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Take a New Look at Antibiotics

Aug. 20, 2014|839 views
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This week, I'm talking about the invisible little critters living in and on our bodies. We're all familiar with antibacterial soaps, hand-sanitizers, and anti-bacterial mouthwashes. And goodness knows, most of us have been prescribed antibiotics—in many cases, more than once, twice—or even a half-dozen times. You'd almost get the impression that bacteria and other microorganisms (microbes) are the enemy; to be feared and eradicated at all costs. And of course, sometimes they are. Plenty of these microbes are capable of causing infection and disease.

But guess what? There are also plenty of microbes living in and on your body right now that are an important part of you. They're working hard to benefit your health and well being—and getting an ideal place to live in return. Getting rid of them is not only not necessary, it would be counter-productive.

Take the human gastrointestinal tract. It contains far more microbial cells than human cells. It's composed of diverse communities of various species of bacteria that do all sorts of important things to benefit your health. Friendly bacteria in the gut play an important role in maintaining immunity, fending off less-friendly bacteria, and breaking down food so we can extract nutrients that would otherwise be completely unavailable to us. They even generate important vitamins and other nutrients. Research suggests that the makeup of your personal microbiome—meaning the mixture of different species of bacteria living in your gut—even affects things like your tendency to gain weight, and your mood.

All they ask in return is that we supply them with plenty of their favorite foods: namely, dietary fiber from plant foods. That's right. The healthiest guts—and bodies— feature diverse communities of friendly bacteria that thrive on plant foods. In contrast, bacteria that love simple sugars tend to be less beneficial. Needless to say, this is yet another reason to eat your vegetables and lay off the sugar: Your gut bacteria will thank you, and they'll reward you with robust health, a strong immune system, and a lean body.

Oh, and they'd probably ask you to avoid antibiotics, if at all possible. (You're already avoiding factory-farmed meat, right? Because the beef industry, especially, massively over-uses antibiotics. Why? Because antibiotics spark weight gain. It's true. Works for calves. Happens in people too.) These over-used once-upon-a-time wonder drugs are indiscriminate killers. Many antibiotics will kill friendly and harmful bacteria alike.

Emerging evidence suggests that taking a course of antibiotics may damage the delicate balance among beneficial species of microbes living in your gut, setting the stage for future problems. If you must take a broad-spectrum antibiotic, talk to your doctor about taking probiotics afterwards, to help restore your body's supply of beneficial bacteria. Otherwise, new tenants might move in that could cause trouble down the road.

Belkaid Y, Hand TW. Role of the microbiota in immunity and inflammation. Cell. 2014 Mar 27;157(1):121-41. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2014.03.011.


Cox MJ, Cookson WO, Moffatt MF. Sequencing the human microbiome in health and disease. Hum Mol Genet. 2013 Oct 15;22(R1):R88-94. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddt398. Epub 2013 Aug 13.  


Tags:  antibiotics, health tips