The Dark Side of Misused Antibiotics

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It isn’t hard to understand the idea that antibiotics alter the population of healthy bacteria that normally inhabit the human body.  When you take something that kills bacteria, it’ll take care of an unwanted infection quite effectively (think urinary tract infections or infected injury or surgery sites) but also damages populations of commensal bacteria that are helpful to the functioning of the human body.  Seeing as human beings are 90% microbial and only 10% human cells, the implications of this can be far-reaching.  However, new research is starting to show that the effect of antibiotics on the human flora is only the beginning of their dark side.


Around 40% of adults and 70% of children take antibiotics once a year in North America, and billions of animals are given them daily for either infection prophylaxis or treatment.  When used properly, antibiotics are undoubtedly life-saving.  They are a primary reason that life expectancy is so much greater today than it was just a few decades ago.  However, 1 in 10 people experience adverse effects to antibiotics and their misuse (using them too often, or for inappropriate situations) is creating larger health issues.


Scientists are starting to identify that misuse of antibiotics is associated with derangements in metabolic processes like glucose metabolism, functioning of the immune system, digestive processes and human behaviour – even obesity and stress have been linked to improper antibiotic use.


In a recent study using a mouse model, a team of scientists showed that antibiotics not only alter bacterial populations in the gut, they actually destroy epithelial (surface) cells of the intestinal tract.  The intestinal epithelium is a velvety layer of very important cells that facilitate nutrient and water absorption into the bloodstream.  It also serves as a barrier between the bugs that line the gut and the cells of the body.  A huge population of immune system cells lives just behind the intestinal epithelium, estimated to make up around 75% of the entire immune system in the human body; these immune cells constantly communicate with bacteria in the gut, maintaining a healthy relationship between the bugs and the body.  Disrupting this dialogue can cause not only digestive complaints like diarrhea and ulcerative colitis, but contributes to autoimmunity, obesity, food malabsorption, depression, asthma and allergies.


Interestingly, the team also found that antibiotics and bacteria that have developed resistance to them cause significant changes to mitochondrial functioning in cells.  Mitochondria are tiny energy-generating compartments in cells, often referred to as the “cellular battery.”  They play an important role in cellular communication and growth, and contribute to healthy cellular functioning in every organ system of the body.  We’ve discussed the role of mitochondrial functioning before in the context of fertility, but in the development of all aging-related conditions and chronic diseases, malfunctioning mitochondria are suspected to play a role.  That antibiotics shift how the mitochondria function is a new and concerning discovery.

Evolutionarily, mitochondria are descended from bacteria.  That’s right – it’s because of a symbiotic relationship between cells and bacteria that we even have these cellular energy-makers that are a requirement for life.  The study suggested that this connection might be why antibiotics alter mitochondrial functioning (mitochondria look like the bacteria these drugs target).


In many cases, there are other ways to fight off bacteria that cause common infections rather than using unnecessary antibiotics.  Urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis are two of the most common infections I see in clinic.  By boosting the body’s healthy bacterial population using probiotics and shifting the cellular terrain, we can treat and prevent many of these infections without the requirement of antibiotics.  Of course there are many life-threatening situations where antibiotics should be used – they save peoples lives every day.  But by continuing to misuse these powerful drugs, we may be causing ourselves more harm than good.


If you’d like to know more information about the importance of the mitochondria, read my previous blog article here.


For more on how you can fight infections naturally, increase your natural immunity and alter your cellular terrain, call to book a free 15 minute phone consult with me through Acubalance.


In health,


Dr. Kali MacIsaac HBSc, ND

Naturopathic Doctor