Go easy on antibiotics

Overusing antibiotics can alter the structure of your gut biome and leave your immune system vulnerable. Health writer Mahsa Fratantoni reports.

Research has shown that taking antibiotics when you don’t need them can create “superbugs” — bacteria resistant to medicine. Now there’s another big reason why taking antibiotics unnecessarily is a terrible idea: it can wreak havoc on your gut microbiome and make you more vulnerable to illness and infection.

Microbes are part of our body’s ecosystem, which helps keep our health in check. These busy microbes work to keep you functioning and thriving throughout your life. In the gut they aid digestion, supply essential nutrients, protect against diseases and even play a role in mental health. Taking antibiotics disrupts these processes by attacking both good and bad bacteria.

Here are three worrying things we know about antibiotics and gut health.

1. Overusing antibiotics can shape your life

There is evidence that antibiotic overuse in early life can change a child’s microbiome and affect development long past infancy. One study found that repeated courses of antibiotics in childhood disrupted gut bacteria and led to future weight gain. A second study found that the microbial community in antibiotic-treated children was less stable and less diverse than untreated children. Stability and diversity are both signs of a healthy gut.

2. Side effects and hospital stays

Antibiotics disrupt both good and bad gut bacteria, which produces side effects such as diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. These temporary effects seem a fair trade when waging war against a severe bacterial infection.

But there’s now mounting evidence that some side effects aren’t so minor. A large study found that one in five hospital patients prescribed antibiotics experienced serious health issues. Gastrointestinal and kidney problems were the most common side effects. The longer the patients took the antibiotics, the higher their risk of serious long-term side effects.

3. Vulnerable to infection

When your gut microbiome is damaged by antibiotics, you can become more vulnerable to serious infection. The C. difficile bacterium can cause life-threatening illness and is usually picked up from bacterial spores in the home, food, water or environment. The worst part is that C. diff is already showing signs of antibiotic resistance. Up to 65% of patients who receive high-dose antibiotics to treat C. diff infection relapse. The good news is that new treatment advances are achieving success rates above 90% in C. diff patients.

What can you do?

In some cases, antibiotics are essential and can help to treat life-threatening infections. If you’re sick, your doctor is the best person to assess whether you require antibiotics.

For viral infections, such as the flu and some upper respiratory tract infections, antibiotics simply don’t work. For most healthy individuals, your immune system can fight off viruses naturally. Speak to your doctor about whether you need antibiotics. If you can heal naturally, your entire body will be much healthier for it.

Health problems related to antibiotics and the microbiome

  • Antibiotic resistance. This makes illnesses difficult to treat and can create powerful superbugs that don’t respond to antibiotics.
  • Vitamin deficiency. Some antibiotics can deplete vitamin-producing bacteria and can cause deficiency, specifically for vitamin K.
  • Digestion. Antibiotics may alter the ways the gut extracts nutrients from food, which has been linked to obesity in mice studies.
  • Autoimmune disorders. Early studies have linked antibiotic overuse to asthma, allergies and autoimmune diabetes.