Antibiotics and those common exposes that threaten our guts; as taken from the international best seller, Brain Maker: The Power of Gut Microbes to Heal and Protect Your brain – For Life, Dr David Perlmutter takes a closer look at common exposes that threaten the gut – this week we are going to focus on antibiotics.
I vividly remember when I was five years old and my father suddenly became weak. At that time he was a busy neurosurgeon, covering five or six hospitals while at the same time being Dad for his five children (I am the youngest). Dad was very driven, as you can imagine, but suddenly he began experiencing fevers and overwhelming fatigue. He consulted several of his colleagues and ultimately was diagnosed with subacute bacterial endocarditis, an infection of the heart caused by the organism Streptococcus viridans. Dad received penicillin intravenously for three months. Had it not been for penicillin, this infection would have undoubtedly proven fatal. So I understand, loud and clear, the importance and effectiveness of antibiotics. Nonetheless, I cant help but wonder about the changes that his microbiome endured during his treatment, and how that may have played a role in his current situation with Alzheimer’s disease.
I can’t talk about the role of antibiotics in the course of human health without paying tribute to them. I know plenty of friends, family members, and colleagues who would not be with us today had it not been for antibiotics. Serious diseases that once killed millions of people each year can easily be treated today thanks to antibiotics. The discovery of antibiotics (“against life”) in the early part of the 20th century has been one of the most significant medical achievements.
Of course, antibiotics aren’t magic bullets that can eradicate every infection. When used at the right time, however, they can cure many serious and life-threatening illnesses. They have revolutionized medicine, but the pendulum has swung far from those days when antibiotics were rarely available. Today, they are everywhere and far too often overused. Antibiotics constitute the majority of prescriptions for children under ten years old. Extravagant use of antibiotics, especially for viral infections,which are not helped by these drugs (e.g., colds, flu), has led to the proliferation of antibiotic-resistant strains of bad pathogens that current antibiotics cannot touch. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated: “Without urgent action we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill.” The organization has called antibiotic resistance one of the “top health challenges facing the 21st century.”
Alexander Fleming himself warned us about these potential consequences back in 1945 during his Nobel Prize lecture, when he said, “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and, by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug, make them resistant.” (When using antibiotics, “underdosing” – taking too little or failing to complete a prescribed round – can be just as problematic as over-using antibiotics in general. Both practices lead to resistant, rogue strains.)
Antibiotics are also used extensively in agriculture and farming, and this is contributing to the problem of resistance. They are used to treat infection as well as to make animals grow larger and mature earlier. Animal lab studies reveal that big changes occur quickly (as little as two weeks) in livestock’s microbiomes when they receive antibiotics – changes that promote obesity that to the kinds of bacteria left in the wake of the antibiotic exposure, and that cause a significant increase in antibiotic resistance. These antibiotics eventually find their way into meats, poultry, and dairy products, and this has raised concerns about their lingering effects in the human body.
Key to our discussion is, of course, the damaging effects of these drugs n the human microbiome. What happens when an animal, be it a cow or human, takes antibiotics is that the body’s microbiome is instantly changed in diversity and composition as the antibiotics immediately wipe out certain strains, leaving others to flourish. And unfortunately, antibiotics can create a massive imbalance whereby the gut is rife with obesity-promoting bacteria.
Although it may take a painfully long time for tighter restrictions and regulations to be put into place regarding antibiotic use in the food supply, I’m happy to see change already occurring at the level of the CDC, WHO, and American Medical Association regarding prescribed antibiotics for infections. These institutions have already issued multiple warnings that doctors are now listening to. This has led to greater awareness about which kinds of infections truly need antibiotics and which would be best left alone for the body to take care of naturally. The goal is to curtail the usage of antibiotics unless they are absolutely necessary. Just in the last couple of years, for example, pediatricians have been urged to not have that knee-jerk response to parents asking for antibiotics to treat their child’s ear or throat infection. That’s the kind of change I’ll like to see.
The next time you think you or your child needs an antibiotic, I encourage you to weigh the pros and cons. It goes without saying that if it’s an infection that can only be cured with antibiotics, by all means use them wisely and exactly as the doctor prescribes. But if it’s an infection that cannot be helped by antibiotics, consider how much you’re “saving” in terms of the microbiome. This is especially true when it comes to children, who are uniquely vulnerable. A round of antibiotics, or multiple rounds, will increase children’s risk for a variety of health challenges stemming from the disrupted gut bacteria – from asthma and obesity in their youth to dementia later in life. It’s all connected. The gut bacteria create those enduring links.