Why are many ailments dramatically on the rise in comparison to 50 or 70 years ago? These include diabetes, obesity, food and environmental allergies, and asthma. Is there one or are there multiple causes? One theory, proposed by Dr. Martin Blaser, Director of the Human Microbiome Program at New York University, is that modern medicine plays a large role in this increase. And, that we are disrupting the human microbiome based on overuse of antibiotics, making us sick in the process.
As is commonly known, antibiotics slow or destroy the growth of bacteria, and are prescribed to treat bacterial infections caused by microscopic organisms. However, as a byproduct, they also kill “good” bacteria. When used in excess, they have the effect of destroying strains of bacteria that exist in the stomach. In his book, Missing Microbes: How the Overuse of Antibiotics is Fueling Our Modern Plagues, Dr. Blaser describes how overuse of antibiotics can lead to danger, in ways that we have not yet seen.
The first three years of life appear to be the most critical in establishing the normal development cycle of the microbiome, which is the collection of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses that live off the human body. What Dr. Blaser’s research suggests is that modern medicine has disrupted the natural development of our bodies, especially for very young children.
From the point of birth, a baby comes into contact with bacteria and their personal microbiome becomes synonymous with that of their biological mother. For those babies born by C-section, their microbiome may be more like that of somebody else in the operating room. So, one important question is whether there are persistent negative health effects of being born by C-section? What Dr. Blaser suggests is that if a person’s microbiome is altered at a young age, there can be potentially hazardous ramifications.
Dr. Blaser further describes that babies born vaginally have bacteria that interact with lactobacilli and when they suckle at their moms’ breasts, there is the foundation for the microbiome to develop. He believes that, in human evolution, the microbiome had reached a state of stability. And, that with the advent of modern advances, that stability is being disturbed. Could it be that our medicine is making us sick?
What Dr. Blaser describes is how our entire system has changed as a result of overuse of antibiotics, starting with the very young. In fact, antibiotics are changing the very development of our children. This has been substantiated in mice, where the use of antibiotics is shown to potentiate a high fat diet, rapidly increasing its negative effects, causing severe obesity.
To demonstrate how antibiotics might contribute to obesity, Dr. Blaser points to how farmers use antibiotics in livestock, and that they promote expansive growth in their animals. Antibiotics create a path for the more efficient use of food, so that animals more efficiently convert food calories into body mass. Dr. Blaser also refers to epidemiological studies that prove that modern medicine can put humans at risk for obesity, as well.
In an early 1990s study in the U.K., with a sample of 10,000 children, Dr. Blaser led a study about the extended health results of being born by C-section. Children were followed for many years and the result of investigation was that the rate of getting fat or obese was increased in correlation to whether children were born vaginally or by C-section. The study results were replicated in other parts of the world: the U.S. (Boston), Canada, and Brazil.
What they found was that, when antibiotics were first introduced, it was assumed that using them more could only be helpful. The minor side effects of upset stomach or rash were thought temporary, and that if antibiotics could provide even a little benefit for an ailment, they should be prescribed. Over time, it was recognized that once good bacteria is killed off completely, it cannot regenerate.
With regard to childbirth, women in the U.S. are prophylactically given penicillin to prevent Group B Strep in the vagina that affects one in 200 women and their unborn children. What Dr. Blaser states is that the cost has not been calculated. In other words, the microbiome is altered similarly negatively in babies born by C-section and those whose mothers had been administered antibiotics at birth.
Moreover, antibiotics affect the immune system, creating more food allergies, especially in children. Dr. Blaser asserts that adaptive immunity is affected by the immune system being compromised due to overuse of antibiotics. Another way that the system is weakened by antibiotics is through the development of C. diff, which is the erosion of good flora in the lining of the stomach.
Dr. Blaser emphasizes that antibiotics are necessary when a person needs to get rid of dangerous bacteria in the system. The difficulty arises in overuse or inappropriate use. And, many times, there is uncertainty, and health practitioners often err on the side of caution, prescribing antibiotics whether or not they are needed. That is when difficulties arise.
So, is it modern medicine that is making us sick, or is it inappropriate prescription and usage? The publishers of an indie film, “Certain Adverse Effects” contend that it is the former. The authors, Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, assert that customers must take charge of their own health to avoid potentially harmful side effects from even one dose of antibiotics. The video below gives further details of their interpretation.
By Fern Remedi-Brown