Essential oils often evoke thoughts of scented candles and day spas, but their benefits beyond relaxation are less well-known.
Essential oils are ultimately just plant extracts — and those are used in countless cleaning and personal-careproducts, and are the main ingredient in some pest-control products and some over-the-counter medications, like Vick’s VapoRub and some lice sprays.
They’re used in the food industry because of their preservative potency against food-borne pathogens — thanks to their antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal properties.
Various oils have also been shown to effectively treat a wide range of common health issues such as nausea and migraines, and a rapidly growing body of research is finding that they are powerful enough to kill human cancer cells of the breast, colon, mouth, skin, and more.
A handful of promising, real-life studies have been conducted with humans and other animals, though most of the research in that realm thus far has been conducted in the lab. More controlled trials will be required before some of these applications will be available to the public, but meanwhile, scientists have turned up exciting results in another area of use: countering the growing antibiotic-resistance crisis.
“The loss of antibiotics due to antimicrobial resistance is potentially one of the most important challenges the medical and animal-health communities will face in the 21st century,” says Dr. Cyril Gay, the senior national program leader at the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Research Service.
As Cari Romm previously reported in The Atlantic, livestock consume up to 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the U.S., and the amount actually jumped by 16 percent between 2009 and 2012, according to a recent FDA report.
This rampant use of the drugs has led to “superbugs” that are becoming increasingly resistant to the antibiotics that are used to treat not just farm animals, but humans as well. In fact, almost 70 percent of the antibiotics given to these animals are classified as “medically important” for humans.
According to Romm, “In the U.S., antibiotic resistance caused more than two million illnesses in 2013, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and an estimated 23,000 deaths,” and they’ve also amounted to an extra $20 billion in healthcare costs. And it’s only poised to get worse: A recent report commissioned by the U.K. government estimates that drug-resistant microbes could cause more than 10 million deaths and cost the global economy $100 trillion by the year 2050.
While the drugs are, of course, sometimes necessary to treat infections in livestock, the real reasons they’re overused are to speed up growth and to compensate for the cramped, unsanitary living conditions the animals endure.
Dr. Stuart B. Levy, a man of many titles — hematologist and professor at Tufts University; director of the Center for Adaptation, Genetics, and Drug Resistance; president of the Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics; and author of the book The Antibiotic Paradox:
How the Misuse of Antibiotics Destroys Their Curative Powers — says he and his colleagues consider the misuse of antibiotics on farms to be the biggest influence on antibiotic resistance, which has been declared “an increasingly serious threat to global public health that requires action across all government sectors and society” by the World Health Organization.
Levy has been warning about this impending disaster for nearly 40 years, a couple of decades after farmers discovered that putting small amounts of antibiotics in the animals’ feed resulted in increased growth. Even back then, a study led by Levy found that chickens developed resistance to the antibiotic tetracycline at a rapid pace — within a week, the animals had resistant bacteria in their gut.
Months later, the stubborn bugs had spread to untreated chickens and even the farmers. And it didn’t stop there: Those resistant bacteria also became resistant to other antibiotics that the chickens hadn’t even consumed. “Antibiotics used anywhere creates antibiotic resistance, and that resistance doesn’t stay in that environment,” Levy says. “And resistance is transferable among bacteria of different types.”
What’s being done to confront this major contributor to this obvious, growing world health threat? The FDA has asked those in the agricultural industry to voluntarily reduce their use of antibiotics, but no one is keeping track of whether they do (nor has there been a record of the antibiotic use all these decades).
Farmers can still say they’re using it for prevention of infections. “The lobby is so strong it’s hard to get categorical refusal to do this,” Levy says. “We really want to convince the users — the farmers — that this is a practice that should be eliminated.”
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