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Antibiotics - the molecular atom bombs
The permanent damage to our microbiome and the emergence of new diseases
Almost everyone has taken them to treat an infection: Antibiotics - the supposed saviors in an emergency. But they can have devastating consequences for the body.
Since 1928, when Alexander Fleming discovered the bactericidal effect of the mold Penicillium notatum, antibiotics have been used worldwide to fight bacteria. Fleming had actually only scientifically implemented what the ancient Egyptians, Chinese and Indians had already known centuries ago: wounds were rubbed with special molds because they would then heal better. After Fleming's discovery and a few initial difficulties, antibiotics then began their worldwide triumphal march.
Today, a young person in the USA is treated with antibiotics an average of 17 times by the age of 20. By the age of 40, another 13 packages are added, so that by that age, 30 antibiotic treatments have already been given. A tremendous amount.
But why is that bad anyway? Aren't antibiotics useful?
In principle, yes. Antibiotics can quickly kill bacteria in the body. Often, however, the pathogens for which they were used are not completely killed, but a small number always remain in the body. This " remaining number " is below the detection limit and poses no danger to the body until conditions have changed to such an extent that they can multiply again. This concept is relatively new and largely replaces the old concept of complete eradication of bacteria with antibiotics. It also makes sense, because there are always niches in the body where bacteria hide and thus cannot be captured by the aggressive antibiotics.
Today, a young person in the USA is treated with antibiotics an average of 17 times by the age of 20.
In principle, there are three ways in which antibiotics can work:
They interfere with the cell wall of the bacteria and thus prevent further growth.
They interfere with the protein factories and prevent the bacteria from producing enzymes and building materials.
They stop cell division.
With all three options, the bacteria are effectively pushed back within just a few days.
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So where is the problem? Is it the resistance?
Almost everyone has heard of resistance, which has skyrocketed in recent decades due to the increased use of antibiotics. Antibiotic resistance means that an antibiotic is no longer effective against a specific germ that possesses that resistance.
The problem with resistance, however, is that no one really cares.
Resistance can occur as soon as antibiotics are administered. The more antibiotics are given, the more resistance can develop.
It's a pure probability calculation. At some point, a germ will always form that is not susceptible to the antibiotic agent due to a mutation in its genetic material and can continue to colonize the host despite the antibiotic. Since bacteria can double very quickly, sometimes within only 15-20 min, statistically many mutations can also arise that protect the bacterium from the antibiotic. The bacteria can now continue to grow and thus further fuel the infection in the person, even though he is already taking an antibiotic. In most cases, however, it remains "underground." It is not completely destroyed because of its resistance, but it cannot maintain the infection either. At the next opportunity, the resistant bacterium can then be transmitted as a cell, e.g. by sneezing, or it passes on the resistance genes to other conspecifics. Bacteria engage in a kind of sex in which they can transfer parts of the DNA to other bacteria via special tubes.
The problem with resistance, however, is that no one really cares.
For the patient, the problem of resistance FORMATION is abstract:
"Why is it my fault if too many antibiotics are used worldwide. I now have an infection that needs to be treated."
In contrast, however, the problem of resistance DANGER is real and high. Today, even a simple knee surgery can mean a trip to the cemetery if the patient contracts MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in the hospital, for example. No antibiotic will help him, and after just a few days, multi-organ failure will mark his end. The danger of being carried underground by resistant germs is increasing every day.
And nevertheless antibiotics are prescribed daily in masses, although NO life-threatening condition prevails, indeed often the infection was caused by viruses, against which antibiotics cannot help at all! This is mostly done out of the intention to avoid a secondary infection. This is an infection caused by bacteria that follows a viral disease. The organism is so weakened by the fight against the viruses that its immune defense is not sufficient to prevent a subsequent bacterial infection. However, a secondary infection is not inevitable and therefore a precautionary administration of antibiotics is unnecessary in most cases!
The problem of the development of resistance is further complicated by the meat production industry, which uses antibiotics to enable mass livestock farming and to achieve greater yields. The administration of antibiotics leads to an average weight gain of 15% in the animals. Although this is now banned in many countries, it is still often practiced. The animal industry is the largest consumer of antibiotics, accounting for 80% of the total, and is therefore a huge market for the pharmaceutical industry. In the USA, an investigation in 2011 revealed that more than half of the meat samples collected in supermarkets contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
In addition, antibiotics get into our food and water through animals. Even though this is often in small amounts, the accumulation over time causes problems. So if you've never been treated with an antibiotic in your life, you've most likely already received antibiotics indirectly.
But now there is another problem:
We now know that antibiotics not only kill the bad bacteria that make us sick, but do massive collateral damage by causing considerable harm to the good bacteria in our microbiome as well. The problem here comes primarily from broad-spectrum antibiotics, which have a very wide range of applications. These non-specifically kill entire groups of bacteria, not just the bacteria that cause infection. These broad-spectrum antibiotics are used by physicians for a variety of reasons:
It is easier to hit a target with a "carpet bomb" than to specifically destroy it
Often it is not even known which bacterium caused the infection - either because of lack of time (the patient suffers or dies) or because the bacteria cannot be detected by conventional methods (and more specific methods are too expensive for insurance companies). In this case, broad-spectrum antibiotics are the safe choice.
There are simply too few specific antibiotics, because the development of a broad-spectrum antibiotic, which is used millions of times, is more lucrative for the pharmaceutical companies than a special antibiotic targeted at a particular type of bacteria, which is only needed by a few thousand patients a year. However, it should not go unmentioned that the development of new broad-spectrum antibiotics has also steadily declined due to the long development time. We are simply running out of antibiotics!
If positive bacteria are now killed in addition to pathogenic bacteria, this results in the destruction of bacteria that are necessary for the survival of the host, i.e. humans. The consequence of this is a shift in the ecological balance.
"Good" bacteria have two essential roles: First, they can have a direct positive effect on humans through their metabolic processes. They can metabolize substances that humans cannot use, they provide vital substances to humans, or they are directly involved in regulatory processes.
Secondly, and this is a role that is often forgotten, they suppress pathogenic bacteria and do not allow them to multiply.
The atomic bomb, the antibiotic, eliminates the body's protectors and gives the attackers the space they need for their assault.
However, we know nowadays that many pathogenic bacteria are already in our body and are only waiting for the opportunity for the "good" bacteria to become too weak to keep them in check. Contrary to earlier views, we no longer have to "newly" acquire many pathogenic bacteria from the outside, but they are already lurking in our bodies. The atomic bomb, the antibiotic, eliminates the body's protectors and gives the attackers the space they need for their assault.
To express it with an analogy from the book "Lord of the Rings":
The weapon of mass destruction, the antibiotic, is the ring. It eliminates the hosts of Elves and Men and allows the Orcs to raid and plunder their lands. Suffering and death is the consequence.
My personal experience in Seattle
I myself experienced this in the early 2000s when I visited a friend in Seattle.
As soon as I arrived, I got stomach pains and circulation problems. I put it down to a fast food meal I had eaten during a stopover in Philadelphia. But that was not the reason. My condition was deteriorating rapidly. The situation became very serious when I had both diarrhea and vomited during the night, just a few hours after arriving. There was blood everywhere. Fortunately, my friend was a medical doctor who worked at the hospital. He delivered me to the emergency room. The cause of my condition was diagnosed as the bacterium Clostridium difficile, which was treated immediately. My infection improved quickly and I was soon released. Had C. difficile not been detected, it could have perforated the intestinal walls with its toxins and caused death.
There was blood everywhere.
It didn't take long for me to figure out the source of the C. difficile infection. A few days before my departure, I had been prescribed penicillin for a mild sinusitis. This massively weakened my healthy bacterial flora, so that C. difficile, which until then had been lurking in some dark corner of my body waiting for its chance, was able to multiply uncontrollably. Thus, I could have met my death because of a simple sinusitis.
The effects of antibiotics on the composition of our microbiome are enormous and equal to those of an atomic bomb.
We see that many diseases have increased significantly in recent years that are most likely due to massive antibiotic use. These include obesity, diabetes, asthma, cancer and many other diseases.
Decreasing diversity of the microbiome makes us more susceptible to new diseases and weakens us permanently.
We have 10x more bacterial cells in our bodies than human cells. One hundred trillion microbes live on and in our bodies. Without our bacteria, we would have died out long ago. Conversely, the microorganisms do not need us. Undoubtedly, there are situations in which the administration of antibiotics is necessary and can save lives or avoid serious consequences of infection. For these cases we should save the antibiotics and not recklessly risk resistance or the destruction of our carefully balanced microbiome!
Continued massive antibiotics have been shown to alter our microbiome, also called the "disappearing microbiome." Decreasing diversity of the microbiome makes us more susceptible to new diseases and weakens us permanently.
Think very carefully the next time before taking an antibiotic and talk about it with your doctor who prescribed it.
Keep in mind that the doctor wants to keep the risk low for himself for liability reasons alone and prefers to use a broad-spectrum antibiotic that is supposed to make you healthy quickly and without complications for you.
Keep in mind that the preventive administration of antibiotics should only be done in exceptional cases.
Keep in mind that antibiotics are not a luxury medicine, which should only enable you to return to work more quickly instead of taking a sufficiently long time to heal.
Keep in mind that the long-term side effects may go beyond the effects noted on the already long package insert.
Consider that you are doing possible damage to your microbiome with each course of antibiotics, the consequences of which may not become apparent for many years or decades.
Ultimately, however, your doctor is your contact person, whom you should trust and whose professional advice you should follow!
Martin J. Blaser, Missing Microbes; How the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues, Henry Holt and Company, New York.
This article does not contain any medical advice. Please read our full disclaimer.