Antibiotic Alert: How to boost beneficial bacteria
Liz researches ways to boost our internal beneficial bacteria – and reveals the unacceptably high cost of antibiotics in our food to our health.
I’ve been researching the importance of promoting good gut health by looking after intestinal flora, including ways in which we can improve our overall health and wellbeing by boosting the beneficial bugs that keep us well. While we can add probiotics to our daily diet in the form of live yoghurt and fermented foods, such as kefir and pickled vegetables, we can also eat more prebiotic foods to feed our friendly flora. These are foods that contain inulin, the soluble plant fibre comprising of oligosaccharides (several simple sugars linked together) that pass through the small intestine and ferment in our large intestine. It’s this fermentation process that turns inulin into the healthy intestinal microflora that boosts our immune system and helps us ward off disease. Everyday foods such as bananas, leeks and onions, as well as less-often-eaten plants such as chicory root, endive, asparagus and dandelion root, all contain this soluble dietary fibre that is crucial to gut health. By boosting our microflora, we also boost our ability to fight off infections and keep our use of medicines (notably antibiotics) to a minimum.
So it is something of a blow to discover that despite our best intentions to protect the medley of marvellous microbes that look after our internal wellbeing, there are traces of antibiotics in foods that destroy this good work. Antibiotics significantly alter our gut flora, killing off many of our helpful bugs and diminishing their ability to do a useful job, such as create vitamins, boost immunity and help us digest various foods. There’s an even more sinister side-effect here, too, as antibiotic residues in the food chain are making us resistant to using antibiotics as life-saving medicines.
While GPs have cut back on prescriptions, our health is being undermined by intensive farming practices
Since their discovery in the form of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have saved many millions of lives. But overuse is leading to worrying levels of antibiotic resistance, where even common infections now no longer respond to treatment, as well as to the rise of so-called superbugs (such as MRSA). Doctors are under increasingly strict instructions not to prescribe antibiotics unless absolutely essential for patient recovery. But while GPs have cut back on prescriptions, our health is being seriously undermined by intensive farming practices. By far the biggest use of antibiotics is in routine meat production. About 70 per cent of all antibiotics used are fed to farmed animals. They’re routinely given to keep infectious diseases down due to crowded living and rearing conditions. In pig farming, antibiotics are administered to reduce mastitis as young piglets are removed from their mothers shortly after birth (the sows are not allowed to wean their young). This is not the case for organic farming, where piglets stay with their mothers, so cutting down on mastitis, as well as improving sow and piglet health. Antibiotics are also used to lower disease and infection rates on intensive poultry farms, which could be better achieved with higher levels of animal hygiene, husbandry and housing (again, they are not routinely used in organic chicken rearing). According to the UK’s former Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson, ‘Every inappropriate use of antibiotic in animals is potentially signing a death warrant for a future patient.’
There’s serious concern about the overuse of antibiotics in livestock farming and the way this undermines their ability to treat human ill-health. Public Health England figures show antibiotic resistance to campylobacter infections to be at an all-time high. In the UK alone, more than 10,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant illnesses and there is a real fear that simple infectious diseases could cause over a million deaths across Europe within the next decade. Experts now say we’re fast facing a world where antibiotics will cease to work, and where common infections we used to cure so easily will become dangerous killers.
The priority for intensive farmers must be to stop using the antibiotics that are causing microbial resistance in human medicine, including cephalosporins, colistin and fluoroquinolones. Worryingly, these are the ‘last resort’ antibiotics, used to treat superbugs such as Clostridium difficile. Antibiotic resistance is being transferred from farm animals to humans, especially with the use of fluoroquinolones in poultry. Cheap for a livestock farmer to buy and use, they’re the biggest risk to microbial resistance for common human infections, such as campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli. The call to ban these critically important ‘last resort’ antibiotics in farming has so far not been upheld, despite evidence showing a ban can be both workable and effective.
‘Every inappropriate use of antibiotic in animals is potentially signing a death warrant for a future patient’
The US banned fluoroquinolones for poultry back in 2005. Today, the US has one of the lowest rates of fluoroquinolone resistance in the world (22 per cent, compared to 60 per cent within Europe). Other countries to have successfully banned the use of fluroquinolones in chicken production include Australia, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden – but unfortunately not the UK. The UK minister Lord O’Neill, who chairs the Government’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance has called to ‘ban the last-in-line defence antibiotics immediately in farming and in animal use’.
With one child in every five now dying in Asia (where fluroquinolones are widely used) due to antibiotic-resistant infections, we are at real risk of losing to modern medicine. With no new antibiotics on the horizon we need to make more noise about this issue and support the many scientists calling for a routine-antibiotic ban on all farm use.
WHAT WE CAN DO
- Strengthen our intestinal flora to build natural defences by eating probiotic-rich foods, such as live yoghurt and fermented foods such as kefir and sauerkraut.
- Encourage children, the elderly and those with low immune-systems to add prebiotic foods and probiotic supplements into their daily diet.
- Breastfeed for at least the first few weeks to pass on vital immuneprotecting flora in colostrum. When choosing baby milk, look for the group of beneficial bacteria called GOS added to formula feeds.
- Don’t take antibiotics unless absolutely essential – ask for a bacterial test if prescribed for illnesses such as flu (antibiotics don’t work against viruses).
- Buy organic meat, especially pork, bacon and chicken, as this is produced without the routine use of antibiotics.
- Wash fruit and vegetables well to remove traces of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from the soil.
- Sign up to the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics, a campaign pushing for drastic reductions in farm antibiotic use and an end to the needless ‘preventative’ mass medication, together with a call for annual surveillance data on the human health impacts of antibiotic resistance.
- Eat probiotic-rich foods (such as live yoghurt and fermented foods) to strengthen your intestinal flora and build natural defences
- Choose organic meat, especially pork, bacon and chicken, as this is produced without the routine use of antibiotics