Antibiotics Destroy Gut Health

Antibiotics Destroy Gut Health

In his new book, Missing Microbes, Dr. Martin J. Blaser, director of the Microbiome Project and chair of medicine at New York University, makes a compelling argument. The basis for the book, and the thesis that has driven his 30-year career as a biologist, is that our overuse of antibiotics is helping bacteria evolve to become increasingly resistant — and increasingly deadly.

While people often think that the rise of antibiotic-resistant disease is a problem that can wait to be solved, Blaser, like the prevailing physicians of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), know that the future is now.

Constantly ‘Evolving’

According to a new study published this month in the journal Biomicrofluidics, two Princeton University researchers observed genetic mutations of similar but different types of E. coli bacteria, a common bacterium responsible for the sickness that causes food poisoning. Such rapid genetic mutations that enable the bacteria to “evolve” ahead of the antibiotics used to kill them render our current antibiotics useless.

“Bacteria are clever; they have hidden ways to respond to stress that involve re-sculpting their genomes,” explained head researcher Robert Austin, a biophysicist at Princeton University and lead author of the 2014 study.

The proof is in the intensive care unit of any city hospital. The rise in communicable disease that is antibiotic resistant, bacterial infections that cause severe respiratory distress, such as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), or those that cause extreme diarrhea and dehydration, such as C. difficile, are becoming nearly impossible to treat effectively. Many patients now require three or four courses of antibiotics before one strong enough — and one that surpasses the virulence of the bacterium in question — can be administered. For an unlucky few the current antibiotics are completely ineffective, sometimes resulting in death. Yet another concern are “rouge” viruses that have also made headlines, like SARS, Ebola, Hantavirus, Marburg virus, or even swine and/or bird flu.

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Antibiotics Are in Everything

But direct antibiotic overuse itself is only part of the problem; another is that much of the milk, dairy, meat, and fish produced in the United States already contains antibiotics that were administered to the animals to promote high growth rates prior to slaughter. According to Blaser, up to 80 percent of all the antibiotics sold in the United States are being administered to our livestock, all of which ends up in the food. After digestion, the remains of those same antibiotics stay behind in our bodies, altering our inner bacterial ecosystem and making it less and less diverse. Even though the use of antibiotics has been banned throughout Europe since 1999, the practice shows no sign of stopping in America.

Another possibility is that we are becoming sick from our food in a way that is even more direct: The National Antimicrobial Resistance Monitoring System (a joint program of the Food and Drug Administration and the CDC) found that 87 percent of the meat collected and tested from U.S. supermarkets was contaminated with enterococcus bacteria, an indication of fecal contamination and a leading causes of serious infection in most hospitals.

America’s drinking water is equally compromised. According to Glaser, “A 2009 study of several cities in Michigan and Ohio found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in all source waters, drinking water from treatment plants, and tap water”, which had the highest levels.

But our overuse of antibiotics — both intended and unintended (from ingesting them via our food and drinking water) is only part of the troubling story. The other part is that every course of antibiotics ingested alters our own gut flora, the inner bacterial system that helps keep us healthy, and as it turns out, helps protect us from chronic diseases, such as asthma, inflammatory bowel disease, and celiac disease. Blaser also contends that our very early use of antibiotics on children, many receiving as many as 30 courses of treatment by adulthood, is driving the global obesity epidemic as well as costing us the very bacterial diversity that we started out with as infants.

Especially compelling is Blaser’s supporting theory that our inherited gut flora — the very bacterial make-up inside our stomachs from the time of birth — is only as diverse as our own mother’s if we were delivered naturally, that is, if we passed through the vagina. Infants born surgically via Cesarian section fail to benefit from the bacterial transfer that occurs during the passage down the birth canal, a process that not only delivers essential microbes, but specific enzymes that enable breast milk to be immediately digested.

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Blaser’s theories are fascinating indeed, and they are gaining traction among global scientists who aim to develop more specific and targeted antibiotics, not the powerful broad-spectrum types that have become so widespread because of their past effectiveness. But broad-spectrum antibiotics kill most of the bacterial in your system — both the good and the bad — similar to how chemotherapy kills off good cells along with cancerous ones. In both instances, the body has to work hard to fight to come back from the therapy; in Blaser’s theory, some of those useful bacteria that you got when you entered the world will never recover, leaving you exposed, he believes, to the risk of chronic diseases that you may have had a kind of immunity to prior to that broad-spectrum antibiotic therapy.

Unfortunately, physicians face tough choices. Nervous parents unsure of their child’s needs want to ensure they are protected from disease. We have lived through an age where we have witnessed firsthand the wonders of penicillin. Is it any wonder we expect our doctors to prescribe antibiotics at the sign of every cough or sniffle? Blaser is sounding an alarm, however. If we do not begin paying closer attention to our real needs for antibiotic treatment (and not using them as preventative drugs) we may not have much of a drug arsenal at our disposal when something truly infectious comes our way.