Cold and flu season is upon us, which means a lot of people will be taking antibiotics, and even more people will be slathering on hand sanitizer to stop the spread of germs. But the truth is, antibiotics are ubiquitous year-round whether you’re aware of them or not, and they could be doing more harm to your health than good. That’s why we created a comprehensive guide to all things antibiotics, including three short videos that cover three different aspects of the topic: what antibiotics are; how to prevent antibiotic resistance (and why it’s an issue); and the harmful effects of antibiotics on the body. Read on to learn everything you need to know about these powerful chemicals!
So…What Are Antibiotics?
Antibiotics are an all-too-common part of a lot of many people’s everyday lives. It’s too easy to ask for a prescription when you feel a sniffle coming on, instead of waiting to see if you can kick it on your own or undergoing a test to see if you really need the drug. After all, who doesn’t want a simple, get-better-quick solution (or at least the promise of one)?
But most of us have never given all that much thought to what antibiotics are and how they impact your health. So, in the simplest terms possible, here’s the deal: antibiotics are chemical substances that can inhibit or destroy the growth of harmful microorganisms. They are produced either naturally by soil bacteria and fungi, or synthetically in a lab after undergoing extensive testing.
What happens once antibiotics enter your system? They travel throughout the body killing bacteria (hence the term “antibacterial”). The thing is though, they don’t have the ability to differentiate between the bad, disease-causing bacteria and the good, nourishing bacteria, so antibiotics can end up destroying the beneficial bacteria in your gut, organs, and tissues.
This, in turn, affects our microbiome, the network of microbial species that influence health. This effect is so profound that just one weeklong course of antibiotics can change your microbiome for up to a full year after you stop taking the medication!
The Importance of Good Bacteria and Probiotics
In a healthy, balanced microbiome, there’s 85% good bacteria and 15% bad bacteria. One of the harmful effects of antibiotics is that when you take them, you upset this balance and knock down the amount of good bacteria. And when your good bacteria drops, it can lead to a whole host of health issues, such as:
So what can you do to avoid upsetting this balance if you get sick? First, make sure that your doctor runs a test to confirm that the infection is bacterial and not viral If it’s a virus, an antibiotic won’t help anyway.
If you have confirmation that your infection is bacterial, make sure that you don’t leave until your doctor recommends a good probiotic for you, based on your medical history. This can be anything from fermented foods — such as sauerkraut, yogurt, or apple cider vinegar — to probiotic or prebiotic pills.
Probiotics are good bacteria that help keep your digestive system healthy, while prebiotics are food for probiotics, and both are key to maintaining a healthy microbiome. If you’re getting chronic bacterial infections (colds, flu, bronchitis, sinusitis, UTIs), there’s a good chance your bad bacteria are ruling the roost in your gut and your good bacteria have been taken prisoner. Send in reinforcements (aka probiotics) to take back control of your health!
How to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance
Antibiotic resistance is a major global health problem. Each year, approximately 2 million people in the U.S. are infected with antibiotic resistant bacteria and approximately 23,000 people die as a direct result, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That’s pretty terrifying, and definitely qualifies as a public health crisis. So how is antibiotic resistance created? How do superbugs relate to chronic disease? And what does it have to do with the meat you eat and your health?
The U.S. leads in antibiotic consumption per capita. However, 30% of all antibiotics prescribed are unnecessary. Even scarier — more than 70% of the bacteria that cause hospital infections are resistant to antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance occurs when a bacteria changes in some way that either protects it from the action of the drug or neutralizes the drug. Any bacteria that survive an antibiotic treatment can then multiply and pass on its properties, making more bacteria that are immune to modern antibiotic medicines.
So why is this happening? In short, overuse of antibiotics promotes antibiotic resistance. When you take an antibiotic that your body doesn’t need, the drug will still attack good bacteria. The good bacteria can then become antibiotic-resistant and spread that property to other, more harmful bacteria. Plus, antibiotic-resistant bacterial biofilms (thin slimy films of bacteria) are responsible for several chronic diseases that are difficult to treat, like cystic fibrosis. They can even coat the surfaces of implanted medical devices such as catheters or prosthetic cardiac valves. Biofilms have been connected to about 80% of bacterial infections in the U.S. In 2017, the WHO warned that a dozen antibiotic-resistant superbugs pose a threat equivalent to terrorism.
Want a visual explanation? Check out our video guide to how to prevent antibiotic resistance.
How to Avoid Unnecessary Antibiotics
Over 30 million pounds of antibiotics are sold for use in food animals — that’s 80% of the antibiotics sold in the U.S. Globally, it’s estimated that this antibiotic use will increase by 67% by 2030. Consuming these animal products promotes the spread of superbugs, which enter our homes via uncooked meat and poultry. If contamination occurs, you could be affected with a life-threatening antibiotic-resistant illness. Sure makes the meat aisle of the grocery store a little more ominous, no? It’s unknown how often people get sick from this, but we do know that there are 48 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. each year.
To make sure you’re not one of those cases, avoid consuming meat, poultry, and other food products raised with antibiotics and instead buy those that are certified organic. And if you feel an infection coming on, don’t go for an antibiotic first. Allow your body the chance to fight it off.
Lastly, avoid antibacterial soaps and instead use plain soap and water for effective hand washing. In the same vein, skip antibacterial wipes for surface cleaning, and instead use non-antibacterial cleaners.
Harmful Effects of Antibiotics (and Where They’re Hiding)
One of the most troubling ways that antibiotics is being used began round 60 years ago. Scientists figured out that giving healthy cattle, hogs, and poultry antibiotics in their feed or water helped them gain weight faster. This is because low doses of antibiotics alter the way animals break down food in their gut, enabling fat build-up. Today, 40% of all global antibiotics are used for this— even in fish farms.
Our first reaction to discovering this was: Good thing we aren’t getting antibiotics in our food or water, in case it’d make us gain weight faster! Oh wait, it turns out we do. Humans consume antibiotics not only through the meat we eat, but also via the water we drink (we’ll explain below about manure contamination plus groundwater). When you eat meat from an animal or fish that’s been fed antibiotics, your body absorbs that antibiotic.
Studies suggest that this leads to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in humans. There’s also concern that our ability to fight off disease could be diminished by overuse of antibiotics in farm animals. On top of that, exposure to antibiotics from food may alter the balance of your gut. This change may contribute to weight gain, among other health effects. Research has shown that obese people’s gut bacteria mix is different than that of lean people.
And if you’re thinking you’re okay because you only eat organic meat — there’s more. It’s estimated that 75% of antibiotics delivered to an animal aren’t even used. Instead, the drugs exit via feces or urine. This contaminated manure eventually ends up in groundwater and surface water via runoff. Given that more than 50% of the world’s population relies on groundwater for drinking water, this is a major concern. It’s also interesting to note that the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock— and their subsequent rapid weight gain — corresponds with the human obesity epidemic of the last 20 years.
To really understand why antibiotics are so impactful, we have to understand why the gut microbiome is essential to our health. The gut microbiome is a collection of trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our gut. It’s fundamental to the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to digest most of the food we eat. And we couldn’t extract critical nutritional compounds that we need to function.
A 2015 study showed an increase in cancer formation, inflammation, and oxidative stress as a result of people taking antibiotics. Antibiotics can have the greatest negative effect when taken at a young age. That’s because they can change the development of kids’ “adult” microbiota by not allowing it to develop normally. Early frequent use of antibiotics has been linked to Crohn’s disease, diabetes, and obesity.
Long-term antibiotic use at any age has been linked to a host of antibiotic resistance issues later in life, such as overgrowth of Candida (yeast), which manifests itself as chronic pain, MS, depression, severe allergies, and even cancer.
Conclusion: Antibiotics and Your Health In a Nutshell
All of the above raises some very serious concerns about antibiotics, but it’s also a lot to absorb. Luckily, we’ve broken it down into a few key bullet points for you:
- Antibiotics can be natural, but are generally synthetic chemical substances that inhibit the growth of harmful microorganisms.
- However, they also kill beneficial microorganisms, which can have far-ranging impacts on your health.
- Taking too many or unnecessary antibiotics can lead to tons of issues, including obesity, weakened immune system, many chronic illnesses, and antibiotic resistance.
- Even if you’re not taking any antibiotics, you could still be consuming them, as they’re fed to many animals destined for human consumption. That means antibiotics end up in meat, poultry, and fish, as well as soil and groundwater.
- Reduce your risk of feeling the harmful effects of antibiotics by avoiding unnecessary antibiotics, not using antibacterial soaps or cleaning products, eating certified organic, and consuming prebiotics and probiotics. For researched and vetted recommendations on antibiotic-free foods, as well as supplements and probiotics (plus 1,200+ other WellBe-approved products), check out our Non-Toxic Products Lists Database.
Have you had a negative experience with antibiotics? Tell us in the comments!