Hey, what’s with the title?
Aren’t antibiotics one of the great inventions of the 20th century?
Why yes, yes they are, but there’s a lot more to the antibiotics story than you’ve been taught.
They’re found everywhere nowadays: in our soap, our meat, and of course the prescription drugs that we’ve all been given. And they’re affecting your health in more ways than you realize.
Antibiotics Origin Story
Antibiotics have a pretty cool beginning and features one very lucky scientist.
In 1928, Alexander Fleming left on vacation, and returned to one of the greatest discoveries in history.
He left out a culture of Staphylococcus aureus, and found that it had somehow been contaminated with mold. In an “oh yeah, science IS cool moment,” he noticed that the mold actually began dissolving the bacteria.
That’s like knocking over containers in your pantry and accidentally discovering the recipe to brownies.
After a few other scientists purified this mold into a useful form, they called it penicillin. Immediately, childhood mortality rates improved and its widespread use in WWII saved many soldiers’ lives.
In 1909, 74% of infant deaths resulted from infection – compared to just 20% in 2009. And no, I’m not a monster who’s against helping kids – obviously saving kids’ lives is the EXACT correct use for antibiotics.
The brilliant results of antibiotics aren’t in question – it’s the way we misuse them today that’s resulted in world-wide health concerns.
What Do Antibiotics Do?
The suffix “biotics” means “life.”
So, you get anti + life = something that kills life. Or in this case, bacteria (think antibacterial soap).
You get a bacterial infection, like a UTI or an ear infection, and the doctor prescribes antibiotics. These antibiotics are trained bacterial assassins, clearing up your issues in no time.
Antibiotics are not useful against viruses because they have different survival and replication methods. In other words, antibiotics don’t work on something like the flu or a cold.
Why Are Antibiotics Bad?
So far we’ve talked about saving lives, especially babies, and clearing up annoying infections in your body… sounds pretty great, right?
There are two main reasons why antibiotics have become a problem for our health:
- Antibiotics can’t discriminate between the foreign bacteria attacking your body and the essential bacteria in your gut, so everyone dies.
- Over time, and because of overuse and misuse, bacteria can become resistant to our antibiotics.
Let’s tackle those reasons and figure out what to do about it.
Antibiotics and Your Gut
Your gut contains more cells of bacteria than human cells in your entire body, meaning you’re more bacteria than human. Good thing we don’t smell like it right?
This living, thriving mass of bacteria is essential to your life. They form the foundation of your immune system, and they protect the integrity of your intestinal lining.
The easiest analogy I’ve heard is that your gut bacteria is like the grass on a field. It covers your gut wall, and you can imagine it being green and waving in the wind free and easy. But once you strip the grass from that field, it becomes exposed to the elements – wind, rain, the scorching sun.
Eventually it erodes, or becomes dry and cracked. This happens to your gut wall, and bits of undigested food can actually enter your bloodstream – where it’s most definitely not supposed to be. These act like toxins to the rest of your body, and can accumulate in your joints, fat cells, and even your brain.
You can imagine what that can cause: arthritis, obesity, heart attacks, and even mental imbalances like depression, schizophrenia, and even ADD.
Also, your body’s immune system says “ATTAAAAACK!!” to these undigested bits of food (because they’re supposed to be in your stomach and not your bloodstream) which leads to an allergy development.
When you take a round of antibiotics, it can wipe out your entire bacterial colony along with the harmful bacteria. That’s a great trade-off if you’ve got a life-threatening condition, but not so great if you’re taking it for purely preventative reasons.
Since bacteria are alive (and reproduce like rabbits), they’re able to adapt to our antibiotics and survive. They’re like the Borg, but teeny.
And that’s a serious problem.
The more that you’re exposed to antibiotics, the greater the likelihood that you’ll develop a bacterial infection resistant to antibiotics. That’s because your immune system becomes compromised, the bacteria adapts, builds up another infection, and then you have to go get different prescription to kill ’em off again.
These drug-resistant bacteria are also called “superbugs” because it takes a lot to kill them, unless you have some kryptonite. If you’re body is overexposed to antibiotics, these superbugs are more likely to survive your next round of antibiotics. The other issue is that even if your body has never been exposed to antibiotics before, you can still be infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria that won’t respond to prescriptions.
The CDC states that 2 million Americans are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, resulting in at least 23,000 deaths.
And it’s only getting worse:
According to a British report, by the year 2050 antibiotic-resistant diseases will kill 10 million people. It’s getting tougher to find new antibiotics, and drug companies won’t be able to stay ahead of mutated bacteria forever.
The most blatant misuse of antibiotics come in the form of prescriptions. We’re given antibiotics for simple bacterial infections, like UTI and ear infections, that can actually be managed and eradicated with alternative, natural remedies (more on that later).
Antibiotics are also used when an answer isn’t clear (ever watch House?) and for purely preventative reasons.
For example, when Erin was in labor with Ryker, she developed a low-grade fever. For treatment, they gave her 11 doses of antibiotics. When Ryker was born, he was given 5 doses as a precautionary measure even though he had no signs that he was sick or had a fever.
It’s that kind of overuse for a non-serious situation that leads to serious harm in the future.
And for a more immediate example of the dangers of wiping out your gut health, check this out:
Still not having learned our lesson (and from being paranoid parents of a sick kid), we took Ryker into the doctor for a fever of about 103 and an ear infection. He was prescribed antibiotics even though the doctor had no idea if his ear infection was bacterial or viral (which are both found in ear infections). His pediatrician was extremely surprised that Ryker was 9 months old and had never been prescribed antibiotics yet (except for when he was born).
Soon after, he began throwing up – like all the time – and started developing eczema all over his body. We quickly discovered he had developed an allergy to both milk AND eggs… the two things he eats the most, by far. And guess what? His pediatrician said that he will just have to live with his eczema, that it most likely was not caused by a food allergy, and certainly did not stem from the antibiotics he took.
In a related story, we don’t go to that pediatrician anymore. We go to our holistic doctor/chiropractor now!
Fortunately, we were able to clear up his allergies, but the immediate negative reaction made us hyper-aware of the dangers of prescription antibiotics.
Obviously you need antibiotics for serious bacterial infections, but you want your body to be as untouched and unfamiliar with antibiotics as possible. That way your gut health and immune system are in fighting condition to team up with the antibiotics like Batman and Robin.
Antibiotics in Your Meat
And while it might be easy enough to avoid prescription antibiotics, that’s not the only source of exposure for you.
It’s actually in most of the meat that you eat. Fantastic, right?
The largest use of antibiotics in the US is for livestock (around 30 million pounds per year, actually). That’s up from around 18 million pounds in 2000.
If the livestock were truly sick and needed antibiotics to survive, that’s one story – but that’s not the case. According to Wired, the vast majority is used for “non-therapeutic purposes.” In other words, animals that aren’t sick are being dosed with antibiotics for preventative measures. They’re also used to help animals gain weight faster (they’ve certainly been proven to cause weight gain in humans, too).
But, so what if our livestock is being drugged? They’ve long been slaughtered and cooked by the time we consume it, right?
Well, in 2013, the FDA released the NARMS report that showed antibiotic-resistant bacteria was found in 81% of ground turkey, 69% of pork chops, 55% of ground beef, and 39% of chicken. Not only are these superbugs in our meat, but they find their way into the environment through dust, water, dirt, and feces.
But things are looking up! The FDA has come out with a new regulation called the Veterinary Feed Directive which will require farmers to only use antibiotics for medical reasons under the supervision of a veterinarian.
Even with that new regulation, does this mean vegetarian’s the way to go? Nope, not by a long shot. Stick around, we’ll show you what to do.
Antibacterial Products aren’t Magic
I’ve been conditioned to buy soaps slapped with the label “antibacterial,” and I’m guessing you probably have too. Just in the past decade or so, antibacterial products have flooded the market, most notably in hand and dish soap, but also found in products as strange as ball-point pens.
Dr. Stuart Levy, a microbiologist and opponent to antibacterial products, says that “[antibiotics] create an environment where the resistant, mutated bacteria are more likely to survive.” If it’s more likely to survive then that means it’s more likely to make you sick.
And if it’s in your soap and other products being rubbed on your body, it’s entering your system almost immediately.
How to Avoid the Dangers of Antibiotics
- When you have a condition that needs treating, look to all-natural remedies first. Unless you’re dying of course, then you should probably hop on over to the ER.
- Make your own soaps, body wash, shampoo, etc. They’re easier than you think to make, plus their complete non-toxicity makes life easier with children (ask us about how many times Ryker’s eaten our lotion, chapstick, and even laundry detergent).
- Accept that a small fever (101 or so) is the body’s optimal state for fighting bugs – let it play its course instead of getting antibiotics. It’s also a signal that something else is wrong (like ear infection), and you might be able to find an all-natural treatment.
- Don’t take antibiotics for the flu or cold – they’re useless against them anyway.
- Upgrade your sources of meat, or consider eating much less of it. Buy grass-fed or pastured meat from a local farmer, or specifically look for meat raised without antibiotics.
- Buy organic fruits and veggies – antibiotics are often found in factory-farmed animal waste and sewage sludge that is often used to irrigate or fertilize farms.
- When you do need to take antibiotics, take the full dose. By taking a smaller dose, you might not fully combat the harmful bacteria, which then can mutate, and your drugs won’t be effective against them anymore.
- After you have taken a round of antibiotics, take measures to heal your gut by doing a quick juice cleanse and adding more bone broth into your diet. Replenish the good bacteria by eating more fermented foods like sourdough, kombucha, yogurt, and kefir. Some people also recommend getting a probiotic supplement as well, such as this one.
Clearly antibiotics were one of the great inventions of the 20th century. They’ve saved countless lives, and have drastically reduced infant mortality rate.
That’s seriously cool, and the science behind them is fascinating.
However, the dangers to your gut health and in creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria threaten everyone. We’ve been warned by the CDC, FDA, and the WHO. The drug-makers’ solution for ineffective antibiotics is to find new antibiotics, not to reduce our current usage. (Erin remembers having conversations in her biology classes in college about how scientists can’t keep finding new antibiotics forever)
We’ve experienced firsthand the dangers of antibiotics – and thankfully it wasn’t more serious. Our best advice is to use them only when absolutely necessary and use natural remedies instead. Drugs are relatively new in the grand scheme of things, and yet it’s the first place we usually look to for a cure.
It’s still amazing to me that something like garlic oil can treat an ear infection or that going on a quick juice cleanse is great at stomping out a cold.
What do you think about antibiotics? What’s been your experience? I’d love to know, and please share the post if this sounds like something others needs to know!