Many doctors seem to dole out antibiotics without much thought about their harmful side effects.
Unfortunately, the potential side effects of these drugs can be as bad or worse than the original health complaints that prompted the prescriptions.
They can lead to life-threatening complications.
So the danger of antibiotics is two-pronged: We’re not only reaching a crisis stage where our overuse of antibiotics is leading to the spread of drug-resistant infections – so-called “superbugs” – but in many cases the drugs themselves inflict dreadful damage.
Today’s focus is on how they can cripple the body’s attempts to heal itself.
Antibiotics are supposed to help the body’s immune system erase infections.
But doctors and patients don’t show enough respect for the powerful unintended effects of antibiotics.
You probably know already that antibiotics kill off probiotics – they destroy the “good” bacteria that inhabit the digestive tract. These beneficial bacteria help us absorb nutrients and keep the intestines clear of infectious microbes.
But wreaking havoc in your intestinal flora is just the start.
A study at MIT and Harvard now shows antibiotics can interfere with immune cells’ ability to fight off infectious bacteria. At the same time, they also make changes inside the body that protect pathogenic invaders – the very microbes you want to destroy.1
“Antibiotics interact with cells, particularly immune cells, in ways we didn’t expect,” admits MIT researcher Jason Yang. “And the biochemical context, altered by antibiotics and cells in the surrounding tissue, matters when you’re trying to predict how a drug might work in different people or in different infections.”
Yang’s lab study shows that antibiotics can both strengthen harmful bacteria in the body and also alter the natural chemicals released by cells. The scientists were alarmed to find that the body produced chemicals that help invading bacteria survive antibiotics in unique ways.
Weakens Immune System Cells
An example: The antibiotics made the body’s macrophages – immune cells tasked with swallowing up harmful bacteria and destroying them – less able to encircle and consume the pathogens.
“The drugs are producing changes that are actually counterproductive to the treatment effort,” warns researcher James Collins. “They reduce the bacterial susceptibility to antibiotics, and the drugs themselves reduce the functional benefit of the immune cells.”
The study demonstrates that antibiotics change the metabolism of our cells so that metabolites, the substances that result from a variety of cellular processes, become more hospitable to harmful microbes.
And there’s more bad news: Tests also show that antibiotics can damage mitochondria, the energy-producing organelles contained in every cell. Lab tests coordinated by researchers at Boston University show that when this drug-induced damage occurs, a large number of free radicals – harmful oxidative molecules – also appear. And these radicals cause further damage to cells.2
Beware of Dental Antibiotics
It is now also recognized that antibiotics prescribed by dentists are adding to problems caused by other sources of antibiotics.
To prevent infections, dental experts used to recommend that dental patients who had heart conditions or had artificial joints take antibiotics before dental procedures. But now, research shows the risk of infection is probably a lesser danger than the chance of suffering serious side effects from those “prophylactic” antibiotics.3
By killing off the probiotic bacteria living in the digestive tract, these antibiotics make room in the intestines for Clostridium difficile (C. diff), an intestinal bug that can be life-threatening.
“It’s important to educate dentists about the potential complications of antibiotic prescribing, including C. Diff,” says Stacy Holzbauer, who is with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Dentists write more than 24.5 million prescriptions for antibiotics a year. It is essential that they be included in efforts to improve antibiotic prescribing.”
Learn to Say no to Antibiotics
In the midst of all this controversy over antibiotics, if your health practitioner feels you need to take them, ask him or her to justify why it’s necessary. Then, if you’re told you have a serious infection that calls for these drugs, you may have to use them. But be wary if the prescription is based on a vague feeling your practitioner has that they “might” help. Get a second medical opinion if you’re not convinced.
It’s extremely common for doctors to prescribe an antibiotic when they’re not sure if the patient has an infection. You want to avoid this sort of “experiment.” It’s almost never a good idea.
The other alarming use of antibiotics is in children who have chronic strep throat, earache or similar infections. These tend to recur year after year, so the child goes through round after round of antibiotics. The fact that the infection keeps coming back should be a hint the drugs don’t work.
These recurring infections are almost always treatable with lifestyle changes, especially good nutrition and supplements. Tragically few parents are willing to go that route, and these children are being permanently damaged.