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Antibiotics as a Last Resort

Antibiotics are life-saving. They allow us to overcome illnesses rapidly and successfully - though these same illnesses would very likely have killed our ancestors. Yet, in the realm of antibiotics, we must ask ourselves: are we overly dependent? Could it be that we’re relying on too much of a good thing to get us through colds, viruses, and other maladies that would otherwise pass with our body’s own ability to fight them off?

The CDC reports that four out of five Americans take at least one antibiotic every year. Many of these prescriptions are undoubtedly used to treat viruses, which is not only pointless, as antibiotics have no effect on viruses, but it’s also lead to the development of superbugs that current antibiotics cannot treat. The World Health Organization has urged us to take heed of their warning, stating that “we are heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can once again kill” if we fail to take action.

What’s worse is that it’s not just prescription meds we have to worry about - farmers employ the use of antibiotics so that animals can mature earlier and bypass infections. It’s impossible, then, to avoid the transfer of antibiotics into the meat, poultry, and dairy products that make their way to our tables. The antibiotics then linger in our bodies, where they disrupt the endocrine system, throw hormones off balance, and could even affect our metabolisms.

Because an antibiotic’s job is to wipe out bacteria, it makes sense that they tend to wreak havoc on our gut bacteria. Specifically, antibiotics create a serious imbalance and cause obesity-promoting bacteria to flourish within the intestines. Studies have shown that individuals who are given antibiotics to treat certain illnesses experience an increase in body mass index (BMI), develop more abdominal fat, and have an increase in appetite. This is likely due to the fact that the antibiotics cause an increase in the appetite- stimulating hormone ghrelin.

Most alarmingly, the livestock industry represents the largest percentage of antibiotic consumption in the U.S. In recent years, 80 percent of the entire sales of antibiotics were sold for livestock. In 2011 alone, almost 30 million pounds went directly to livestock. It could take years to see regulations set in place for livestock antibiotic distribution; in the meantime, the best thing we can do is to minimize our own intake of antibiotics, as well as the meat products that may contain traces of them.

For instance, it’s possible that many of the afflictions that are commonly treated with antibiotics may not require the use of any prescription meds at all. The Journal of American Medical Association states that many infections may not require the use of antibiotics to be treated, including the common cold, the flu, and many skin rashes, coughs, and ear infections. Of course, it’s always wise to seek medical attention if you’re unsure about a health-related issue, but be sure to weigh the pros and cons of taking antibiotics. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of antibiotics, so if there’s a virus going around and your son or daughter seems to have contracted it, it’s possible that you may need to just let it run its course. While it can be tempting to try to speed the recovery process as much as possible, it’s best to keep in mind the potential damage that you could be causing to your microbiome, or that of your child.

Researchers have even noticed a possible link between antibiotics and breast cancer. The University of Washington identified the correlation: their studies proved that women who had taken antibiotics for a longer period of time were more at risk for developing breast cancer than those who had taken antibiotics for a shorter period of time. Shockingly, the women who had taken the most antibiotics were two times more at risk than other women.

Again, the primary cause for cancer - among other diseases, both of the body and mind - is inflammation. And, because the gut’s microbiota is the force that regulates inflammation, that’s where it all starts.

Some patients feel the need to take antibiotics, simply because it’s what they’ve gotten used to doing throughout their lives. Many older dental patients, for instance, regularly take antibiotics as a prophylactic before visiting the dentist’s office. Yet, current science tells us that in most cases, there’s actually no need for this practice. Even if you have a total knee or hip prosthesis, you most likely don’t need to take an antibiotic prior to minor dental procedures. Research has shown that dental procedures do not pose risk factors for subsequent knee or hip infections, and that the use of an antibiotic prophylaxis prior to a dental procedure would not reduce the risk of a subsequent infection.

There is a very select amount of people who may want to consider taking an antibiotic prior to dental or gum surgeries. This group includes people who have prosthetic cardiac valves, unrepaired cyanotic congenital heart defects, cardiac transplants, and repaired congenital defects, among a few select other individuals. If you’re in doubt, talk to your doctor ahead of time - it’s always best to get a professional opinion prior to any kind of procedure.

Of course, there are instances in which antibiotics are an absolute must. Certain bacterial infections simply cannot be eradicated by the immune system without any assistance. When that’s the case, the best option is to make sure that you take probiotic supplements according to your body’s need during that period of time. We’ll discuss probiotics in greater detail in an upcoming chapter.

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