Antibiotic resistance has been receiving a lot of attention in the media recently. England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, Professor Davies is quoted in the media as saying: “Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible – similar to global warming.” Margaret Chan, head of the World Health Organisation, has also warned of a “global crisis in antibiotics”.
What is antibiotic resistance?
Antibiotic resistance is quite simply a product of natural selection, or evolution. Bacteria, like any living organism, will occasionally mutate at random. If a particular mutation enables the bacteria to survive an ‘attack’ of antibiotics, then the mutated resistant bacteria will continue to live and multiply.
Several studies have shown that antibiotic usage greatly hastens the development of these resistant bacteria. Other contributing factors include incorrect diagnosis, unnecessary prescriptions (for example, when antibiotics are prescribed for a non-bacterial viral infection) and the improper use of antibiotics by patients (such as not completed the full course of antibiotics).
Antibiotics in the food chain
Perhaps one of the most worrying trends in antibiotic administration is the routine use of antibiotics in the food chain. Antibiotic resistance can be passed on to humans through eating animal products, after livestock are fed antibiotics to fatten them up and to help reduce illness in crowded factory conditions. These antibiotics are often given in long-term low doses, simply to encourage the animals to gain weight and to fend off bacterial infection.
Additionally, research at Minnesota University has found that vegetables can be contaminated with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as they may have been grown with manure obtained from antibiotic-treated animals (1).
It is interesting that, way back in 1945, Alexander Fleming warned of this problem, voicing it is his speech on accepting the Nobel prize: “there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to nonlethal quantities of the drug make them resistant”.
What can we do?
It will be important moving forward to ensure that antibiotics are reserved only for when they are truly required. Choosing organic foods may well be a wiser choice. Animals raised organically should not have been exposed to antibiotics. Additionally organic fruit and vegetables marked with the Soil Association stamp tend to be grown by organic farmers with their own supply of manure, reducing the risk of bacterial contamination.
In the coming years, it is hoped that pharmaceutical companies are able to offer workable alternatives to antibiotics in light of the current crisis. The use of probiotics may offer a realistic option, especially as harmful bacteria are unable to develop resistance to probiotics – the good bacteria simply crowd them out while producing inhibitors that destroy the infection (2, 3). A recent clinical trial following 155 hospital patients found that daily supplementation with LAB4 probiotic strains alongside antibiotics significantly reduced the number of antibiotic resistant strains by more than 70% compared to the placebo group (4).
I have also had much success supporting digestive health using herbal approaches. Stool testing in clinic can identify antibiotic resistance while also testing sensitivity to herbal treatments, so that an appropriate nutritional therapy programme can be designed. For example, compounds such as those naturally present in garlic and onions, and herbs such as oregano, ginger and cloves, offer antimicrobial properties. Antibiotic resistance is a growing concern, and more research into alternatives is needed. In the meantime, both probiotic and herbal support, included as part of your everyday diet, may help boost the body’s natural defences against pathogens.
1. Livestock antibiotics can end up in human foods. Enewswire.com (2007). Retrieved 29/03/2013.
2. Chukeatirot E. (2003) Potential use of probiotics. Songklanakarin J. Sci. Technol. 2003 Mar-Apr;25(2):276-282.
3. Kondadacha OD et al (2011) The role of probiotics in aquaculture in nigeria: A review. Wilolud Journals. Jan;5(1):8-15.
4. Plummer et al. (2005) Effects of probiotics on the composition of the intestinal microbiota following antibiotic therapy. Int Microbial Agents 26 (1): 69–74.