list. We’ll see…
My opportunity to put Bidens to the test came less than a year later, and the patient was me.
It went like this: On some random day in late summer that I’ll call Day 1, I noticed a small lesion on the inside of my cheek, a raw spot, somewhat tender, like you might get if you accidentally bit your cheek while eating. Not associated with a lymph node or a salivary gland, just right in the meat of my cheek. I have no idea how it got there. Maybe I bit my cheek—it does happen sometimes—but I didn’t remember having done that. Anyway, I didn’t do anything about it.
By Day 3 there was a hard, roughly disc-shaped lump in my cheek, maybe the diameter of a quarter (25 cents), but thicker. It was tender, and firm. By putting my thumb inside my mouth I could grab the hardness between my thumb and forefinger. At this time I started to pay it more attention. To the best of my ability, I looked at the inside of my cheek in the mirror with a flashlight. There was indeed a small wound, tucked behind a strange fold of inner cheek-skin, and a little redness.
I started using one of our tincture formulas (“Immune Boost”, consisting of Myrrh, Echinacea, Spilanthes, and Usnea; the formula also works well as a topical antiseptic) on the wound. I also chewed fresh plantain leaf (Plantago major) into a cud and kept that lodged in my cheek, replacing it periodically. Plantain has a nice ability to draw infection from a wound, among other helpful properties.
On Day 4 the infected area had grown and was making that whole side of my face feel stiff. The plantain leaf was enabling me to painfully express a small amount of bloody pus from the wound inside my cheek each time I removed the cud, but it wasn’t making a big difference in the size or the spread of the infection. The antiseptic tincture applications didn’t seem to be holding it back either.
When I woke up on Day 5, the whole affected side of my face was puffy, and a little red. There was even puffiness around my eye, including my eyelid. I felt feverish. Now the affliction could be noticed by others. At this point I started to worry. It was time to reconsider my approach, and entertain other options. Against my will, I began to picture a long and dispiriting afternoon in the waiting room at Urgent Care looming in my future. It was a Sunday.
Then I thought of Bidens. Why not give it a try? I had almost a quart of Bidens frondosa tincture (fresh leaves and flower buds, 1:2 @ 95% alcohol) on hand. Buhner’s book says that Bidens needs a high dose as an antibiotic. In acute situations, he calls for “¼-1 tsp (1.25-5 ml) and up to 1 tbl (15 ml) in water, up to 6x daily for up to 28 days, depending on severity. … The tincture can also be used topically on infected wounds.” I decided to start with 1 teaspoon (5 ml) every two hours. I would pour the tincture in a little water and swish it all around the wound before I swallowed it. I started the regimen late in the morning, and I discontinued the plantain leaf and antiseptic tincture at this time.
By evening there was no noticeable change, for better or for worse. I had an engagement in town the next day so I drove there (1 hour away) in the evening, which would also put me closer to medical attention should I need it. I went to a friend’s birthday party and even drank a couple beers, but I stayed on the regimen.
I went to bed early, at a friend’s house, exhausted. In the middle of the night I woke up, dosed myself again, and went back to sleep. When morning came, the pain was less and the swelling had diminished noticeably. Encouraged, I stuck with the dosing regimen all through Day 6, noticing continuing improvement as the day progressed.
By the morning of Day 7, the infection had subsided to the point that I felt only a small hard nub in my cheek, the size of a dime—maybe a nickel! At that point I cut the dosing regimen to 3 times a day, which I continued for three days, at the end of which the infection was resolved and I discontinued treatment.
To summarize: After less than 24 hours of treatment with 1 tsp every 2 hrs of Bidens frondosa tincture (fewer than 10 doses), the infection had turned around and was receding. I followed with one more day of frequent high dosing, before switching to a maintenance dose for three days.
Maybe it was the beer, but I believe it was the Bidens tincture that turned my infection around so quickly. In the time since this case, I’ve dispensed and/or recommended Bidens for infections at various stages on several occasions, usually with good results, but nothing with as clear of a dramatic arc as the story I just told.
Based on these results, I think that Bidens shows promise as a systemic oral botanical antimicrobial.
Anyone care to corroborate, contradict, or amend?
Note: Buhner maintains that Bidens is a much less powerful antibiotic once dried, but the dried herb can be used, in even higher doses. Heat damages the properties, so don’t decoct. Tincture or juice of the fresh plant are the preferred preparations. I used Bidens frondosa. Most of the research was done on Bidens pilosa (introduced to the US and common in the southern states). Bidens bipinnata and other Bidens species are known or presumed to be effective. There is probably a Bidens species near you. Try it and report back.
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