How to boost beneficial bacteria in a world of antibiotics

Looking after your intestinal flora is an excellent way to promote good gut health and keep your overall health in check. Taking daily probiotics, eating fermented food and enjoying a varied diet are easy ways to boost the beneficial bacteria living in your gut. It goes without saying that antibiotics can have a negative impact on our intestinal flora, but did you know that they lurk in the most unlikely of places too?

In fact, there are traces of antibiotics in foods that alter our gut flora, killing off many of our helpful bugs and diminishing their ability to do a useful job.

The even more sinister side-effect here is that antibiotic residues in the food chain are making us resistant to using antibiotics as life-saving medicines.

Antibiotics in the food industry

Since the discovery of penicillin in 1928, antibiotics have saved many millions of lives. Unfortunately, overuse is leading to worrying levels of antibiotic resistance. This is where even common infections 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. 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% 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 isn’t the case for organic farming, where piglets stay with their mothers. This cuts down on mastitis, and improves sow and piglet health.

Antibiotics and poultry

Antibiotics are also used to lower disease and infection rates on intensive poultry farms. This could be better achieved with higher levels of animal hygiene, husbandry and housing (again, they’re 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 illnesse. 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.

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.

How to take action

  1. Strengthen your intestinal flora to build natural defences by eating probiotic-rich foods. This includes live yoghurt and fermented foods such as kefir and sauerkraut.
  2. Encourage children, the elderly and those with low immune-systems to add prebiotic foods and probiotic supplements into their daily diet.
  3. 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.
  4. Avoid taking antibiotics unless absolutely essential. Ask for a bacterial test if prescribed for illnesses such as flu (antibiotics don’t work against viruses).
  5. Buy organic meat, especially pork, bacon and chicken, as this is produced without the routine use of antibiotics.
  6. Wash fruit and vegetables well to remove traces of antibiotic-resistant bacteria from  the soil.
  7. Sign up to the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics. This campaign pushes for drastic reductions in farm antibiotic use and an end to the needless ‘preventative’ mass medication. It also calls for annual surveillance data on the human health impacts of antibiotic resistance.

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Wellbeing Wisdom

  • 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