This Plant Is a True Miracle: An Insight On The Aboriginal Bush Medicine

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The Tea tree plant Melaleuca Alternifolia, the source of tea tree oil, has been in use for centuries by the traditional people of Australia.
Often prepared by soaking in water overnight or applying the crushed leaves directly, it was used as an antiseptic for skin wounds and as a treatment for sore throats, coughs, cold and fever. It was even used by white settlers, until the popularity of modern antiseptics and antibiotics took over in the middle of the 20th century. But is there any merit in this old bush remedy?

As it turns out, this simple plant has shown its ability to assist in the recovery from many ailments, from acne to more complex afflictions such as MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus).
MRSA has become a huge problem in recent decades, known for infecting hospitalised patients particularly with topical wounds. This bacterial infection is extremely difficult and expensive to treat as it has become resistant to hardy antibiotics.

Tea tree profile

Melaleuca Alternifolia is native to north-eastern New South Wales and south-eastern Queensland. It grows into a small tree with thin, linear green leaves, pale papery bark and fluffy white flowers. Melaleuca alternifolia produces an oil which ranges in colour from pale yellow to clear with a strong and distinctive odour, and is extracted from the leaves by steam distillation.

Properties

As well as being an effective antiseptic, it is also an anti-fungal, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent.

  • It has been demonstrated in the laboratory to kill salmonella and E. Coli bacteria (responsible for food poisoning, diarrhoea, urinary tract infections), streptococcal species (which causes sore throat and fever), candida albicansenterococcus species (responsible for urinary tract infections) and staphylococcus aureus, among others.
  • It has even been shown to kill certain types of cancer cells (in tests done on the isolated cells).
  • Tea tree oil is toxic in large amounts if ingested; a 25 mL bottle is enough to severely affect a small child, and thus should only be applied topically unless advised by a medical professional.

The Research

Sadly, the majority of publications on tea tree oil and its uses are either anecdotal (the experiences and/or stories of individuals) or very small-scale studies, and often tea tree oil is tested on isolated bacteria rather than infected patients.

Those that do report testing on infected patients are very small scale, uncontrolled and often use combined treatments. These results unfortunately do not allow for reforms on how bacterial infections are treated in hospitals, but it does highlight the need for large-scale clinical research, as tea tree oil exhibits potential to augment treatment in so many areas.

  • Tea tree oil was first distilled in 1925, and its antiseptic, antibacterial and antifungal effects were described in a dental magazine. It was used extensively by non-native Australians during the 20th century and by Australian soldiers in the Second World War as an antiseptic. It was thought to be so vital to the soldiers, that those involved in its production were exempted from military service.
    Tea tree oil fell out of favour after the Second World War due to the rising popularity of penicillin.
  • During the latter part of the 20th and early part of the 21st century, several studies were performed to determine its efficacy in treating a range of ailments.
    • In 1990 it was determined to be just as effective at treating acne as benzoyl peroxide, and had less chance of severe negative side effects, though it was slower acting than the peroxide.
      In fact, the most common severe side effect of tea tree oil treatment is contact dermatitis.
    • In 2001 it was shown in a small scale study of 10 patients to be beneficial at treating cold sores.
    • Another study found that a 5% solution of tea tree oil was more effective than a placebo at treating dandruff, resulting in a 41% improvement in symptoms.
    • In 2003, it was shown to be effective, both in the lab and when tested on rats, at treating antibiotic resistant and sensitive strains of candida albicans (which is the cause of oral and vaginal thrush infections).
    • In 2004, one of the main and best understood components (terpinene-4-ol) was shown to be effective against the scabies mites.

      How tea tree oil works

      It is thought that tea tree oil’s effectiveness comes from two main components terpinene-4-oland linalool. These compounds are called terpenes and have a variety of therapeutic effect.

      These constituents have been shown to affect the structure of the bacterial cell wall, compromise the cytoplasmic membrane and interrupt transcription of proteins, which stops the bacteria from growing and reproducing, and induces their death.

43.8% of the essential oil of Melaleuca contains caryophyllene oxide, a terpene commonly found in lemon balm and Cannabis. (19) In the plant, it serves as an insecticidal/anti-feedant, shielding from herbivores and insects, as well as a broad-spectrum
antifungal to further defend the plant. Analogously, caryophyllene oxide demonstrated antifungal efficacy in a model
of clinical onychomycosis (tinea) comparable to ciclopiroxalamine and sulconazole, with an 8% concentration affecting eradication in only 15 days.

The effects of tea tree oil on skin issues are very consistent. It has also been shown in human and mouse studies to be an effective anti-inflammatory to treat histamine induced skin inflammation.

Possibly one of the most interesting pieces of information to have been discovered about tea tree oil is its ability to kill strains of the staphylococcus aureus bacteria that are either sensitive or resistant to the antibiotic methicillin. Infections of this type can be extremely difficult to treat, as methicillin is a particularly strong antibiotic.

Two separate studies found that, in the lab, the minimum concentrations of tea tree oil needed to inhibit 90% of s. aureus growth are 0.32% and 0.5% respectively. At these concentrations the tea tree oil solutions were not strong enough to kill the beneficial bacteria that already inhabits our skin, which may help to maintain normal skin flora during treatment.

It has been reiterated in several studies from varying disciplines that tea tree oil could be a useful addition to bacterial infection treatment regimens. There are documented accounts of addition of tea tree oil assisting in clearing up chronic infections in human patients effectively, with and without antibiotics, and in less time than anticipated. Much more research is needed, though, before tea tree oil can be used to its full potential.

There are difficulties in performing more clinical research on tea tree oil, as the concentrations of compounds within the natural products can vary greatly, the individual ingredients are often complicated and difficult to isolate in a lab setting, and determining any synergistic behaviour can be a mammoth task depending on the number of compounds within the plant. Another big hindrance is the lack of patent control over natural products, which may be a research deterrent to big pharmaceutical companies. However, it can clearly be seen that this wonderful plant could be the hero of the antibiotic resistance crisis that we’ve been looking for, and deserves our attention.

Tea tree oil in everyday life

Tea tree oil comes in many preparations, from the neat essential oil to a component in a cream or gel. Companies now manufacture products including deodorant, essential oils and a skincare range for acne treatment.

Tea tree is also available in water soluble solutions which can be applied directly to treat ringworm, tinea, acne, insect bites, disinfect small cuts and abrasions, or diluted to add to a vaporiser for chest complaints or to disinfect the home.

Different additives in preparations containing tea tree oil may affect its efficacy, but none have been found to diminish the antimicrobial effects.

Patch testing on the wrist or forearm is recommended to determine if an individual’s skin may be sensitive to tea tree oil before using to treat for any of the above. Tea tree oil has been shown to aid so many different ailments with so few side effects that its addition to any home first aid kit or skincare routine would not go amiss.

 

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