Antibiotics: the good, the bad and the ugly

Antibiotics: the good, the bad and the ugly[1]


A question that interests some health professionals these days is why so many parents worry about vaccines and ponder whether they should be vaccinating their children yet are not at all concerned about giving their children antibiotics. In fact, a number of parents will visit a doctor with the aim of getting a prescription for antibiotics to treat their child’s complaint.   Vaccines are effective in preventing many diseases but antibiotics are becoming less effective – mainly because of their misuse and overuse. 


Apart from antibiotic resistant bacteria growing rapidly and reducing the disease-fighting properties of antibiotics, the use of antibiotics depletes the population of important, ‘good’ gut bacteria in our bodies.  The huge number of beneficial bacteria that we have on our bodies and in our gut is commonly referred to as our microbiota.  The microbiota is essential for our physical and mental health, so destroying large numbers with antibiotics is not good news.


Especially concerning is what antibiotics do to an infant’s microbiota.  Some bacteria in a baby play a critical role in the development of a child’s immune system.  Antibiotic use early in life may raise the risks of allergies and allergic asthma because it reduces the beneficial effects of microbial exposure.  One large study found a link between antibiotic use in the first year of life and symptoms of asthma, hay fever and eczema in children aged between 6 and 7 years.  Early exposure to antibiotics could play a role in the ever increasing rates of food allergies as well.  A study by the University of Chicago recently showed that young mice treated with antibiotics are more likely to develop a peanut-allergy-like condition. Dosing these mice with a certain microbe (called Clostridia) relieved them – seemingly by preventing the peanut proteins from getting into the bloodstream.


One of the biggest problems with antibiotics is that they often bring about almost instant improvements to a state of ill-health.  A child suffering from a painful ear infection will very quickly start to feel better after antibiotic use.  Why is this a problem?  Because when you start feeling better, there are usually a lot of ‘bad’ bacteria still in your system. If you stop taking the antibiotic as soon as you’re feeling better, it gives the bacteria that were able to survive the early doses a chance to go on and develop a full resistance to that antibiotic.  This means the same antibiotic won’t work for you next time. This is why doctors advise you to finish a course of antibiotics.


The problem is made worse because some doctors may use unreliable methods to decide which antibiotic to prescribe. Different bacteria need different antibiotics.  Lab tests should actually be done to ensure the correct antibiotic use.  Even worse than ‘guessing’ is the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, which target wide ranges of bacterial species, resulting in damage to our entire microbiome and not just the ‘bad’ bacteria we need to get rid of.


Probiotic use in animals


Once upon a time, sick animals used to be treated with antibiotics in the same way as they are used to treat people.  Then, way back in the 1950’s, it was noticed that low doses of antibiotics caused weight gain in livestock.  Increased size means increased value so low doses of antibiotics has become virtually the norm in animal farming. 


This is a practice that is spreading antibiotic resistance.  While high doses of antibiotics kill virtually any bacteria, low doses allow changes that make bacteria a little more resistant so that when the time comes that a particular bacteria is indeed life threatening, we’ve provided it with a means to protect itself and survive. In addition, the surviving bacteria spread throughout the agricultural industry, can jump between one species and another and infect humans.  That’s why the European Union banned low-dose antibacterial use for fattening livestock in 2006.  In South Africa, we can benefit from limiting our meat intake to sources that are farmed free-range and certified to be free of antibiotics.


And lastly, if low doses of antibiotics fatten up our livestock, do they fatten us up as well?  It seems that the answer, although not yet conclusively proven, might well be yes!


Please be cautious about running to the doctor for that ‘quick-fix’ medication.  In the long run, the benefits might be fewer than you think.


Integrated Learning Therapy (ILT) tries to unravel all underlying causes of children’s learning and behaviour problems.  Visit our website to learn more about our approach and find a practitioner near you to help.  We also offer courses to parents and teachers to better understand why children behave in the ways they do.


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[1][1] Most of this content is extracted from the book Follow your gut, by Rob Knight. Published as a TED Book in 2015 by Simon and Schuster.  It is highly recommended reading! If you would like to hear more, you can listen to Rob Knight’s TED Talk, available online at www.TED.com.

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