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Are antibiotics harming more than helping us? by Matthew Romans

I recently read a book called "Missing Microbes" by Martin J. Blaser, MD, which was written in 2014. Dr. Blaser is the director of the Human Microbiome Project at New York University. He previously served as president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and has studied the role of bacteria in human disease for over thirty years. Dr. Blaser believes the overuse of antibiotics may play a significant role in the growth of what he calls "the modern plagues." These include obesity, childhood diabetes, and asthma. His theories run counter to the medical and pharmaceutical establishment. When one considers how ubiquitous antibiotic are, and how prevalent these diseases of modern civilization have become in the 21st century, the situation merits a closer examination.

We must first understand the origins of antibiotics. In The War Between the States (1861-1865), more soldiers died from typhoid fever and dysentery than from bullet wounds. In World War I (1914-1918), unsanitary conditions in the battlefield trenches of Europe lead to outbreaks of typhus and influenza. A need for infection-fighting drugs was paramount. The first class of sulfa drugs was invented in the 1930s, but their effectiveness was limited. Penicillin was first discovered during World War II, and was used to great effect to treat infections incurred on the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. Many other antibiotics, such as streptomycin and tetracycline followed in short order. These were believed to be "wonder drugs", and their use has exploded in the last half century. Antibiotics work in three ways. One is by attacking the way the bacteria make their cell walls. A second is by inhibiting the manufacturing of protein that is necessary for bacteria cell function. Lastly, they work by interfering with the bacteria cell's ability to divide and reproduce.

Unfortunately, antibiotics are being over prescribed by physicians and requested by parents when they truly are not necessary. Most upper respiratory infections (URI's), such as the common cold and sinus infections, are caused by a virus rather than bacteria; therefore antibiotics tend to work very poorly against URI's. Most of the time, the patient begins to feel better in a few days anyway, whether the antibiotic is taken or not. This is a classic example of mistaking correlation for causation; while the patient will feel better in a few days, it doesn't necessarily mean it was due to the antibiotic.

Another point that should concern us is that antibiotics are generally broad-spectrum, meaning that they kill a whole host of bacteria that are both good and bad for us. It's like using a strategy of carpet bombing rather than using a surgical strike. This can lead to antibiotic resistance, which can leave us susceptible to other infections down the road by disturbing our microbiomes. Dr. Blaser mentions the example of Brandon Noble, the former Washington Redskins defensive lineman whose career was cut short after his knee became infected with an antibiotic-resistant strain of MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).

We are not just ingesting antibiotics at the behest of our doctors; we are also ingesting them in our food. Farmers are using antibiotics in the food of their livestock to "enhance feed efficiency." This helps the animals to grow larger and fatter prior to slaughter. In fact, Dr. Blaser says that "an estimated 70-80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States are used for the single purpose of fattening up farm animals." Another reason farmers use antibiotics is because grain-based diets are not ancestrally-appropriate for most animals, which can lead to systemic inflammation and infections. These antibiotics are being passed along to those of us that consume these meats.

So what is it about antibiotic use that contributes to the increase in these "modern plagues"? Dr. Blaser suspects that there is a link between the use of antibiotics and the disappearance of the Helicobacter pylori bacteria normally found in the gut. While this bacteria can be harmful to some adults, it can be beneficial to children. The presence of this bacteria has been associated with fewer reactions to the allergens that trigger asthma.

In the case of obesity, a longitudinal study was conducted in Britain over the course of a fifteen year period. Almost a third of the children that participated in the study had been given antibiotics in the first six months of their lives; by the age of two, three quarters had ingested antibiotics. The children who had received the drugs in the first six months grew fatter. According to Dr. Blaser, "juvenile diabetes is more likely to develop in babies born by Caesarian section, in boys that are tall, and in babies who gain weight more rapidly in the first year of life." Women are also given antibiotics after a C-section to ward off infection, and newborn infants are exposed to these antibiotics. Because babies born via C-section do not pass through the birth canal, they don't get exposed to the important lactobacilli contained in amniotic fluid.

Now that we understand that overuse of antibiotics can be harmful to us, what are some proactive strategies that we can use to maintain the health of the bacteria in our bodies?

Eat grass-fed meats, and those that have not been treated with antibiotics. I have found that grass-fed beef tastes much better.

Talk to your doctor. Don't accept a prescription for an antibiotic just because your doctor is rushed and needs to get to his next patient, and don't take an antibiotic for a runny nose or a scratchy throat.

Avoid taking over the counter pain relievers and other medications when possible. Many of these medications have traces of antibiotics in them.

Strength train regularly. This will help to keep you strong, combat systemic inflammation, and boost your immune system.

Get more sleep. Those of us that are sleep-deprived tend to get sick more often due to a depressed immune system.

Understanding how antibiotics work, the dangers of developing a resistance, and using them only when absolutely necessary will help us go a long way toward maximizing our health.

Posted January 29, 2019 by Tim Rankin