Why you shouldn't ignore the threats posed by antibiotics

written by Michael Elstein

Why you shouldn't ignore the threats posed by antibiotics

Credit: Xavier Sotomayor

Drug-resistant superbugs are a fundamental threat to not only our future wellbeing but even now, according to the United Nations. Not in some distant epoch in a galaxy far away but right now on planet Earth, these bugs are directly linked to 50,000 deaths every year in Europe and the USA, according to current data, and that would be a conservative estimate. These statistics don’t include Asia, Africa and South America.

As the key players in this heath crisis are physicians, patients who demand inappropriate antibiotic treatments and farmers administering antibiotics to rapidly fatten the livestock we consume, the pressing need to change behaviours appears to be directed at those who are either unaware of or unconcerned about this mounting catastrophe.

So dire is this problem and so urgent is the need to implement action that on the 21 September 2016 global leaders were summoned to the United Nations — only the fourth time the General Assembly has convened to address a health emergency — to achieve a consensus strategy for combating this problem.

In a medium where it was anticipated that E. coli could barely survive, they were able to easily mutate into strains with resistance to industrial-strength antibiotics.

E. coli is a bacterium that resides in our gut, usually in a harmonious fashion. It can become nasty, morphing into the enemy or what doctors call a pathogen when it becomes associated with bladder infections in women, a condition quaintly termed “honeymoon cystitis”. Usually, this inconvenience is easily treated with antibiotics but since 2002 the romance has been upended with the development of resistant bacteria. Back then, 40 per cent of E. coli were already impervious to regulation antibiotics. In 2012, upwards of 55 per cent of E. coli failed to respond to conventional treatments.

Research scientists at Harvard decided to investigate just how recalcitrant bacteria have become. They constructed a giant Petri dish, an environment where bacteria can thrive but also where scientists can observe how effectively the application of antibiotics can decimate burgeoning bacterial colonies. Rather than suffer annihilation, it took the bugs just 11 days to spread from a section with very low antibiotic concentrations to one with 1000 times more — enough antibiotic to napalm even the hardiest bacteria.

In other words, in a medium where it was anticipated that E. coli could barely survive, they were able to easily mutate into strains with resistance to industrial-strength antibiotics. Scientists predict that if this pattern is maintained, worldwide deaths from superbugs could escalate to 10 million per year by 2050.

Back at the UN, it’s claimed that national policies are being developed to raise awareness and limit the unnecessary use of antibiotics by doctors and in farming. If so, the implementation of this campaign in this country has yet to arrive at a medical clinic near you. Coughs, colds and runny noses, mostly caused by viruses for which antibiotic treatment is deemed ill-advised, are often treated with antibiotics nonetheless due to the prescribing habits of doctors and the demands of patients for something to “knock it on its head”. Explanations that a virus won’t respond to antibiotics often fall on deaf ears, while doctors appear to be reluctant to educate themselves about the natural alternatives for treating viral illnesses. If that’s not bad enough, injudicious use of antibiotics has other adverse health consequences.

Antibiotics & obesity

As long ago as the 1940s it was discovered that antibiotics added to chick feed could enhance their growth. Through the years, this evolved into the practice of administering sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to livestock on a massive scale to encourage rapid fattening and growth of animals. Only recently, after examining the intestinal bugs of these animals, did scientists begin to realise that the antibiotics were altering the gut flora to a combination of bacteria that were especially efficient at extracting fat from food and storing it as fat in the body. They also showed that if you gave thin animals the gut germs from those that had received antibiotics, those thin animals became fat rather quickly.

A number of studies have now confirmed that this applies equally to children. Early antibiotic exposure in infancy is connected to an increased risk of seeding overweight children and obesity later in childhood. In the USA, evidence shows that by age two, children have received on average three courses of antibiotics. National norms in this country would be similar.

Most alarmingly, early antibiotic exposure may establish metabolic software that programs permanent obesity, since animals remain fat even after their gut germs have recalibrated to a normal pattern. The reasons for our current obesity epidemic are many, but with adults being far less active than children it’s not much of a stretch to hypothesise that consuming antibiotic-treated meat and repeated doses of prescription antibiotics conspires to alter our gut flora in a way that makes us expert harvesters of fat.

Antibiotics and asthma, inflammatory bowel disease

A nationwide study conducted in Denmark between 1995 and 2003 revealed that children who received more than seven courses of antibiotics had an increased risk of developing inflammatory bowel disease. Asthma has similarly been linked to overuse of antibiotics.

Antibiotics, breast cancer & other cancers

In 2014, research at the John Wayne Cancer Institute, Santa Monica, CA, found a connection between dysbiosis, or an imbalance of germs in the bowel, and breast cancer. A collaborative study between Israeli and American scientists found that repeat use of antibiotics was associated with an increased risk of oesophageal, gastric, pancreatic, prostate, lung and breast cancers.

What’s the alternative?

A diet rich in fermentable but non-digestible carbohydrates found in fruit and vegetables has been found to alleviate obesity in children. Probiotics might be another way to curb the rise of superbugs. Sadly, though, right now, not many are paying attention.


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Michael Elstein

Michael Elstein is a Fellow of the Australian College of Nutritional and Environmental Medicine. Anti-ageing medicine is his current passion and he is the author of Eternal Health and You Have The Power, which are available as e-books through his website.

Dr Elstein has just attained a Masters in Nutrition from RMIT university located in Melbourne. He treats those who suffer from fatigue, insomnia, weight gain, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders and menopausal dysfunction. He utilises diet, nutritional therapy, hormonal interventions and herbal remedies.