Back then, few people realized that swallowing a course of antibiotics, was potentially hazardous to human health. It was assumed, that since the antibiotic did not kill human cells directly, it was SAFE.
Bacteria were THE ENEMY. Exterminating them was ALWAYS a good thing.
How things have changed….
Technology has allowed us to dig a little deeper into our microbial world.
And what a world…..
The little guys out number us, 10 to 1. It is astounding, actually a little freaky, to realize, sitting there reading this post, numbers wise, there are more bacterial cells sitting in that chair, than YOU cells.
And, they are not just squatters – along for the ride, they do stuff, important stuff, they run your little anaerobic bioreactor in your gut
- Digesting food
- Harvesting energy
- Detoxifying potentially dangerous chemicals and vanquishing other nasties
- Producing essential nutrients and other goodies, that help you think straight etc.
- Training up your body’s defence force
- They may even be controlling your blood pressure
The antibiotic hurricane
We know, taking an antibiotic is the equivalent of a hurricane blowing through your gut garden.
It is seriously destructive.
But, up until now, measuring the destruction has typically focused on numbers.
A course of antibiotics ALWAYS puts a serious dent in bacterial numbers. Luckily, they knock the numbers of the bad guys, the pathogenic bacteria, causing the trouble – which can be LIFE SAVING. Unfortunately, the numbers of the good guys are also decimated.
But it is not just a numbers problem.
Hurricanes disrupt the routine
Anyone who has lived through a horrendous storm will know, a storm disrupts the status quo – it is not business as usual.
The first signs of the storm require hunkering down, quite literally battening down the hatches. During the actual storm, you huddle uncover and once the storm has passed over, there is clean up. It takes days, sometimes weeks/months/years to get back to “normal” life.
For gut bacteria, the antibiotic storm means it is no longer, business as usual. Only the tough survive and it takes time to return to “normal” and yes, there is evidence sometimes “normal” never returns.
Surviving the hurricane
A team of European researchers, using -omics technology, kept tabs on the gut flora of a 68 year old man suffering from a cardiac pacemaker infection, when he was treated with an antibiotic. They monitored the goings on in his gut, by regularly examining poop samples.
The analysis confirmed lots of bacteria did not make it. Some species were more sensitive than others. The Bacteroidetes were especially vulnerable, the Firmicutes on the other hand, are a lot tougher – a development which may not be so good for the waist line.
But the survivors all had to make major shifts in their metabolism, in order to survive, stepping up their internal defences. The implication of course, the “stressed out” bacteria, stopped doing all those little metabolic jobs, they routinely performed.
Not a recipe for good body chemistry.
Aftermath of the storm
The team kept tabs on the gut garden of their patient for 40 days, from the start of the antibiotic treatment. The antibiotic treatment ended on day 14.
The good news, the bug causing the cardiac pacemaker infection, was vanquished by the antibiotic. This is not always a guarantee these days, because many nasty bugs are resistant to antibiotics, but his nasty was sensitive to the antibiotic used.
The bad news, the gut flora took a serious knock, but for the most part, things had returned to normal by the 40 day mark. For the most part, there were a few anomalies.
The irregularities were metabolic, among them, a six fold increase in the production of cholesterol and its metabolites. Oops ?
The realization that our bacteria are US, should have led to a more cautious approach to the use of antibiotics. Unfortunately, not so much. Antibiotics are still dished out like sweets.
The take home message, think before you take an antibiotic, they may not harm you per se, but they do upset your trillion little helpers, and when your bacteria are off their game, all sorts of problems can arise. And if you must take an antibiotic, your gut bacteria will need TLC for a long time afterwards, at least 40 days.
NOTE : If you have a life threatening infection – an antibiotic is quite literally a LIFE SAVER, gratefully take it. But a lot of the time, they are just prescribed as a pacifier, sometimes they’re pacifying the patient, sometimes the doctor.
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