The Problems With Antibiotic Overuse Are Worse Than We Thought

We've long been told that popping antibiotics for common infections is not the greatest idea, as they have a negative effect on the microorganisms in the gut. But according to researchers at Oregon State University, this impact is much broader and more complex than previously thought.

Antibiotics are vital in treating life-threatening bacterial infections — but only when used properly. In a new report published in the journal Gut, researchers write that overuse or misuse of antibiotics not only has unwanted effects on gastrointestinal system, but on immune system, glucose metabolism, food absorption, obesity, stress, and even behavior. They believe that more than 10% of people who receive the medications can suffer from these adverse side effects.

Scientists say that the issues are rising in importance, since 40% of all adults and 70% of all children take one or more antibiotics every year — and let's not forget their use in billions of food animals.

"Just in the past decade a whole new universe has opened up about the far-reaching effects of antibiotic use, and now we're exploring it," said co-author Andrey Morgun, in a press release. "The study of microbiota is just exploding. Nothing we find would surprise me at this point."

Prior to this study, Morgun said, people thought antibiotics only depleted microbiota and diminished several important immune functions that take place in the gut — but that's only about one-third of the picture.

"They also kill intestinal epithelium. Destruction of the intestinal epithelium is important because this is the site of nutrient absorption, part of our immune system and it has other biological functions that play a role in human health," he added.

The research also found that antibiotics and antibiotic-resistant microbes caused significant changes in mitochondrial function, which could eventually lead to more epithelial cell death.

The issue, he concluded, is that when the host microbe communication system gets out of balance it can lead to a chain of seemingly unrelated problems.

So how do we prevent these problems? Morgun hopes that this study aids him in his search for new probiotics to help offset antibiotic effects. But in the meantime, we can focus on using healthy microbiota to address growing problems with antibiotic resistance instead of so immediately trying to kill the "bad" bacteria causing an illness. Of course, however, every case is unique.

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