In Part 1 of my series, we looked at the dangers of acid-blocking drugs like Nexium and Prilosec. In Part 2, we reviewed the risks of taking synthetic birth control pills for an extended period. And now, in Part 3, we will show the effects of one of the most-commonly prescribed pharmaceuticals in the last century. In fact, I don’t know anyone that has not been on a course of these bacteria-slaying drugs. Do you?
Antibiotics save lives. It’s true. Antibiotic drugs are one of the most amazing discoveries of all modern medical miracles. They have restored wellbeing to countless numbers of people of all ages and walks of life.
The reverse is also true. Antibiotics damage health, especially when over-prescribed by well-meaning physicians who are unsure how to appropriately treat viral infections, or who are concerned about being sued for medical malpractice, or who are pressured by parents who demand the drugs for their children.
One study from the Journal of Pediatrics shows that antibiotics are prescribed twice as often as expected, meaning that 11 million yearly prescriptions of antibiotics could be unnecessary! This statistic only applies to children under 18 years of age. Think about the excessive antibiotic use in adults. Or consider this alarming number – 70 percent of all antibiotics sold in the US are used in livestock feed every year. Yes, you are eating antibiotics regularly when you consume conventional animal products.
My Overuse of Antibiotics
I can think of two instances in my life that antibiotics were truly necessary and probably saved my life. In my former stressful career as a full-time public school music teacher, I had an accident with a paper stapler (yes, you can laugh). I contracted cellulitis and needed IV antibiotics every four hours for a several days. It was quite serious and I credit the antibiotics with helping my weakened immune system fight off the blood infection. And three years ago, within 10 months of getting married, moving twice, and buying and remodeling a home, I succumbed to a kidney infection with major pain and a high fever. Even my naturopathic doctor recommended a second course of powerful antibacterial drugs when the first didn’t work. Thank God, I recovered once again, thanks in large part to the wonders of modern antibiotics. I also recall a couple incidents in my childhood where antibiotics may have helped me overcome bronchitis.
So, all in all, antibiotics have been indispensible four or five (my mother would probably say five to six) times in my lifetime.
What about the other dozen occasions I’ve taken antibiotics?
During my college years, I had recurring urinary tract infections (UTIs), which I now believe were exacerbated by my gluten sensitivity. (Read about bladder-related disorders and gluten sensitivity.) My MD prescribed antibiotics readily the first couple times after urine samples showed positive infections. After that, I can remember insisting she prescribe antibiotics whenever I felt like I had one, even without a urine sample. I would just tell the nurse over the phone I had a UTI and she would ask the doc to write up a script for the latest antibiotic. What was I thinking? Did I have an infection every time I took antibiotics or was it just bladder irritation? Little did I know I was destroying my gut bacteria with every round.
We Don’t Need Antibiotics (Most of the Time)
A healthy immune system can ward off both viral and bacterial invaders. Health problems arise when our immune system breaks down and allows viruses or pathogens to take control. So, our first and best defense is to continuously strengthen our immune system. When antibiotics are necessary in a crisis, it’s important to recognize they only target bacteria. Antibiotics kill off unwanted pathogens with ease. But in the case of a viral infection, antibiotics are completely ineffective.
Take the common cold for example. Colds come from viruses and cannot be treated successfully with antibiotics. Patients that plead for antibiotic treatment for colds are just wasting their money at best, and are destroying their good gut bacteria and causing more antibiotic resistance at worse. It’s best to rest and allow the virus to run its course; most individuals can get over a cold within seven to ten days.
Did you know that 80 percent of ear infections in children are viral? Yes, that’s right. Most ear infections will resolve themselves within a week, especially with addition of immune-boosting supplements like vitamin D and garlic, and the removal of allergy-causing foods like conventional diary. But most parents don’t know this and are still demanding antibiotics for their children.
Even in some bacterial infections, like my example of urinary tract infections, appropriate vitamins can help flush out unwanted bacteria without the use of antibiotics. Vitamin C and cranberry juice are very effective in treating most UTIs.
And in the case of conventional livestock farming, the animals are given antibiotics due to their unhealthy environment. They are locked up in cages in large indoor barns, standing in their own feces, and not allowed to roam on pasture. The antibiotics only prevent their untimely death before they are slaughtered for meat. This is why our family only buys 100 percent grass-fed pastured cows and organic poultry. We not only want to avoid antibiotics in the meat, but we also desire for the animals that nourish our bodies to be treated humanely with care.
The Consequences of Antibiotic Overuse
The overuse of antibiotics has both a personal and national effects. In my case, I believe too many antibiotics set me up for acute gluten sensitivity, worsening thyroid problems, and leaky gut syndrome, which in turn caused my food sensitivities. Basically, I devastated my beneficial gut bacteria. Unfortunately, most current antibiotic drugs destroy all bacteria, good or bad. They don’t differentiate between the two. And you need beneficial bugs, the kinds found in yogurt and sauerkraut. Keep in mind that 70 percent of your immune resides in your gut, so these beneficial microbes are absolutely necessary for good health. If you must take antibiotics, I strongly suggest taking a probiotic supplement after you finish your course. I’ve even heard some practitioners recommend probiotics during antibiotic treatment. Just don’t take them at the same time.
The overuse of antibiotics also has a societal effect, by creating the growth of superbugs, like MSRA (or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), particularly in hospital and nursing homes. This strain of bacteria has become resistant to common antibiotics. It often takes a combination of two or three antibiotics and sometimes IV antibiotics for successful treatment. And in serious cases, patients with weakened immune systems still die. A World Health Organization (WHO) study in 2014 concluded that the rise of antibacterial resistance is such a serious problem that it “…threatens the achievements of modern medicine.” Apparently, more and more countries are dealing with increased medical costs and loss of life due to standard antibiotic treatments failing at a startling rate.
The overuse of antibiotics on produce may be causing a rise in childhood allergies as well. Doctors in Boston are theorizing that the use of certain types of antibacterials on fruits and vegetables could explain why so many children are reacting to foods that were previously benign.
Using the Precautionary Principle
Yes, antibiotics are necessary sometimes. I don’t doubt their power to save lives. But in this age of overuse, can we take the wait and see approach in non-life-threatening situations? Can we look at other immune-modulating methods that can curb the unnecessary use of antibiotics? I think it is quite possible and even required if we want to avoid the overgrowth of antibiotic-resistant pathogens.
Here are some natural techniques that will work in most cases. (This information is not intended as medical advice. Always consult your physician about appropriate treatments for your health conditions.)
- Wait it out – Almost all viruses and some bacterial infections will take care of themselves in due time without medical intervention. Listen to your body; it knows what to do! Give it what it needs and it will fight off disease. If you become worse after a period of time, see your doctor immediately.
- Sleep and rest – Chronic sleep deprivation certainly results in more illness and disease. It’s vital to maintain at least seven hours of sleep per night, and more if you are trying to overcome sickness. If you are tired, don’t fight it! Take the day or several days off and let your body rest.
- Check vitamin D levels – Low vitamin D levels have been shown to lead to more colds, flus, and infections of all kinds. From the research I’ve done, I think it’s the most critical supplement to take during the winter months. Check out my post about vitamin D to learn more!
- Look for common food sensitivities – If your immune system is reacting to certain foods, then it will cause excess inflammation, leaving your body easy prey to viruses and bacteria. The top allergens are: gluten, dairy, soy, corn, shellfish, nuts, and eggs. A 30-day elimination trial should be enough time to show what foods bother you. Going gluten-free was the first step in turning my health around.
- Eat garlic and fermented foods, like sauerkraut – Immune-boosting foods rich in sulphur, vitamins, enzymes, and bacteria are important. Start thinking about food as medicine and see your health improve!
- Take probiotics, vitamin C, magnesium, and cod liver oil – Most of us don’t get adequate vitamins and minerals from our food because of depleted soils. Some supplements are essential for immune function, especially if you have a digestive condition. Green Pasture Fermented Cod Liver Oil provides both vitamin D and A in proper ratios.
- Limit refined sugar and processed foods – Sugar, additives, colorings, and chemicals in packaged foods deplete your immune system and make you more susceptible to both viruses and bacteria.
- Breastfeed your newborn for a year or more – Breastfeeding is one of the best things you can do to colonize your child’s gut with beneficial bacteria, which builds their immune system!
- Avoid the use of antibacterial soaps – Antibacterial soaps not only kill bad bacteria, but also the good bacteria that keep us healthy. Also, keep in mind new research showing homes that are “too clean” don’t build immune function.
For more information regarding the overuse of antibiotics, I recommend the book Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics Is Fueling Our Modern Plagues by Martin Blaser, MD. I have yet to read it, but I’ve heard him interviewed on a couple different podcasts. He shares fascinating information backed up by new research that will be sure to help you and your family on your journey to better health.
What’s your view on antibiotics?
What’s your antibiotics story?
Share your comments below.