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Fact: Antibiotic resistance is on the rise.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the phenomenon as a worldwide crisis, highlighting these key facts:
- Antibiotic resistance is one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development.
- It 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 YOU can do” part is coming! First, let’s iron out the basics…
What is antibiotic resistance, anyway?
Unsurprisingly, it’s exactly what it sounds like.
The CDC explains:
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.
In this 2-min. video, Dr. Alok Patel, M.D., further explains the phenomenon in layman’s terms (and cool graphics!):
Basically, through our often unnecessary use of antibiotics, we’ve allowed mutant, antibiotic-resistant superbugs to propagate.
» Side note: 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 the fact 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.
» Another side note: Antibiotics saved my life and foot when I contracted a mutant superbug in the form of a bone infection after a routine 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 requesting antibiotics for sinus and other infections that were likely just common colds. (FYI, antibiotics don’t work against common viruses—like colds—so that habit of mine was a baaad one.) 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 antibiotic resistance epidemic. I was uneducated! Without proper knowledge of what we’re unnecessarily doing to our own bodies and to the health of the world population through antibiotic overuse, we won’t be able to enact change.
Why are antibiotics so overused?
Dr. Romm suggests that antibiotics are over-prescribed for these 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!)
- Physicians 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 have time to explain the problems associated with antibiotics to their patients during the short office visit.
- Medical professionals often aren’t educated enough about the risks of overprescribing, when to prescribe (and when not to), and alternatives to antibiotics.
Now, as promised, on to the uplifting part!
What can YOU do to prevent antibiotic resistance?
1. Don’t eat dairy products and meats that were exposed to antibiotics.
The CDC describes how 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’ll absorb traces of those medications when you consume CAFO meat.
The basic law of supply and demand drives any market. Thus, it’s important to vote with our wallets and support farmers who pasture-raise their animals (rather than the 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 more information on this topic, check out this article from The New York Times: “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 and avoiding processed foods, which are often inflammatory, immune-destroying, nutrient-poor, and sugar-laden.
Specifically, prioritize whole foods that are rich in zinc and iron. Dr. Romm explains that consumption of adequate zinc and iron may be helpful for preventing sickness.
Further, Dr. Romm advises eating an adequate amount of protein because “it takes protein to make the cells that fight infections.” She recommends the following protein sources:
- Pasture-raised meat and eggs
- Dairy (if you tolerate it)
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!
4. If your doctor prescribes you an antibiotic, inquire about the CDC’s “Get Smart” educational resource.
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, you’ll find numerous resources for healthcare professionals, policy makers, and the general public about when to use and when not to use antibiotics. (Conveniently, all of the resources are available to the general public, including the ones labeled “Resources for Healthcare Professionals.” So, check them all out!)
If your child has an ear infection or if you have a cough, an antibiotic may not be the best option. Thus, it’s best to maintain a healthy 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 fair 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*)!
6. If/when you are prescribed an antibiotic…
Follow these tips from Dr. Patel’s video (above):
- Take it exactly as prescribed.
- Don’t save leftover pills (err…if you followed bullet point #1, there shouldn’t be any!) for future use.
- Don’t share antibiotics with anyone else.
- Dispose of them exactly as directed.
Finally, Dr. Patel advises us to ditch the antibacterial soap! Studies suggest that it’s no better than ordinary soap, and it may actually lead to more bacterial resistance. (To read more about this topic, check out my prior post “Dr. Bronner’s: The Panacea For Your Home.”)
Bottom line: It’s a fact that antibiotic resistance is on the rise, but we don’t need to accept that fact as a forever truth! There are so many things we can do to prevent antibiotic resistance in ourselves, our family members, and the global population.
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