Headlines regarding antibiotic-resistant infections have become commonplace. Five years ago, my grandfather had a well-performed, routine surgery. He was healing well when a fever and other signs of infection struck. He had a bladder infection. This ordinarily easy to treat infection persisted for several months. Despite many doses of oral and IV antibiotics, his body succumbed to the infection. Medicine is rapidly approaching a time in which infections are no longer treatable with the antibiotics whose miraculous discovery led to the modern medical era.
Overview of The Bacterial Resistance Problem
The end of the antibiotic era is not science fiction. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently released an updated report outlining the current severity of antibiotic resistance, the “potentially catastrophic consequences of inaction” and strategies for combating resistance. The report states that more than two million antibiotic resistant infections occur in the United States each year, resulting in 23,000 deaths. There was a time when drug-resistant infections appeared to be limited to hospitals, but instances of infections spreading through communities of seemingly healthy people have increased at an alarming rate. Development of new antibiotics is almost non-existent in comparison to the increasing threat of resistant bacteria. In 2010, the Infectious Disease Society of America established a goal of approving 10 new antibiotics by 2020. Thus far, only one new antibiotic has emerged. The glacial pace of research is largely due to the low profit margins pharmaceutical companies will gain from new antibiotics, in comparison to drugs that are taken long term. Lipitor, used for high cholesterol, is one of the most frequently prescribed drugs. It generated $7.2 billion in the U.S. in 2010.
How Does Antibiotic Resistance Occur?
Bacteria learn multiple ways to fight antibiotics. We now know this happens at an incredible rate. They form physical barriers (called “biofilms”) that antibiotics cannot penetrate. They develop ways to deactivate antibiotics, including the creation of “efflux pumps” which rapidly move antibiotics from inside the bacteria (where they are effective) to outside. These are only a few examples. The problem is further magnified because bacteria can share these “learned defenses” with other kinds of bacteria they come in contact with. The process is similar to transferring data on a portable memory stick to any brand computer with a USB port. In short, we grossly underestimated the ability of bacteria to adapt to the threat of antibiotics.
Bacterial resistance has developed simply because we use antibiotics when they aren’t necessary. The more exposure bacteria populations have to antibiotics, the faster they develop defenses. Below are a few common practices from the medical and agricultural industries that must change in order to slow the problem. Many patients expect an antibiotic when they go to the doctor. Often, patient satisfaction is significantly lower when one is not prescribed. Doctors frequently feel pressured to prescribe antibiotics, even when it will be of minimal or no use, such as with viral infections like colds and flus. The inappropriate use of antibiotics by doctors is the most widely publicized contributor to antibiotic resistance, but it is only a piece of the complex puzzle.
Antibiotics are added to the daily feed of cattle raised for food. The antibiotics cause more rapid weight gain, preparing them for slaughter much faster. They also keep infections at bay that otherwise run rampant in animals kept in unsanitary and closed living conditions. This constant use of antibiotics promotes resistant bacteria, which are then transferred with the butchered meat across the country and onto our dinner plate. These antibiotics and bacteria also get into the water supply, bringing resistance to every piece of land and waterway it comes in contact with. The global nature of commerce allows resistant bacteria to meet other bacteria around the world, passing on the resistance knowledge. Indiscriminant use of antibiotics is a major factor in bacterial resistance. Antibiotic stewardship is part of the solution, which entails reserving their use for medical conditions only when truly necessary. You can help fight antibiotic resistance by choosing sustainably raised meat products. And the next time you feel that tickle in the back of your throat, consider visiting a licensed Naturopathic Physician instead of popping that pill.
The Role of Natural and Complementary Medicine
Natural medicine has essential tools for counteracting bacterial resistance strategies, making antibiotics more effective and increasing your body’s natural ability to fight infections. An exciting body of research exists, showing many plants have direct antibiotic effect when in contact with bacteria. Some have body-wide effects just like pharmaceutical antibiotics. Ginger and licorice have the ability to inactivate “efflux pumps” on some resistant bacteria, making antibiotics more effective. They also stimulate immune system cells that kill bacteria. Other herbs, like tumeric, and certain nutrients can break down biofilms, clearing the way for antibiotics. Natural medicine has a potent arsenal for treating and preventing resistant infections, and should be used to complement conventional treatment. FBN
By Dr. Michael Knapp, NMD
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