I am not against pharmaceuticals.  I prescribe them.  I just don’t prescribe them first, not usually.

For a little perspective: infectious disease was the number one killer in 1900, accounting for 32 percent of all deaths.  Mortality declined even prior to the invention of penicillin in 1935 due to improved nutrition and public health measures, but it dropped twice as fast in the period between 1940 and 1960, when antibiotics were added to the mix. However, this trend leveled off after 1960, and our mortality rates, though still declining, are declining at roughly the same rate as they were in the pre-antibiotics era.  (Now we’re dying for other reasons – namely heart disease and cancer.)

Bacteria: Friend or Foe?

The “germ theory of disease” was essentially the work of Louis Pasteur (hence the word pasteurization, a process that uses high heat to kill off bacteria) – he’s the guy who said that each type of bacteria caused a specific kind of illness.

Nobody ever hears about Pasteur’s contemporary, though – he was a guy named Antoine Bechamp, who said essentially the opposite.  Bechamp claimed that there was a symbiotic relationship between bacteria and their hosts, and that bacteria can morph to adopt to their environments.  In other words, when you try to kill a certain type of bacteria, most of them might die, but the few that remain will pass on their resistance to their progeny.

The Answer is Both!

Turns out they were both right, on some level.  Pasteur was correct in that there are some organisms so pathogenic that your immune system isn’t likely to be able to overcome them without some outside intervention, no matter how strong you may be.  There are also some individuals whose immune function is so weakened that they won’t be able to overcome an infectious invader without outside intervention, even if the invader itself isn’t all that strong.  These are situations in which antibiotics are absolutely appropriate.

However, Bechamp’s discoveries should not be overlooked either.  Antibiotics are usually indiscriminate, which means they kill not just the bacteria causing symptoms, but they also slaughter all of the “good,” symbiotic bacteria in our guts (aka probiotics), which contribute substantially to the health of our immune system, thus rendering us far more susceptible to future invaders.  Then, when those future invaders arrive, instead of strengthening the immune system to fight them off naturally, we throw another round of antibiotics at them, weakening the system still further.

Additionally, this approach allows those previously symbiotic organisms that survive in the gut to overgrow and create imbalance.  Certain bacteria and yeast that are helpful in small amounts can create gas, bloating, constipation, food allergies, brain fog and a number of other symptoms when they are allowed to overpopulate in order to fill the void that the antibiotics left behind.

Even worse, overuse of antibiotics allows those resistant bacteria that survive to create mutant strains that we cannot kill – and overuse of antibiotics is rampant.  For instance, these days we “preventatively” feed antibiotics to the chickens, cows, and pigs we raise for food – which gives otherwise harmless bacteria greater opportunity to become antibiotic-resistant.

Overexposure to antibacterial products can also contribute to weakened immune function such as allergies and increased susceptibility to pathogens, especially in young children whose immune systems are still developing.

Even worse, triclosan, the antibiotic most frequently used in antibacterial household products such as soap, can form toxic byproducts when combined with the chlorine in water, such as carcinogenic dioxins, and has been linked with disrupted thyroid function.  (I find this especially interesting, since hypothyroidism is rampant these days, and not always for obvious reasons.)

The Take-Home Message:

  • Buy animal products without added antibiotics.  This will keep you and your family healthy, and will also discourage the industry from using antibiotics so indiscriminately.
  • Use soap and household items without antibiotics, especially triclosan.  Regular soap works just as well.
  • Practice good nutrition, health habits, and hygiene.  This will go a long way towards boosting your immune system and enabling you to fight off bacterial invaders naturally.
  • If you’ve had multiple rounds of antibiotics in your lifetime, consider repopulating the good, symbiotic bacteria in your gut with fermented foods and/or probiotics.
  • If you have lingering intestinal problems due to said antibiotics, consider seeing your naturopathic doctor to get you back in balance!