Antibiotic Use Can Have Adverse Short- and Long-Term Health Ramifications

Story at-a-glance -

  • Antibiotics have both short- and long-term effects on the composition and health of the microbes in your gut, and your microbiome plays a crucial role in your overall immune function and general health
  • Children treated with antibiotics raise their risk of developing health problems in adulthood, including making them more susceptible to infectious diseases, allergies, obesity, and autoimmune disorders
  • While many companies are taking steps to cut antibiotic use in their livestock, Sanderson Farms has vowed to continue using antibiotics, saying they don’t cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria

By Dr. Mercola

Antibiotic overuse doesn't just make us vulnerable to minor infections that can become life-threatening when the bacteria have developed resistance against one or more antibiotics, antibiotic use in childhood also appears to be linked to a host of problems well into adulthood.

This is more proof antibiotics needs to be reserved for life-threatening situations, and prescriptions for minor infections and use in animal husbandry must end immediately to curb this growing health threat.

Antibiotic Use in Agriculture Must Be Stopped

Meat raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is one known source of drug-resistant disease.

A recent mortality and morbidity report1 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals how little of an impact they've had in their efforts to curb these pathogenic bacteria, with prevalence of some types of drug-resistant bacteria falling while others are taking over in their stead.

In 2014 alone, more than 19,540 Americans contracted confirmed foodborne infections, and 71 of them died as a result.

A report commissioned by UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, estimates that by 2050 antibiotic resistance will have killed 300 million people; the annual global death toll reaching 10 million.2

Moreover, experts are warning we may soon be at a point where virtually ALL antibiotics fail, and once that happens, it will be devastating to modern medicine. So what can you do to minimize your risk? Three recommendations that can help reduce your risk for antibiotic-resistant disease include the following:

  • Avoid using antibiotics unless your infection is severe enough to warrant it
  • Stay out of hospitals as much as possible (treatment using medical scopes is particularly risky3), and
  • Avoid CAFO animal products and remember that nearly all meat served in restaurants or on planes is CAFO

Antibiotics Can Seriously Compromise Your Child's Long-Term Health

Antibiotics are commonly prescribed to children for a variety of ailments. According to Science Daily,4 they account for about one-fourth of all medications prescribed to children.

Surprisingly, researchers have found that patients want antibiotics even when they know they have a viral infection, against which antibiotics have no effect. As reported by NDTV Food:5

"These patients might know that there is, in theory, a risk of side effects when taking antibiotics, but they interpret that risk as essentially nil. More than half of the patients we surveyed already knew that antibiotics don't work against viruses, but they still agreed with taking antibiotics just in case," Broniatowski added.

Taking antibiotics "just in case" is highly inadvisable, and you'd be wise to rid yourself of this misconception.

Many studies have shown antibiotics have both short- and long-term effects on the composition and health of the microbes in your gut, and your microbiome plays a crucial role in your overall immune function and general health.

Recent research6, 7 also suggests children treated with antibiotics raise their risk of developing health problems in adulthood, including making them more susceptible to infectious diseases, allergies, obesity, and autoimmune disorders as they grow older.

According to senior author Dan Knights, assistant professor at University of Minnesota:8

"Over the past year we synthesized hundreds of studies and found evidence of strong correlations between antibiotic use, changes in gut bacteria, and disease in adulthood...

We think these findings help develop a roadmap for future research to determine the health consequences of antibiotic use and for recommendations for prescribing them."

Antibiotic-Resistant Typhoid Spreading

A number of diseases are already becoming exceedingly difficult to treat. Gonorrhea, for example, now poses a growing health threat, having become resistant to one antibiotic after another.

Antibiotic-resistant gonorrhea first emerged when I was in medical school in the late 1970s. By the 1980s, the antibiotics penicillin and tetracycline were no longer effective against it.

Next, gonorrhea resistant to fluoroquinolone antibiotics emerged, leaving only one class of antibiotic drugs, cephalosporins, left to treat it. Now, as you might suspect, gonorrhea is fast becoming resistant to cephalosporins – the last available antibiotics to treat it.

Antibiotic-resistant typhoid is also spreading, according to a recent study. As reported by WebMD:9

"The strain, H58, emerged in South Asia between 25 and 30 years ago and has slowly grown to become one of the predominant forms of the bacteria Salmonella Typhi, said study author Vanessa Wong, a microbiologist at the University of Cambridge in England.

'This multidrug-resistant strain, H58, is resistant to a number of first line antibiotics used to treat the disease and is continuing to evolve and acquire new mutations to newer drugs,' Wong said."

The researchers recommend getting vaccinated against typhoid before traveling to areas where typhoid is endemic, but it's worth noting that the vaccine is only 50-80 percent effective against all typhoid strains, so that's still not a guarantee you won't get sick.

On a side note, we also do not know whether vaccines may produce similar effects as antibiotic overuse, meaning it may become counterproductive and actually lead to more health problems either in the short- or long-term.

In a recent interview, Dr. Lucija Tomljenovic explains that when you over-stimulate your immune system with vaccines, you run the very serious risk of breaking self-tolerance, and repeated stimulation with the same antigen (which is what you're doing when you get booster shots) overcomes your genetic resistance to autoimmunity.

Fighting 'Superbugs' Will Be a Costly Venture

It's been estimated10 that the pharmaceutical industry will need upwards of $37 billion over the next decade to replace antibiotics that no longer work. Alas, since drug companies have little financial incentive to innovate new antibiotics, tax payers around the world will probably end up having to foot the bill.11

Doing nothing, on the other hand, could lead to a loss of global economic output ranging from $60 trillion to $100 trillion over the next 35 years—if antibiotic-resistant disease indeed ends up killing 10 million people a year by 2050. As reported by the Wall Street Journal:12

"[Economist Jim] O'Neill said extra investment was needed at every stage of the antibiotic development process to 'radically overhaul' the antibiotics pipeline over the next 20 years. He proposed giving companies that already have the 'highest priority antibiotics' in their pipelines a 'lump-sum' payment. This would 'delink' profitability from sales volumes, lowering the risk of developing a novel antibiotic as well as reducing the incentive to oversell the drug once it is on the market.

Mr. O'Neill highlighted antibiotics that were active against bacteria where the existing drugs are already the 'last line' of defense as those that could receive priority funding. He also called for a 'global AMR innovation fund' of around $2 billion over five years to kick-start basic research into new antibiotics.

While Mr. O'Neill didn't specifically call on pharmaceutical companies to foot the bill for the innovation fund, he did urge the industry to act with 'enlightened self-interest' in tackling AMR, 'recognizing that it has a long-term commercial imperative to having effective antibiotics, as well as a moral one.'"

One Chicken CAFO Takes Indefensible Stance to Continue Using Antibiotics

There's overwhelming evidence showing that antibiotic use in livestock is driving the rise in antibiotic resistance, and some companies are taking steps to curb antibiotic use in their animals. For example, Tyson Foods, Perdue, and Pilgrim's Pride have all announced their intentions to cut down on antibiotics in their chickens over the next few years.

A number of grocery and restaurant chains have also vowed to stop buying and selling chicken raised with antibiotics. Examples include Whole Foods Market, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Panera Bread, and even McDonald's. Six of the largest school districts in the US (New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade County, and Orlando County) have also decided to switch to antibiotic-free chicken in their cafeterias. In contrast, Sanderson Farms has taken the converse stand, vowing to continue using antibiotics in their chickens.

Remarkably, Sanderson Farms' CEO Joe Sanderson Jr. has even gone on record saying antibiotics don't cause antibiotic-resistant bacteria. What planet is he living in? It's really unbelievable they would consider endangering their customers and employees in this way. Recent research13 found that hog farmers are six times more likely to carry multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus than farm workers who do not have any direct contact with the animals.

It's possible other animals raised on antibiotics would confer similar risks to farm workers. Not to mention the risks consumers take when eating meats contaminated with drug-resistant bacteria. As reported by Food Business News,14 Sanderson says that: "after doing our homework, we do not plan to withdraw antibiotics from our program, and there are three main reasons."

  1. Animal welfare. "We feel like we need to take care of the animals in our care," [Sanderson] said. "There's one thing that you cannot take care of if you don't use antibiotics and that is enteritis in the chicken... Particularly when there's no evidence whatsoever that using these antibiotics really does cause antibiotic resistant bacteria."
  2. Sustainability and environmental responsibility. "It's going to take more chicken houses, more electricity, more water, more acres of corn, and more acres of soybeans... So you're going to have to grow these chickens longer and use all that to achieve the same market weight."
  3. Food safety. "We have all been busting our behinds to reduce the microbiology loads, the microorganism loads, on these chickens coming to the plants. And everybody knows what happened in Europe when they took antibiotics away. All those loads went up on the chicken. So you're talking food safety. You take antibiotics out, and you're going to have more campylobacter, more salmonella..."

I have no way of knowing where Sanderson got his "facts" from, but there can be little doubt that antibiotic use in agriculture is a driving force for antibiotic resistance. For a demonstration of how bacteria develop resistance, please see the featured BBC News segment above. As explained by Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director of the CDC:15

"The more you use an antibiotic, the more you expose a bacteria to an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood that resistance to that antibiotic is going to develop. So the more antibiotics we put into people, we put into the environment, we put into livestock, the more opportunities we create for these bacteria to become resistant."

What's Being Done to Address This Growing Health Threat?

Despite antibiotic-resistant disease killing tens of thousands of Americans each year, politicians and health officials have been slow to respond to this growing health threat. According to Reuters,16 the US government is planning to begin collecting data on antibiotic use on farms as of next year, to set targets for reduced use in livestock. The problem is it's going to take time to collect and analyze such data, and it's time we don't necessarily have.

The problem is growing exponentially, and an estimated 23,000 Americans are dying with each passing year. Agricultural use of antibiotics needs to be curbed as much as possible, as quickly as possible, period. And other countries have already shown that it's quite possible to run a profitable livestock business without routine use of antibiotics.

My suggestion to you is: don't wait for CAFOs to voluntarily do the right thing. Don't wait for the government to implement an action agenda. Instead, take decisive action for yourself and your own family. Seek out trusted sources of food that do not use antibiotic pesticides and/or antibiotic growth promoters. Many small farmers use organic principles even if they have not been able to afford organic certification, so your local farmer is a good place to start.

Some grocery chains also offer 100% grass-fed and finished meats these days. If not, ask them to start carrying it. I've also made connections with sources I know provide high-quality organic grass-fed and grass finished beef and free-range chicken, both of which you can find in my online store. I believe the strongest message you can send is to change how you spend your food dollars. By opting for antibiotic-free, pasture raised and finished meats, you're actively supporting farmers who are not contributing to the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Non-Drug Immune Boosters

Also be mindful of how you use antibiotics, both for yourself and your children. Remember, viral infections are not affected by antibiotics, so you're simply killing off all your beneficial gut bacteria for no reason at all, which could actually make it more difficult for you to recover from your illness. Antibiotics really should be reserved for serious bacterial infections that do not respond to other treatments, and if you do take a course of antibiotics, be sure to reseed your gut with healthy bacteria, either by eating fermented foods or taking a high-quality probiotic.

There are many non-drug alternatives you can try, should you come down with an infection. There are also effective preventive strategies beyond a healthy diet.

For example, studies have shown that inadequate vitamin D can increase your risk for MRSA and other infections, which can likely be extended to other superbugs. So monitor your vitamin D levels to confirm they're in the therapeutic range, 50-70 ng/ml. If you can't get sufficient sun exposure, consider taking an oral vitamin D supplement. Other agents that have natural antibacterial action include (but is not limited to) the following:

  • Vitamin C. Vitamin C's role in preventing and treating infectious disease is well-established. Intravenous vitamin C is an option, but if you don't have access to a practitioner who can administer it, liposomal vitamin C is the most potent oral form. For more information on vitamin C, listen to my interview with Dr. Ronald Hunninghake, an internationally recognized vitamin C expert.
  • Garlic. Garlic is a powerful antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal. It can stimulate your immune system, help wounds heal, and kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria (including MRSA and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis), plus it has shown more than 100 other health-promoting properties. For highest potency, the garlic should be eaten fresh and raw (chopped or smashed.)
  • Colloidal Silver. Colloidal silver has been regarded as an effective natural antibiotic for centuries, and research17,18,19 show it can even be helpful against some antibiotic-resistant pathogens. If you are interested in this treatment, make sure you review the guidelines for safe usage, as there are risks with using colloidal silver improperly.
  • Olive leaf extract. In vitro studies show olive leaf extract is effective against Klebsiella, a gram-negative bacteria, inhibiting its replication, in addition to being toxic to other pathogenic microbes.
  • Manuka honey. Manuka honey, made from the flowers and pollen of the Manuka bush, has been shown to be more effective than antibiotics in the treatment of serious, hard-to-heal skin infections when used topically. Clinical trials have found Manuka honey can effectively eradicate more than 250 clinical strains of bacteria, including resistant varieties such as MRSA.
  • Tea tree oil. Tea tree oil, which is used topically, is a natural antiseptic proven to kill many bacterial strains (including MRSA).