Antibiotic drugs indeed have the potential to cure many infectious diseases that, if not cured in time, can result in death. But are these drugs really as beneficial as we are led to believe? Antibiotics are toxic chemicals naturally produced by bacteria and fungi to kill off their competition in the race for food, water and survival. Antibiotic drugs leverage this ability to fight infections caused by micro-organisms.
One of the most important but often overlooked factors concerning antibiotics is that they only treat infections caused by ‘some’ bacteria such as pneumonia, syphilis, tuberculosis, strep throat, urinary tract infections, skin infections and infected wounds. Antibiotics just do not work against infections caused by viruses. And interestingly, most cases of ear infections and acute upper respiratory tract infections such as sore throat, cold, bronchitis and sinusitis are caused by viruses. Why do doctors prescribe antibiotics for such infections? And do we need to question our mind-set as well that forces us to feel better only when we are prescribed antibiotics?
Antibiotics are life-savers in many situations, but indiscriminate and overuse of antibiotics have some serious health repercussions in the form of impaired immune system, imbalance in the gut flora and the development of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
Antibiotics weakens our immune system
Did you know our gastrointestinal tract is home to trillions of bacteria and other microbes? That makes it about 2 ½ pounds of micro-organisms, both good and bad, residing in our gut. Amazing, isn’t it? Our intestinal terrain has a delicate balance of these diverse microbes; this equilibrium playing a phenomenal role in our overall health.
Connecting the dots between the gut flora and immunity
Our immune system is nothing short of a miracle with amazing capacity to prevent and heal almost any disease and believe it or not that includes cancer. But did you know that almost 80% of our immune system is embedded in our digestive system where it is regulated by our fascinating gut microbiome.
- Gut flora helps in the production of B Vitamins, deficiency of which can result in diseases such as diabetes, anaemia, ulcers, hair loss, cancers, gastrointestinal disorders, autoimmune diseases and neuro degenerative disorders such as Parkinson and Alzheimer disease.
- When pathogens try to invade through our gastrointestinal tract, bacteria in our gut spring to action and helps to develop immune cells to fight the pathogens. And once these cells are formed, they no longer limit their presence in the digestive tract but go into the bloodstream to perform body-wide immune functions.
- Gut bacteria communicates directly with the body’s natural killer T-cells allowing them to differentiate between friendly microbes and potentially dangerous invaders.
- A healthy gut flora makes for a healthy digestive system, which when working in its top form, encourages the secretion of gastric acid that kills pathogens like bacteria, fungi, viruses, worms and protozoa.
Antibiotics simply can’t differentiate between the good and the bad bacteria. So, every time when you are swallowing antibiotics, you are also killing the good along with the bad. What happens when this balance is disrupted?
This leaves the gut worn-out of beneficial gut flora and this imbalance in gut microbiome is called dysbiosis. As the good bacteria die, their hostile counterparts take over. Overgrowth of Candida in our body is one such example where this powerful fungi reaches a dangerous growth levels and pokes at the lining of our intestinal wall – resulting in a leaky gut syndrome. Continued misuse of antibiotics, especially broad-spectrum antibiotics, can seriously compromise our immune system, making our body even more vulnerable to diseases and infection.
Summing up a 2014 review article ‘Role of Microbiota in Immunity and Inflammation’, overuse of antibiotics, along with other factors such as changes in diets and elimination of helpful organisms like nematodes that work collaboratively with bacteria “may have selected for a microbiota that lack the resilience and diversity required to establish balanced immune responses.” According to the report this phenomenon accounts, in a major way, for a dramatic rise in autoimmune and inflammatory disorders, especially in high-income countries where the symbiotic relationship with the microbiota has taken the most severe hit.
Development of antibiotic resistant bacteria
We all are familiar with superbugs: strains of bacteria resistant to commonly used antibiotics. All living organisms have a miraculous capacity to adapt and evolve when threatened by their biological or external environment, and pathogens are no exception. In the face of continuous antibiotic treatments, bacteria can develop resistance to these drugs. And they can achieve this by a complex series of adaptation mechanism that helps them to render antibiotics ineffective in killing or inhibiting their growth. As overused antibiotics lose their punch, the resulting resistance makes even the common infections difficult to treat. Antibiotic resistant bacteria can even spread from animal to people and even from infected people to other people.
Here is a very useful article about antibiotics resistant bacteria: Stop the Spread of Superbugs.
Some food for thought
As published in The Huffington Post article, “in the United States penicillin and doxycycline–two older antibiotics–are considered nearly obsolete because of age. But in Sweden, with some of the best antibiotic stewardship policies in the world, these medicines remain the go-to drugs for many prevalent infections. Bacteria in Sweden aren’t different than those (in the USA); they just haven’t been exposed to antibiotics at the same rate.”
In a recent 2016 study published in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers found that some antibiotics, called macrolides often used to treat lung and chest infections, may increase the risk of developing asthma and obesity in children if given more than two courses in the first two years of life.
How can you deal with the antibiotics scare and maintain a healthy gut flora?
- Take antibiotics only when necessary. Always remember antibiotics are not effective against viral infections such as colds or the flu. Using them judiciously is a key as we also don’t want to go to an era where people would die of common infections.
- Use antibiotics as prescribed. Taking the dose for a lesser duration only means the antibiotics have killed the weaker pathogens and not the strongest of the population. This also helps the growth of drug resistant bacteria.
- And finally if you must use antibacterial drugs, ensure you are taking steps to restore the balance in your gut flora. You can replace the lost ‘beneficial bacteria’ by having natural probiotics, foods that encourages the growth of good bacteria, for example yoghurt, kefir, fermented vegetables (kimchi), miso, sourdough bread, sauerkraut and other sensible foods. Prebiotic foods such as banana, honey, and asparagus also help.
Our next blog post on Health and Nutritional issues will continue on with this theme of natural options to support and even replace (in some circumstances) Antibiotics.