If you cut yourself and it becomes infected, no worries, there are drugs for that, right? If you get a chest infection, no worries, there are drugs for that too, right? Hmmm. It might be time to re-think our mindset around infections and our ability to treat them.
Bugs are getting smarter, and the treatments don’t always work anymore. You will have heard of the ‘superbugs’ that resist all the usual antimicrobial treatments. Increasingly there are strains of bacteria that can withstand even the ‘big guns’ antibiotics.
Antibiotic resistance is indeed a very real threat to health. Today. Increasingly so. In 2016, The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance forecasted that by 2050, Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) will be the leading cause of death worldwide, beating even cancer. We have been lulled into a false sense of security, perhaps wrongly thinking that modern science and medicine has all the answers and that the age of death by infection is behind us.
This article is not about doom and gloom, it’s about possibilities and solutions, but first it is important to realise that this is indeed a very serious and real situation.
Some Key Reasons for AMR: Contributing Factors
- Antibiotic use is on the increase in the developed and developing world. In New Zealand, there was a 50% increase in antibiotic prescriptions between 2006 and 2012. No doubt it has continued to increase. Shorter GP consultations and patient expectations may drive over-prescriptions.
- More antibiotics = more exposure, and more chances for bacteria to learn how to not be killed by them. The more we use antibiotics, the more resistant the bugs are. The bacteria have been around way longer than us, and have adapted for survival! They can quickly learn how to survive each antibiotic, and don’t even have to be directly exposed to it to become resistant. The information (and resistant ‘superpower’) can be passed on, like a gene for blonde hair. Only bacteria replicate very very quickly, so word gets around really really fast, just like good gossip!
- Our appetite for meat. The rise of the middle class leads worldwide to more meat consumption, and more meat production. This in itself increases antibiotic use as increasingly crowded facilities call for more antibiotic use in chickens, pigs and cattle to reduce the incidence of infection.
- Even vegetarians need to look at their contribution to the problem though! The use of pesticides and herbicides on crops is increasing the drug resistance of some strains of soil bacteria.
- Soils that are polluted with petrochemicals are also more likely to contain resistant strains of bacteria. So pollution and toxicity and chemical use in general is one of the contributing factors.
- There have been no new antibiotics since the 90’s. The heyday of discovery was the 40s and 50s. We simply haven’t found anything new! So the bacteria get used to dealing with same old medications, and learn how to beat them.
What we can do!
All is not lost! There is so very much we can do to help ourselves and help the situation on a larger scale too.
- Choose and support organic farming practices, and choose meat (especially chicken and pork) that is organic or at least antibiotic-free. Eating less meat is also a good option.
- If you are offered or prescribed antibiotics, have a thorough discussion with your GP or doctor about whether this is the best and treatment. Is it really necessary? Are there alternatives? Sometimes it genuinely will be the best or only treatment available, but it is still worth having the discussion.
- Keep in mind that the growth of antibiotic resistance does not mean that we need to be more mindful about hygiene or clean more – this may in fact make the problem worse. The overuse of antibacterial cleaning agents in homes and commercial/industrial workplaces creates further exposure of bacteria to antibiotic agents, driving further possibilities of antibiotic resistance.
- Support your innate immunity with good diet and nutrition, addressing nutrient deficiencies, healthy exercise and movement, community, connection and laughter.
- Seek appropriate natural treatments for infection; visiting a qualified naturopath/medical herbalist for effective targeted natural medicines. Ask any natural health practitioner and they will have had many a client who used to need antibiotics every winter for their chest and no longer does, or a child with recurrent ear infections who is now clear and thriving. Natural remedies, properly prescribed, can be a very effective very real alternative for many infections. This is something increasingly supported not only by clinical experience and traditional use, but by good quality research.
- Address any underlying issues contributing to recurrence of infection (food sensitivities, chronic stress, poor sleep, etc)
Added to this, there is still so much of the plant world still being investigated and studied, and there is every chance that it will turn up new antibiotic treatments, strategies and possibilities. One of the very promising aspects of botanical medicine is that compared with drugs, plant extracts are complex and have more than one active ‘chemical’ or way of acting against bacteria, making it potentially harder for the bacteria to develop resistance. Many botanical extracts have proven antibacterial activity in their own right, and increasingly research is showing that sometimes co-prescribing plant medicines alongside antibiotics can reduce resistance, and therefore improve treatment outcomes. Remember that penicillin, our first antibiotic, came from mould. New Zealand fungi are currently under the microscope at Auckland University. You can even adopt one to help the process along! Check out the New Medicines to Kill Superbugs Fund: https://www.giving.auckland.ac.nz/en/FundPages/new-medicines-to-kill-superbugs-fund.html
Immune function is something to be nurtured, and learning how to do this is so important for our individual health and also our collective health. Look for the right treatments- antibiotics will always have their place but often alternatives can be utilised. And maybe think about sponsoring a mushroom!