by Martin J Blaser, MD
Henry Holt and Company, LLC
“Antibiotic winter” is ominously approaching. When it arrives we will return to the problems faced in the days when there were no antibiotics—diseases that are now considered minor or easily curable will again turn deadly. This impending health apocalypse is largely due to overuse of antibiotics. The overuse comes not only from directly taking antibiotics but from animal use, which is pervasive. Factory farms or CAFOs can’t exist without using them. Both Big Ag and Big Pharma go to great effort to hide just how much they use antibiotics because it is apparently none of our business what they are feeding us. Because of this widespread use, not only is factory food affected, but the water supply is increasingly contaminated as well.
Dr. Blaser covers the worst-case scenarios we may be facing in the near future but here is where it gets really interesting. He and his colleagues have done some ground-breaking research into the connection between antibiotics and many modern ailments which have exploded in the last few decades. His first big clues came as a result of his study of H. pylori, which is commonly blamed for causing ulcers. Many have heard the story of Dr. Barry Marshall swallowing a dose of H. pylori to prove it caused ulcers. What you may not have heard is that his ulcer cleared before he took any antibiotics. In other words, he proved nothing. Dr. Blaser went on to learn that a large number of ulcer-free people have H. pylori, especially in undeveloped countries or poor areas of developed countries. This led the good doctor to ask whether killing off H. pylori might do more harm than good.
More research revealed a correlation between H. pylori and asthma. After seeing this and other suggestive correlations, Blaser and his colleagues started doing more detailed lab research to determine whether there was a clear cause and effect and not just a coincidental correlation. This is where things got even more interesting.
His studies on mice showed that even brief exposure to antibiotics permanently changed the makeup of the gut flora. This in turn led to a significant increase in obesity in the mice, especially when they reached middle-age. When bacteria from the fat mice were transferred to the skinny mice, they became fat too, which confirms the fact that gut flora is the key and not some other unknown thing affected by antibiotics. This was all very convincing if you are a mouse, but what about humans?
A European survey of gut biodiversity found that the people studied fell into two major groups. One had about eight hundred thousand different microbes, the other four hundred thousand. The ones with four hundred thousand tended to be obese. A British longitudinal study found the same thing in a study of over fourteen thousand participants. The bottom line is the human studies were coming out the same as the rodent studies. A remote village in the Orinoco jungle of Venezuela was discovered in 2008. The people there had no contact with the outside world before that time. Their gut flora was studied and proved to be far more diverse than the typical American’s.
This could answer some very common questions. Why can Billy Beanpole eat anything and not gain an ounce while Willie Wideload gains five pounds instantly if he even smells food? Did Willie have antibiotics and Billy not? Dr. Blaser has also noted correlations between antibiotics and asthma, allergies, diabetes and celiac disease. There are other things that can affect gut flora. Many other drugs very likely have the same effect. There is also a correspondence between C-section births and these modern epidemics. Babies have no gut flora until they are born. When delivered by C-section, they don’t acquire the flora from the birth canal, which makes a big difference. Oh, and by the way, antibiotics are always used in C-sections. There are a lot of people out there at this point who are microbially deficient. The next generation they produce will be just as bad or worse. It seems to me we could be seeing just the leading edge of a huge tsunami.
Solutions are briefly discussed at the end. Probiotics are mentioned but the author is skeptical of most of what is currently on the market because there hasn’t been a lot of scientific research and there is a lot of snake oil out there. Being a more or less conventional MD, he is biased towards focusing on better antibiotics. My personal opinion is that bug killers (no matter how powerful) will never kill all the bugs and those that survive will repopulate, rendering the new bug killers just another toxic chemical in the environment. Collateral damage would be almost impossible to avoid and that complicates things even more. I don’t see us ever winning that war. Because we are still in our scientific infancy on this subject there is also the continuing likelihood of attacking innocent bystanders like H. pylori and making things worse. I think the less we go around killing things, the better. I agree more research is needed on probiotics but I think that should be the preferred approach. Be that as it may, this book has a lot of good information that goes along well with the research of others like Dr. Campbell-McBride. The thumb is UP.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly journal of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Fall 2014