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Used to prevent and treat bacterial infections in people and animals, the high availability and misuse of antibiotics has caused some bacteria to become resistant to the very medicines aimed to kill or prevent them. This occurs due to a quickening up of the evolutionary process meaning resistant bacteria survive and pass on their antibiotic bypassing abilities.
Importantly, it’s the microorganisms that become resistant to an antibiotic and not the person or animal it lives in. Unlike other medicines, the more antibiotics are used the less effective they become.
The problem is worldwide. In the US, some two million people become infected with strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria and in the European Union it’s estimated to cost healthcare providers around €1.5 billion a year.
Firstly, not all bacteria is harmful. Some bacteria live in the body and form mutually beneficial relationships. In fact, good bacteria, commonly known as probiotics, play a key role in helping the body to function effectively.
There can be several hundred species of ‘good’ bacteria in a human digestive system totalling up to 100 trillion organisms. As well as keeping ‘bad’ bacteria numbers low, good bacteria aids digestion, breaks down complex foods, maintains gut health, prevent infections and inflammation, and support overall immune health.
However, research has found that antibiotics can have the opposite effect from their intended outcome. Studies have shown that certain antibiotics can unbalance and disrupt the gut ecosystem1 and kill the good bacteria. This impacts two-fold by leaving an individual more prone to future infections or it can actually worsen a current infection.2
Continued misuse of antibiotics furthers the opportunity of bacteria to develop resistance to treatments and poses the threat of much harder to treat infections in the future.
A healthy gut ecosystem of good bacteria, essential for many systems of the body, is heavily influenced by the food a person eats.
A recent study3 found diet to have a direct impact on both the richness and diversity of antibiotic resistant genes. The study concluded that dietary intervention could be used as a useful tool in the fight against the threat of antibiotic resistance.
Foods rich in probiotics may also play an important role. Such good bacteria are found in a range of foods such as yoghurts, aged cheeses and miso, but other foods are now being supplemented with live probiotics for added health benefits.
Other foods, such as bananas, garlic and apple cider vinegar, have been categorised as ‘prebiotics’4 as they provide the dietary fibre necessary to feed the good bacteria.
Although the research into the benefits and risks of probiotics is still in its early stages, a recent systematic review found that children who consumed a daily probiotic supplement were 29% less likely to be prescribed antibiotics in the future.
If confirmed by further studies, probiotics and changes to a person’s diet could play a significant role in reducing the use of antibiotics and therefore antibiotic resistance.
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