Fact: Antibiotic resistance is on the rise, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the phenomenon as a worldwide crisis. Just three months ago, WHO published this article and highlighted these key facts:
- Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.
- Antibiotic resistance can affect anyone, of any age, in any country.
- Antibiotic resistance occurs naturally, but misuse of antibiotics in humans and animals is accelerating the process.
- A growing number of infections – such as pneumonia, tuberculosis, gonorrhoea, and salmonellosis – are becoming harder to treat as the antibiotics used to treat them become less effective.
- Antibiotic resistance leads to longer hospital stays, higher medical costs and increased mortality.
Additionally, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) published a report stating, “Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people become infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics and at least 23,000 people die each year as a direct result of these infections.” Since resistance is on the rise, the number of deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections is likely to increase as well. Sound bleak? Those statistics certainly are, but I promise you the hopeful “what can you do” part is coming! First, let’s get the basics ironed out…
What is antibiotic resistance, anyway?
Unsurprisingly, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Also from the CDC: “Antibiotics and similar drugs, together called antimicrobial agents, have been used for the last 70 years to treat patients who have infectious diseases. Since the 1940s, these drugs have greatly reduced illness and death from infectious diseases. However, these drugs have been used so widely and for so long that the infectious organisms the antibiotics are designed to kill have adapted to them, making the drugs less effective.”
Aviva Romm, M.D. (Yale-trained, no big deal!), just released an episode titled “Herbal Alternatives to Antibiotic Resistance” on her podcast Natural MD Radio. I will be referencing the episode several times throughout this post, but I highly recommend you listen to it in its entirety! As I mentioned in my most recent post “My Favorite Health & Wellness Podcasts,” Dr. Romm’s podcast is one of my favorites–it’s especially great for women! If you haven’t already, subscribe to it via iTunes or your favorite podcast-listening platform. The knowledge and recommendations she shares in each episode are invaluable.
Dr. Romm emphasizes that antibiotic overuse has caused and continues to cause a slew of problems, including chronic disease. However, she goes on to clarify that antibiotic usage is still important for various severe bacterial infections (like meningitis), some kidney infections, Lyme disease, etc. Certainly, antibiotics are miracle drugs in many ways; they have saved–and continue to save!—millions of people from diseases that were previously considered life-threatening. The problem is their overuse.
(A personal aside: Antibiotics saved my life and foot when I contracted a Staph infection after a routine bunion surgery. For this reason, I am eternally grateful for the advancements in modern Western medicine. However, in my younger years, I was part of the antibiotic resistance problem; at the first sign of a sniffle, I often ran to my doctor suggesting that I needed antibiotics for sinus and “bacterial” infections that were likely just common colds. At the time, I didn’t understand 1) the harm I was doing to my own gut, 2) that I was making myself increasingly susceptible to “superbugs,” and 3) my contribution to the overall problem of antibiotic resistance. I was uneducated! Without knowledge of what we’re unnecessarily doing to our own bodies and the health of the world population through the overuse of antibiotics, we won’t be able to enact change.)
Why are antibiotics so overused?
Dr. Romm suggests that antibiotics are over-prescribed for four main reasons:
- Doctors think that their patients expect an antibiotic prescription when they visit, either for themselves or for their sick children. (As I admitted above, I was “that” patient!)
- Doctors are afraid they will be sued if they don’t prescribe an antibiotic and the patient’s infection turns out to be more serious than expected.
- Doctors don’t feel that they have time to explain the problems associated with antibiotics to their patients in the short office visit.
- Doctors aren’t educated enough about the risks of overprescribing, when to prescribe (and when not to), and alternatives to antibiotics.
Now, as promised, here comes the uplifting part!
How can I help halt the antibiotic-resistance epidemic?
1. Don’t eat dairy and meat that was exposed to antibiotics.
The CDC explains that animals raised in concentrated animal feed lots (CAFOs) are contributing to the antibiotic-resistance problem:
The trend of using antibiotics in feed has increased with the greater numbers of animals held in confinement. The more animals that are kept in close quarters, the more likely it is that infection or bacteria can spread among the animals. Seventy percent of all antibiotics and related drugs used in the U.S. each year are given to beef cattle, hogs, and chickens as feed additives. Nearly half of the antibiotics used are nearly identical to ones given to humans (Kaufman, 2000).
There is strong evidence that the use of antibiotics in animal feed is contributing to an increase in antibiotic-resistant microbes and causing antibiotics to be less effective for humans (Kaufman, 2000). Resistant strains of pathogenic bacteria in animals, which can be transferred to humans thought the handling or eating of meat, have increased recently. This is a serious threat to human health because fewer options exist to help people overcome disease when infected with antibiotic-resistant pathogens. The antibiotics often are not fully metabolized by animals, and can be present in their manure. If manure pollutes a water supply, antibiotics can also leech into groundwater or surface water.
If the animal protein you eat was pumped with antibiotics, you will absorb traces of those medications when you consume CAFO meat. As explained in my previous post, “You Are What You Eat…Ate”!
The basic law of supply and demand drives any market. Thus, it’s important that we all support farmers who pasture raise their animals rather than disgusting CAFO operations. Pastured meat is more expensive, but it’s antibiotic-free! I don’t know about you, but I’d rather consume less, more expensive meat since doing so means I’ll be free from the harmful effects of antibiotic overuse.
(For even more information, check out this newish New York Times article “At Hamburger Central, Antibiotics for Cattle That Aren’t Sick.”)
2. Reduce your “need” for antibiotics by not getting sick in the first place!
Promote your gut and immune health by eating whole foods; avoiding inflammatory, immune-destroying, nutrient-poor, sugar-laden, processed foods; and taking vitamins and natural supplements (especially during cold and flu season!) that will help you ward off bugs.
Dr. Romm explains that zinc, iron, and probiotics may all be helpful in preventing sickness. (Again, check out the actual episode for more details. Dr. Romm lists zinc- and iron-rich foods, as well as what to look for in a probiotic.)
Further, Dr. Romm advises getting an adequate amount of protein–from pasture-raised meat and eggs, beans, legumes, nuts, and dairy (if you tolerate it)–in your diet because “it takes protein to make the cells that fight infections.”
3. Look into herbal remedies that may prevent and fight infection.
Dr. Romm is not only a Yale-trained M.D.; she’s also an experienced herbalist (hence her self-proclaimed title “natural” M.D.). Herbal remedies are great for many reasons, but most importantly they 1) work on both bacterial and viral infections (antibiotics only cure bacterial infections) and 2) don’t contribute to the antibiotic-resistance problem. (Since the composition of botanicals is so complex, it’s more difficult for bacteria to outwit them).
In her article “8 Safe & Effective Herbal Antibiotic Alternatives,” Dr. Romm shares a variety of herbs and herbal combinations that may serve as remedies to both prevent and treat the common cold, sinus infections, and other non-serious illnesses. Check it out!
(Note: When buying herbs, it’s important–just like with everything else!–to be sure they’re well-sourced and high-quality. Dr. Romm recommends purchasing them from Mountain Rose Herbs or her Fullscript disepensary.)
4. If your doctor recommends an antibiotic, inquire about the “Get Smart” educational resource supplied by the CDC; or, look it up yourself prior to your doctor visit!
Here is a link to the site: https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/week/educational-resources/index.html
When you visit the site, there are numerous resources available to healthcare professionals, policy makers, and the general public about when to use and when not to use antibiotics to treat illness. (Actually, all of the resources are available to the general public, including the ones labeled “Resources for Healthcare Professionals.” I recommend that you check them all out!) If your child has an ear infection or you have a cough, an antibiotic may not be the best option. Thus, it’s best to maintain antibiotic skepticism; the CDC site will help you to do so in an informed manner.
5. Ride out the common cold. It won’t be fun, but you’ll protect your own health–and the health of future generations!–by doing so.
Since my full-time job is teaching, I’ve had my share of colds. As previously mentioned, I used to try to treat them immediately and efficiently with antibiotics, which I now realize was a big no no! Currently, I do all of the above to prevent sickness. When I do catch a cold, I ride it out and support my body with extra sleep and rest, steaming hot showers, and the cleanest possible diet (including spicy, sinus-cleansing broths and cold-pressed green juices like Juice Press’ “Volcano”). I’m proud to say that I’ve been antibiotic-free for almost three years, and I plan to continue my streak (*knock on wood*)!
Have you ever considered your place in the growing epidemic of antibiotic resistance? After reading this post, do you plan to make any lifestyle changes? I love reading your comments!
In each blog post, I aim to bring you food for thought (pun intended. Note: my day job is teaching English), but don’t take my word for it! Click on and read all of the links above to become your own expert on this topic; knowledge is power. The more you know and understand the “why” behind each biohack, the easier it will be to stick to it and realize you can’t live without it!