It is well-known that prolonged exposure to high doses of antibiotics can increase tolerance and sometimes strengthen the very bacteria that antibiotics are trying to kill. New research, however, suggests that an extract from maple syrup may boost the efficacy of antibiotics and reduce their side effects.

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New research shows that the phenolic extract from maple syrup can dramatically boost antibiotics’ efficacy in fighting off infection.

Antibiotics – the commonly used drugs that fight off bacteria – have been helping us to ward off infections for almost a century, since the invention of penicillin in 1929.

However, in recent years, antibiotics have been losing to certain forms of highly resistant bacteria known as “superbugs.”

In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that more than 2 million people in the United States are infected with these superbugs every year, and more than 23,000 die as a result.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) also warn against the dangers of developing resilient forms of gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and staph infections as a result of over-prescribing or misusing antibiotics. The NIH caution that antibiotics kill a lot of the “good” bacteria that are responsible for keeping the human body healthy and immune to infections.

A new study, however, offers hope in the fight against superbugs. A team of researchers at McGill University in Québec, Canada – led by Nathalie Tufenkji, Ph.D. – set out to examine the effects of a natural extract from maple syrup on the therapeutic action of antibiotics.

“Native populations in Canada have long used maple syrup to fight infections. I have always been interested in the science behind these folk medicines,” says Tufenkji, who came up with the idea of investigating the antimicrobial action of maple syrup extract while studying the same aspects in cranberry extracts.

The study – which is presented at the American Chemical Society’s 253rd National Meeting & Exposition in San Francisco, CA – suggests that maple syrup extract can drastically improve the action of antibiotics, without enhancing any of their side effects.

Tufenkji and team used the common extraction process in which the sugar and water are separated from the phenolic compounds of the syrup. Phenols are a toxic compound that serves as disinfectant and antiseptic. In the case of maple syrup, phenolic compounds are partly responsible for its golden color.

The researchers tested the combined effect of maple syrup extract and the common antibiotics ciprofloxacin and carbenicillin. They found that together, the two substances created a synergistic, destructive effect on biofilms. Biofilms are a thin layer of bacteria that are often resistant to medicine, and which are common in severe infections such as catheter-associated urinary tract infections (UTIs).

This strong synergistic effect enabled the researchers to obtain the same antimicrobial effect by using up to 97 percent less antibiotic.

This dramatic improvement in antibiotic potency was noted against clinical strains of Escherichia coli (which can cause UTIs, gastrointestinal problems, or even respiratory illness), Proteus mirabilis (which is also responsible for many UTIs), and Pseudomonas aeruginosa (which affects hospitalized patients and people with a weakened immune system).

The authors of the study conclude:

Thus, [maple syrup extract] can be used as an antibiotic synergizer/potentiator for treatment of different types of bacterial infections.

The proposed synergism-based treatment may expand the spectrum of existing antimicrobials, prevent the emergence of resistant strains, and minimize potential cytotoxicity due to high antibiotic doses.”

To further investigate the syrup’s antibiotic-enhancing effect, the researchers tested the extract in combination with antibiotics on fruit flies and moth larvae. They found that fruit flies that had eaten meals soaked in maple syrup extract lived for several additional days compared with their syrup-free counterparts.

The scientists are now testing the effects of maple syrup extract on mice, and they hope that one day the extract will be turned into a widely available, plant-based medicine.

“There are other products out there that boost antibiotic strength, but this may be the only one that comes from nature,” Tufenkji says.

Learn how new ‘helper drugs’ restore antibiotic susceptibility in superbugs.