Mastic Kills Undesirable Bacteria
Discovering Antibacterial Mastic
By Will Block
Mastic gum decimates the ulcer-producing bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H pylori). This naturally-occurring resin severely damages H pylori by creating a chink in its cell structure.1 Although the general antimicrobial effect of mastic has been historically known to medical practitioners for several thousand years [see Goodbye Pylori], new and formal scientific respectability has been established. Research has confirmed mastic's antibacterial powers and the expansiveness of its applications is just now beginning to be recognized.
Research has confirmed mastic's antibacterial powers and the expansiveness of its applications is just now beginning to be recognized.
Mastic Inhibits Food Contamination
In a recent report, mastic has been found to inhibit growth of various bacteria including Salmonella enteritidis, Staphylococcus aureus, and Pseudomonas fragi. These bacteria can contaminate foods, making mastic ideal as a food preservative.
Salmonella is a food-borne disease frequently found in uncooked eggs and other raw food.2 It can be deadly, especially in infants, the elderly, and in those with impaired immune systems.3 Even alfalfa sprouts, a staple of the health-food world, have been repeatedly contaminated by Salmonella enterica.4 Surprisingly, regional analyses of alfalfa sprout-caused salmonellosis have found that women are more susceptible, as much as 50%, than men.
Columbus' fleet: Santa Maria, Niña, and Pinta in search of Mastic.
Mastic is ideal as a food preservative.
Outbreaks of Escherichia coli (E coli), another bacteria inhibited by mastic, have also been associated with eating alfalfa sprouts.5 According to the Center for Disease Control, the epidemiology of food-borne diseases is rapidly changing, with many new strains arising which are resistant to antimicrobial drugs. Upwards to 2,000 deaths are attributed every year to Salmonella alone.6 There are about 25,000 cases of illness per year attributable to E coli (spread from infected ground beef, raw milk, lettuce, untreated water, and unpasteurized cider/apple juice), 2 million cases due to Salmonella, and 4 million due to Cambylobacter jejuni (usually from poultry, raw milk, and untreated water). About 100-200 deaths per year are thought to be caused by E coli. When we consume a food contaminated by one or more of these illness-producing bacteria, the damage occurs - or does not occur - inside our bodies depending on the overall condition of our immune systems and the state of our gastrointestinal health. By supplementing mastic into our daily diets, it might be possible to inhibit growth of opportunistic bacteria. For example, by dealing a deadly blow to H pylori, by ingesting mastic, we can halt or retard the bacteria after they hit our stomachs.
From Posies to Mastic
Outbreaks of Salmonella and E coli,
bacteria inhibited by mastic,
have been associated with eating alfalfa sprouts.
Traditionally, mastic has been used as a food preservative; this is documented in the ancient works of Greek, Roman and Arabic physician authors.7-10 Consistent with food-preserving use, mastic has antioxidant properties.11 Food preservatives have played a pivotal role in history, often making the difference between life and death, by preventing food from spoilage. Consider the song of many childhoods . . .
Ring around the rosies,
A pocket full of posies,
A-tishoo! We all fall down.
The origin of this children's hand-holding ditty is not exactly a bed-of-roses. Instead it is thought to be about the catastrophic European Black Death of 1347 that rapidly killed one third or more of the entire population of the Old World (Europe). The first symptom of the plague was a rosy rash. Posies of herbs and spices were carried to sweeten the air and lessen the "a-tishoo" (sneezing), another symptom of impending death. Other historical versions replace the "a-tishoo" with "ashes." The term "ashes" is believed to refer to either the bonfires that continually cleansed the air of the plague or refers to the dried black "blood ashes" coughed up from the lungs when the alveoli (lung sacs) rupture just prior to death. When children dance and fall down on the last line of this rhyme, they are unknowingly acting out their ancestors' disease and death.
By implementing mastic into our daily diets, it might be possible to inhibit growth of opportunistic bacteria. For example, by dealing a deadly blow to H pylori, by ingesting mastic, we can halt or retard the bacteria after they hit our stomachs.
Figure 1. Plague doctor dressed in protective gear including mask with nose compartment for antioxidants, aka posies.
Although the posies or antioxidant herbs and spices did not prevent the final toll of the disease, so revered were they for their ability to preserve food, that it was easy for a desperate person to believe that they might protect against the plague. The medieval garb of medics during The Plague consisted of head masks with large nose pieces filled with protective herbs and spices. [See Figure 1.] The idea was to filter and kill the airborne germs from inhalation through the nose. It is possible that antioxidants could indirectly have helped prevent plague. The Black Plague bacilli are alive and well and to this day are carried by mice infested with the flea in the San Bernardino mountains surrounding Los Angeles, but almost no one gets the plague anymore. Exceptions have included a particularly malnourished migrant-worker family, undoubtedly without the benefit of protective antioxidants that could have bolstered protection against plague.
In reality, the quest to increase
the availability of spices kindled the
Age of Exploration, leading to the discovery
of the New World.
Columbus Discovers Mastic
With the understanding that spices (used as antioxidants) preserved food and saved lives, it is easy to see why, during the medieval age, spices were believed to be infused with magical power. In reality, the quest to increase the availability of spices kindled the Age of Exploration, leading to the discovery of the New World. The famous explorer Christopher Columbus was motivated by the value of spices and his quest was to find a new route to the spice-rich East. Curiously, in his preparation for his voyage, he visited the island of Chios (the home of mastic production) where he recruited many of his seamen. On the 15th day of February 1493, Columbus wrote a letter to Luis De Sant Angel, Treasurer of Aragon, announcing his discovery of mastic in the New World:
To speak, in conclusion, only of what has been done during this hurried voyage, their Highnesses [Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain] will see that I can give them as much gold as they desire, if they will give me a little assistance, spices, cotton, as much as their Highnesses may command to be shipped, and mastic [editor's emphasis] as much as their Highnesses choose to send for, which until now has only been found in Greece, in the isle of Chios, and the Signoria can get its own price for it. [editor's emphasis].
If spices were worth their weight in silver, by Columbus' estimate mastic was worth its weight in gold. Yet little research justified a higher valuation of mastic until now, more than five hundred years later.
On the 15th day of February 1493, Columbus wrote a letter to Luis De Sant Angel, Treasurer of Aragon, announcing his discovery of mastic in the New World.
Can Antibacterial Mastic Help in Hospitals?
Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) is another bacteria that is inhibited by mastic. There may be important uses for mastic in hospital settings. Toxic Staph infections are rampant in hospitals where they can result in pneumonia, surgical-site infections and bloodstream infections.13 Staph can also cause infections of the skin, bone, joints, heart and brain. It is a shocking fact that first-line antibiotics such as penicillin or ampicillin are not effective against Staph infections in as many as 95% of hospital cases.14 Other antibiotics are now reported losing ground against Staph.15 Moreover, Staph is now endemic in many hospitals and even epidemic in some, with other resistant strains growing by the day.16 As mastic has been shown to be effective against many strains of H pylori, it might be equally deadly to many strains of other bacteria. To date, however, there have been no animal or human studies.
If spices were worth their weight in silver, by Columbus' estimate mastic was worth its weight in gold.
Mastic Inhibits Yeast and Other Fungi
Extracts of the leaves of the mastic tree, Pistacia lentiscus, have been shown to possess antimicrobial activity.17 When tested on a wide range of bacteria in vitro, these extracts were found to significantly reduce bacterial colonies of Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli and Sarcina lutea. More interesting, the mastic tree extracts were also able to destroy harmful fungi such as the common Candida albicans, as well as Candida parapsilosis, Torulopsis glabrata and Cryptococcus neoformans. The antibacterial and antifungal effect appears to involve phenolic compounds (antioxidant component of some plants) found in the leaves as well as in the resin. Other studies have shown that mastic resin has phenolic activity and mastic is also effective against Staph. It has been suggested that phenolics disrupt the enzyme systems involved in the production of energy for both bacteria and yeast. Phenolics also damage microbes by altering their structural components.18
Staphylococcus aureus (Staph) is another bacteria that is inhibited by mastic.
For many women the "yeast syndrome" is a significant problem. It can represent a runaway imbalance of naturally-occurring yeast that overgrows to the point of interfering with many of the body's functions, producing symptoms such as: vaginitis, thrush, athlete's foot, migraine headaches, fatigue, constipation, bloating, allergy, sensitivities (to perfume, fumes, chemical odors and tobacco smoke), irritability, depression, weak muscles, abdominal pain, diarrhea, swelling in the joints, sore throat, and more. Fungi and yeast can enter the bloodstream and cause life-threatening infections.
As mastic has been shown to be effective against many strains of H pylori, it might be equally deadly to many strains of other bacteria.
Certain fungi are associated with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) type 1.19 In addition, Candida (a yeast, which is a type of fungus) has become a common hospital-induced infection affecting infants20 and others alike.21 Women with low or reduced immune function are particularly susceptible to candidiasis (infection with Candida, or yeast) which may lower their immunity even more.22 Because mastic leaf extracts have been found to have an antifungal effect on Candida and also have other antimicrobial effects that parallel those of mastic (the resin), it stands to reason that mastic gum may also be effective against Candida and other yeast infections.
Mastic has been used for several thousand years as part of the Mediterranean diet to enhance proper GI function and to ward off dyspeptic problems.
GI Protection and More
Raw food is very much in vogue today, yet the hazards of bacterial and fungal contamination have not been adequately publicized. Mastic has been used for several thousand years as part of the Mediterranean diet to enhance proper GI function and to ward off dyspeptic problems. The oldest prescriptions found on Babylonian clay tablets and the priestly papyrus writings of ancient Egypt have recorded the ancient pharmaceutical and medical uses of mastic. And among these chronicles have been writings on its antimicrobial uses: topical, oral and internal. Thus, mastic's unblemished track record provides assurance that long-term use is safe.
If you find yourself excessively sensitive to food-borne problems, it might be a good idea to supplement with mastic to offer an added measure of protection.
If you find yourself excessively sensitive to food-borne problems, it might be a good idea to supplement with mastic to offer an added measure of protection. As for hospital visits, Staph infections are predominately topical (in wounds and soft tissue), although some manifest in the urinary tract and some in the blood (septicemia). So if the need should arise to visit (or even stay in) a hospital, consider the alternatives and try not to go. In view of the exposure risks, it's worth serious consideration to do whatever is possible. On the other hand, if you, like millions of others, are subject to stomach problems or bouts of dyspepsia, mastic may help provide a measure of insurance to preserve, help protect, and possibly even restore proper gastrointestinal function.
How to Avoid The Plague
During the time of Shakespeare, in the late 16th Century, the plague fell on London. All theaters (including those where Shakespeare's plays were performed) and places where large groups of people gathered were closed until the disease had run its course (see the movie Shakespeare in Love). An Englishman of that time, Thomas Cogan, gave advice on how to avoid catching the plague. On leaving one's home, a person should carry in his mouth a clove or two, a piece of cinnamon, orange peel, or a piece of angelica root and in the hand an orange, mint, or a sponge drenched in vinegar. He also provided the following recipe for a sweet-smelling elixir to be taken each morning before leaving home:
- 3 drams each of Aloe Epaticum or Cicotrine, fine cinnamon and myrrh
- 1 dram each Cloves, Mace, Lignum Aloe, Mastic, and Bole Armeniac
Mix all these things together in a clean mortar and take two pennyweights of the mixture in a half glass of white wine. And so may you go safely into all infection of the air and plague.
- Huwez FU, Thirlwell D, Cockayne A, Ala'Aldeen DA. Mastic gum kills Helicobacter pylori. N Engl J Med 1998 Dec 24;339(26):1946.
- Mishu B, Koehler J, Lee LA, Rodrigue D, Hickman-Brenner F, Blake P, et al. Outbreaks of Salmonella enteritidis infections in the United States, 1985-1991. J Infect Dis 1994;169:547-552.
- Smith JL. Food-borne illness in the elderly. J Food Prot 1998 Sep;61(9):1229-1239.
- Van Beneden CA, Keene WE, Strang RA, Werker DH, King AS, Mahon B, Hedberg K, Bell A, Kelly MT, Balan VK, Mac Kenzie WR, Fleming D. Multinational outbreak of Salmonella enterica serotype Newport infections due to contaminated alfalfa sprouts. JAMA 1999 Jan 13;281(2):158-162.
- Anon. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreaks of Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection associated with eating alfalfa sprouts? Michigan and Virginia, June-July 1997. JAMA 1997 Sep 10;278(10):809-810.
- See http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol3no3/cohen.htm
- Ibn Al-Baytar Abdullah Ahmed Al-Andalusi. Materia Medica, III, 1248 pp 158-159 (in Arabic).
- Sankary, Mohamed Nazir. The Cilician Dioscorides' plant materia medica as appeared [sic] in Ibn al-Baitar, the Arab herbalist of the 13th century. 1991.
- Dioscorides Pedanius, of Anazarbos. The Greek herbal of Dioscorides. Oxford University Press, 1934.
- Galen. Galen: selected works. Oxford University Press, 1997; 448 p.
- Abdul-Rahman A. Mastiche as an antioxidant. J Am Oil Chem Soc. 1975;52:423.
- Hart and Channing. American History Leaflets CD Sourcebook of American History ©1995 Compact University.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Nosocomial Infection Surveillance System report: data summary from October 1986-April 1996. Atlanta (GA): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 1996.
- Neu HC. The crisis in antibiotic resistance. Science 1992;257:1064-1072.
- Boyce JM. Increasing prevalence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in the United States. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 1990;11:639-642.
- Panlilio AL, Culver DH, Gaynes RP, Banerjee S, Henderson TS, Tolson JS, et al. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus in U.S. hospitals, 1975-1991. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol 1992;13:582-586.
- Iauk L, Ragusa S, Rapisarda A, Franco S, Nicolosi VM. In vitro antimicrobial activity of Pistacia lentiscus L. extracts: Preliminary report. J Chemother 1996;8:207-209.
- Conner DE, Beuchat LR. Sensitivity of heat-stressed yeasts to essential oils of plants. Appl Environ. Microbiol. 1984;47:229-233.
- Ampel NM.Emerging disease issues and fungal pathogens associated with HIV infection. Emerg Infect Dis. 1996 Apr-Jun;2(2):109-116.
- Huang YC, Lin TY, Peng HL, Wu JH, Chang HY, Leu HS. Outbreak of Candida albicans fungaemia in a neonatal intensive care unit. Scand J Infect Dis. 1998;30(2):137-142.
- Pertowski CA, Baron RC, Lasker BA, Werner SB, Jarvis WR. Nosocomial outbreak of Candida albicans sternal wound infections following cardiac surgery traced to a scrub nurse. J Infect Dis. 1995 Sep;172(3):817-822.
- Fidel PL Jr, Sobel JD. Immunopathogenesis of recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis. Clin Microbiol Rev. 1996 Jul;9(3):335-348.