While there undoubtedly is a time and place for antibiotic prescriptions to be effective, we are hearing more and more about the potential for devastating consequences from the inappropriate use of antibiotics. From antibiotic resistance, to pollution of our livestock, to damaging our gut bacteria, the other side of the antibiotic "miracle" is becoming more apparent day by day.
And aside from these issues, there are direct side effects that have long been a source of concern. For example, one group of antibiotics, called the aminoglycosides, has been associated with damage to the kidneys as well as nerve damage in the brain that can lead to vertigo and hearing loss. Other antibiotics, like the fluoroquinolones can cause memory issues and other brain problems, muscle issues, profound fatigue, and even rupture of tendons.
Researchers have long sought to understand how it is that using a chemical designed to specifically target bacteria could actually bring about such damaging effects on human cells.
Antibiotic Use Linked to Increased Free Radicals
In a new study from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Boston, researchers exposed human cells to a group of commonly used antibiotics including ciprofloxacin, ampicillin, and kanamycin and observed how these drugs affected the mitochondria of these cells. The mitochondria are tiny organelles within our cells that are involved in using fuel to make energy to power the cells.
The scientists revealed that these very commonly used antibiotics caused profound damage to the mitochondria, and this led to a dramatic increase in the production of damaging chemicals called free radicals.
In fact, the increased production of free radicals is one mechanism whereby bacteria are destroyed by antibiotics. But now, this very same mechanism has been shown to be at work in human cells in terms of damaging the mitochondria. And when mitochondria are damaged, it spells disaster for the cells in which they reside.
Relevant Reading: The Endosymbiosis Theory
Back in 1968, Dr. Lynn Margulis proposed that mitochondria were once free-living bacteria that ultimately took up residence in other cells as they do in the cells of our body. Indeed, when you look at the DNA of mitochondria, it almost perfectly emulates bacterial DNA.
So it isn't surprising that the researchers were able to show not only that mitochondria are targeted and damaged by many antibiotics but that cell-damaging free radicals were dramatically increased as well.
The researchers went further in this study and demonstrated that if the cells were pretreated with an antioxidant, in this case, NAC, the degree of mitochondrial damage and free radical production was markedly reduced without a loss in effectiveness of the antibiotic in terms of its ability to kill bacteria.
Antioxidants May Help With Long-Term Treatment
Reports of "fluoroquinolone toxicity" are widespread across the internet. And now, we have a compelling explanation as to the vast array of symptoms associated with this event. In addition, people on long-term antibiotics for treating things like chronic Lyme disease may need to understand that at least some of their symptoms may actually relate to the antibiotic treatment they are receiving.
Here's the take-home message from this important study. While antibiotics are important tools to combat bacterial infections, they may not represent the "free ride" that we've been led to believe. So if you're being treated with these drugs, be aware that this new research clearly indicates that this may be damaging your mitochondria. Further, keep in mind that these forward-thinking researchers clearly showed that administering the health-food-store antioxidant NAC showed profound protective effects when given along with antibiotics.