Misleading Report Recommends Natural Protection against Biological Weapons
The growing anxiety about the recent anthrax attacks has raised new questions for the public: Once infected, can a diagnosis be made quickly enough for treatment to be effective? Will there be an adequate supply of antibiotics in the event of a massive epidemic? In the face of widespread fear and uncertainty, the public will no doubt be interested in a new online article claiming that a number of natural remedies can be used in the fight against biological and chemical terrorism.1
In this report, the author cites numerous scientific papers to support his claim that “there are natural compounds as close as the kitchen cupboard that are potent antidotes against biological warfare.” However, virtually all of the research cited is taken out of context or misrepresented, and the conclusions drawn from this research are unwarranted and potentially dangerous.
One of the agents allegedly effective against anthrax is garlic. According to the report, “garlic is a broad-spectrum antibiotic that even blocks toxin production by germs.” The research cited to support that statement discusses a wide range of bacteria and several bacterial toxins, but does not mention anthrax or the lethal toxins it produces.2 It is inappropriate to assume that garlic would be effective against anthrax merely because it has shown activity against other organisms. Furthermore, most of the research on the antibacterial action of garlic has been done in test tubes, and that research does not necessarily imply that garlic would be an effective treatment for individuals suffering from infections. For example, while garlic has been shown to inhibit the growth of the bacterium that causes peptic ulcer (Helicobacter pylori) in test tubes,3 it is ineffective as a treatment for this infection in humans.4 5
The controversial report also states that N-acetylcysteine (NAC), a natural antioxidant, can fight anthrax. That statement is based on a study in which mice treated with NAC were partially protected against the lethal effects of anthrax toxin.6 However, effective use of NAC in a critical-care setting typically requires massive intravenous intake. For example, in the treatment of acute acetaminophen (Tylenol®) poisoning, doctors typically administer approximately 10,000 mg of NAC immediately, followed by 5,000 mg every four hours intravenously.7 While such treatment might conceivably be useful in the emergency treatment of anthrax infection, it is unlikely that long-term oral supplementation with commonly used amounts of NAC (several hundred milligrams per day) would provide significant protection. Larger oral intakes would not only be expensive, but would be expected to cause a high incidence of gastrointestinal and other side effects.8
Another recommended “antidote” for anthrax infection is melatonin, a hormone that the report claims can “help prevent lethal toxins from anthrax exposure.” The test tube study cited to support that claim showed that melatonin reduced the production of a chemical called tumor-necrosis factor alpha in the white blood cells of mice exposed to anthrax toxin.9 However, there is no reason to assume that melatonin taken orally by humans would have the same effect. Moreover, it is not clear whether inhibiting the production of tumor-necrosis factor alpha would be of any value in the treatment of anthrax.
The report further points out that most bacteria depend upon iron in order to multiply, and that compounds that bind and sequester iron can, under some circumstances, inhibit the growth of microorganisms. Phytate (also known as IP6) is recommended as a natural iron-binding compound that might prevent the growth of various bacteria. However, the potential value of such a recommendation appears questionable, at best. In one of the studies cited in the report, a powerful iron-binding drug was used to protect animals from the effects of botulism toxin.10 The drug did have an effect, but it was hardly worth mentioning: the animals died after an average of 9.9 hours, compared with 7.8 hours without the drug.
Phytate, a natural component of some high-fiber foods, is, indeed, capable of binding iron and other minerals. In fact, consumption of excessive amounts of foods high in phytate can cause deficiencies of iron or zinc. However, even if one were to accept the doubtful assumption that taking phytate supplements could reduce the concentration of iron enough to inhibit the growth of anthrax, it would be foolish to induce chronic malnutrition as a means of protecting oneself against bacteria.
The report also discusses Huperzine A, a derivative of Chinese club moss, as a potential treatment for nerve gas poisoning. In one study, Huperzine A reduced the death rate by 60% in rats exposed to the nerve gas agent soman.11 However, the lowest amount of Huperzine A that was shown to be beneficial was 100 mcg per kilogram of body weight, equivalent to approximately 7,000 mcg for humans. That amount is far greater than the 150 mcg per day recommended for protection against chemical weapons, and would cost approximately $23.00 per day. Huperzine A would have to be taken every day in order to have any chance of minimizing the effects of an unanticipated chemical attack. In addition to the high cost, the safety of using such large doses of this compound has not been demonstrated.
The misinformation presented in this new report could have repercussions far beyond enticing frightened people to waste their money. The natural compounds recommended in the article are not entirely free of side effects, and some have the potential to interact with various prescription drugs. Most importantly, if faith in any of these questionable remedies causes someone with anthrax to delay seeking medical care for even a few hours, the consequences could be disastrous.
1. Sardi B. How to prepare for biological Armageddon. Available from URL: http://www.sdm2000.com/toxinreport.doc
2. Sivam GP. Protection against Helicobacter pylori and other bacterial infections by garlic. J Nutr 2001;131:1106S–8S.
3. Sivam GP, Lampe JW, Ulness B, et al. Helicobacter pylori—in vitro susceptibility to garlic (Allium sativum) extract. Nutr Cancer 1997;27:118–21.
4. Ernst E. Is garlic an effective treatment for Helicobacter pylori infection? Arch Intern Med 1999;159:2484–5.
5. Aydin A, Ersoz G, Tekesin O, et al. Garlic oil and Helicobacter pylori infection. Am J Gastroenterol 2000;95:563–4.
6. Hanna PC, Kruskal BA, Ezekowitz RA, et al. Role of macrophage oxidative burst in the action of anthrax lethal toxin. Mol Med 1994;1:7–18.
7. Rumack BH, Peterson RC, Koch GG, Amara IA. Acetaminophen overdose. Arch Intern Med 1981;141:380–5.
8. Tattersall AB, Bridgman KM, Huitson A. Acetylcysteine (Fabrol) in chronic bronchitis— a study in general practice. J Int Med Res 1983;11:279–84.
9. Shin S, Hur GH, Kim YB, et al. Dehydroepiandrosterone and melatonin prevent Bacillus anthracis lethal toxin-induced TNF production in macrophages. Cell Biol Toxicol 2000;16:165–74.
10. Adler M, Dinterman RE, Wannemacher RW. Protection by the heavy metal chelator N,N,N',N'-tetrakis (2-pyridylmethyl)ethylenediamine (TPEN) against the lethal action of botulinum neurotoxin A and B. Toxicon 1997;35:1089–100.
11. Tonduli LS, Testylier G, Masqueliez C, et al. Effects of Huperzine used as pre-treatment against soman-induced seizures. Neurotoxicology 2001;22:29–37.
Alan R. Gaby, MD, an expert in nutritional therapies, served as a member of the Ad-Hoc Advisory Panel of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine. He is the Medical Editor for Clinical Essentials Alert, is the author of Preventing and Reversing Osteoporosis (Prima, 1994), and co-author of The Natural Pharmacy, 2nd Edition (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), the A–Z Guide to Drug-Herb-Vitamin Interactions (Healthnotes, Prima, 1999), Clinical Essentials Volume 1 and 2 (Healthnotes, 2000), and The Patient’s Book of Natural Healing (Prima, 1999). Currently he is the Endowed Professor of Nutrition at Bastyr University of Natural Health Sciences, Kenmore, WA.
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