From humans to insects, using natural substances to treat infection is a concept as old as time itself.
A fascinating article published on TechTimes online titled, “Ants Treat Their Own Fungal Infections With Natural Medicine,” illustrates how universal the use of natural substances to maintain health is across the animal kingdom.
Researchers discovered that ants infected with a deadly fungus will ingest a naturally occurring — albeit pro-oxidative — molecule known as hydrogen peroxide when offered in combination with honey, presumably in order to medicate themselves:
Scientists studying an ant species called Formica fusca offered the insects a choice between a pure honey solution and a honey solution spiked with toxic hydrogen peroxide. They found that ants afflicted by a fungal infection tended to opt for the hydrogen peroxide solution, whereas healthy ants were more likely to avoid it. This shift in preference suggests that the ants recognize that hydrogen peroxide helps fight off fungal infections and that its noxious effects become worth the risk when an ant falls ill.”
Furthermore, the infected ants who consumed hydrogen peroxide spiked honey had a significantly lower mortality rate (45%) versus the ants who consumed pure honey (65%). On the other hand, healthy ants fed pure hydrogen peroxide saw a 20% mortality rate, revealing that out of the context of infection where hydrogen peroxide is beneficial unnecessary “treatment” can have adverse health effects.
The researchers also noted that the ants were capable of properly dosing themselves:
When offered a solution that had only a low concentration of hydrogen peroxide, infected ants typically chose to eat equal amounts of the toxic food and the pure food. Offering a stronger hydrogen peroxide solution caused the infected ants to change the balance, eating only half as much of the toxic solution as they did of the pure solution.”
It should also be noted that all honey naturally contains hydrogen peroxide, which is known to contribute to its antimicrobial properties.
Is Hydrogen Peroxide A “Natural Remedy”?
The discovery that ants are capable of using hydrogen peroxide as a “natural medicine” is especially interesting considering that it is one of the most popular over-the-counter remedies for topical infection that humans have ever devised. As you know, it usually comes in a brown bottle at the pharmacy or grocery store and millions of bottles are sold throughout the world.
But hydrogen peroxide isn’t just a natural antiseptic. It is also believed to have a therapeutic role internally. This is accomplished both through direct ingestion (note: extreme caution should be exercised when using it this way), and by being formed as a natural metabolic byproduct of high-dose vitamin C therapy. Indeed, hydrogen peroxide produced via vitamin C treatment or administered directly has been studied as a potential natural alternative for conditions as serious as cancer.   
Advocates of using hydrogen peroxide internally believe it is safe because our body produces it naturally in immune cells known as phagocytes that engulf pathogens. An important differential consideration, however, is that immune cells are able to produce and utilize very small and specific amounts at the very time and place they are needed — which reduces collateral damage. One cannot expect that orally ingesting hydrogen peroxide would necessarily have the specificity needed to ensure the highly reactive molecules do not damage non-target host tissues. Nonetheless, there are a wide range of advocates for this approach who may find their claims vindicated a little more knowing that even sick ants have been shown to ingest the stuff with significant benefit.
Regardless of these controversies, the point is that hydrogen peroxide is a relatively natural means to fight infection, and it is a remarkable fact that even ants have evolved to be able to recognize its value and use it in a very specific way that appears very much like self-medication. I don’t think anyone is going to accuse ants of practicing “woo” when the outcome of their “quackery” is decreased mortality. I should only hope that in the future we may all apply the same results-based evidentiary standard to the thousands of natural therapies out there that are at least as effective as conventional treatments, and are almost always safer and more affordable. If it works it works. And for those needing scientific “evidence” in addition to the evidence of experience or timeless folkloric traditions, check out our extensive research database that covers over 3,000 ailments.
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