News ID: 166814
Published: 1009 GMT August 14, 2016

Bitter pill: Truth about antibiotics

Bitter pill: Truth about antibiotics

Are antibiotics the miracle cure we all thought? New researches suggest they could be bad for us.

Ever since Alexander Fleming left his washing up to go moldy and accidentally found penicillin in 1928, we have treated his discovery as a miracle cure for everything from a niggling cough to life-threatening pneumonia, according to

But although antibiotics truly have saved millions of lives since the 1940, new research is discovering that perhaps they’re not quite the blameless wonder drug we thought.

They’ve been linked to asthma, eczema and gut problems in later life, and there’s even emerging evidence they might make you fat and increase the risk of anxiety and depression.

This will come as a shock to those of us who have always thought antibiotics were a completely safe and risk-free medicine, which is probably why we demand them in ever-increasing numbers from our GPs.

“A total of 34 million prescriptions for all types of antibiotic were given out in the UK last year — a 7.3 percent fall on the previous year but still way too high,” said experts.

The trouble is, says pediatric neurologist Dr. Maya Shetreat-Klein, we’ve come to regard taking antibiotics as a completely normal and expected part of life, instead of as a life-saving medicine for real emergencies.

“I’ll ask the parents of a patient, ‘Has he ever been on antibiotics?’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, no more than normal.’ It will turn out that by normal they mean three to five times a year for the average 10 year old. That to me is not normal”.

The problem with antibiotics lies in the way they work. They kill off the bacteria causing your illness, but they kill off lots of ‘good’ bacteria in your system at the same time and disrupt the delicate balance of micro-organisms living in the gut that’s essential to keep you healthy.

Doctors are only just realizing the huge importance of our gut to our general health.

Look away now if you’re squeamish, but there are one to 1.8kg of microbes living in our guts — not just bacteria but viruses, funguses, yeast and assorted other micro-organisms.

The gut also holds two-thirds of our immune system and produces three-quarters of the body’s neurotransmitters — the chemicals that communicate with the brain.

Scientists don’t yet understand the exact connection between the gut and brain.

Some experiments on mice earlier this year showed that a strong course of antibiotics killed microbes in their guts, but also stopped brain cell growth (the mice lost memory ability) and reduced levels of a certain type of white blood cells linked to depression and anxiety.

A recent study of the health records of one million British patients appears to back this up: The more antibiotics they took, the higher the rates of anxiety and depression.

“Your gut is your second brain — and it’s really true that all health begins in the gut,” said Maya Shetreat-Klein, a doctor in New York and author of ‘Healthy Food, Healthy Gut, Happy Child’.

“A recent study showed that taking one course of antibiotics can change the microbiome for up to a year, which will surprise many people.”

A course of antibiotics cuts the total number of microbes, but it also reduces their diversity — which is one of the most important indicators of a healthy immune system.

If your gut is out of balance it can activate the immune system, triggering an inflammatory response to the perceived threat.

“People ask, why are we so allergic to things these days? Part of the answer is that lack of biodiversity in our gut,” said Shetreat-Klein.

“The immune system is very social and when it’s not stimulated, it starts to get bored and attack things it should not, like certain foods, trees, grass pollen — things we have evolved with for thousands of years and should not react to. I think antibiotics are a big cause of the rise in asthma with other factors such as houses, which are too clean, and a lack of outdoor play, which gets children interacting with organisms in the soil.”

There isn’t conclusive proof yet that antibiotics cause allergies, although studies have shown that the rise in allergies corresponds almost exactly with the boom in antibiotics.

Some fascinating research in Berlin revealed that antibiotic treatment and asthma were both very low in the East, but when the wall came down in 1989, both rose in tandem.

“Just how many courses you have to take to increase your risk isn’t known, but it makes sense to try to avoid antibiotics unless absolutely necessary,” said Shetreat-Klein.

“If you are really ill or your child has a serious infection, antibiotics are wonderful — no question. But we need to have a higher threshold for their use.”

Tim Spector, professor of genetics and epidemiology at King’s College London, believes there’s good evidence linking antibiotics to obesity in later life.

If you give a mouse the equivalent dose a child would get for a throat or ear infection, they get fatter later.

Why? Scientists believe it’s because the antibiotics could be killing off valuable microbes in our gut that are protecting us from obesity. One of these key microbes is Christensenella.

“In a study we published last year, we found Christensenella was present in skinny people but hardly at all in fat people,” said Spector, author of ‘The Diet Myth’.

“The team put the microbe into mice then gave them a high-fat meal: The animals who had the microbe didn’t get fat but the others did. We don’t yet know why this happens — or how many courses of antibiotics we’d need to take to have this effect — but there’s enough evidence for us to think carefully before begging our GP for a prescription for a marginal case like ear infections or flu. Most cases are viral anyway and not even touched by antibiotics.

“If the GP could say, OK, you can have these antibiotics which may reduce your symptoms for a day, but you will increase your chance of getting fat and getting diabetes and allergies, do you still want to do it?

“Or would you like to leave it for a couple of days to see if you get better without a prescription? I think this would be an easy sell for parents, and I do think the science is strong enough to say this.

“The trouble is, since the 1960 and 1970 we have given out antibiotics like Smarties. Before that they were reserved for the most serious problems.

“We need to move back from the idea that miracle drugs do not have a price. They do.”


Treat a fever naturally


A temperature under 40°C is not damaging, said the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“It’s the body’s natural antibiotic response as it eradicates an infection. If you have a newborn baby, an immune-suppressed child or if they are ‘toxic-looking’, seek help urgently,” advised Shetreat-Klein.

“Otherwise, bring down their temperature naturally, and watch and wait.”

A cool, damp cloth with a drop of peppermint oil on the patient’s forehead can make them more comfortable.

Give them a warm bath (not cold), and wet their head with some of the water. Try yarrow tea (for sweating) and elderberry syrup, which supports the immune system.

Be in touch with your GP, but wait 24 hours before rushing to treat. Watch carefully: Are they getting sicker or better? “It’s about trusting your instincts and being patient,” she said.

Embrace the idea of convalescence. “Society said illness is bad and you must be proactive and treat it so you can get back to work or school, so we’ve lost the idea of a couple of days of convalescence which is a critical part of allowing the body to learn,” she added.

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