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Bacteria: Friend or Foe?

By Clark Zimmerman, LAc.

Bacteria gets a bad rap. After all, they are responsible for causing so many frightening and terrible situations. They cause many cases of bronchitis or pneumonia which can lead to miserable days spent on the couch, hospitalization, or even death. They also cause tuberculosis which kills millions of people each year. Bacteria can create the agony of food poisoning, and of coarse, there is the rare but sensationalized flesh eating bacteria that seems to be straight out of a horror movie. While bacteria can cause a wide variety of problems, they also provide many benefits to humans and other living things. Bacteria are believed to be the oldest forms of life on the planet. Science suggests that long before there were plants and animals, bacteria were thriving and evolving. They play important roles in digestion, fermentation, and in the the process of decay. Without bacteria, life on our planet would not exist.

In 1945 penicillin became the first commercially available antibiotic. It dramatically changed the way bacterial infections were treated. Simple infections that previously had been extremely problematic or even fatal, now were being treated with great ease. There were some that believed we would eventually eradicate bacterial infections once and for all. After penicillin was discovered, many other antibiotics followed. Though they have succeeded in greatly reducing the complications of bacterial infections, they have not been the panacea that some expected they would be. In fact, wide spread antibiotic use in medicine and agriculture has begun to create strains of bacteria that are resistant to most antibiotics. These so called “superbugs” are becoming more of concern, as some experts predict, that we will soon create a situation where many widely used antibiotics will be ineffective. To further complicate the problem, very few new antibiotics are being developed because they are not as profitable as pharmaceuticals such as statins which people take daily for life.

The misuse and overuse of antibiotics in medicine is part of the problem. Doctors crunched for time and pressed by their patients for something to treat their illness often prescribe antibiotics without doing due diligence. Sometimes antibiotics are given to patients for viral infections which do not respond to treatment with antibiotics. Other times health practitioners provide a specific antibiotic without testing to see the specific bacteria involved in an infection, and using an inappropriate antibiotic for that particular infection. Patients can also contribute to the problem by pressing their doctors or nurses for antibiotics even when they are not appropriate. Patients often fail to take their antibiotics as directed, often not completing a course as directed. In developing countries, antibiotics are available without a prescription so people often take them without any need for them or guidance for their proper use.

Another contributing factor in antibiotic resistance is the overuse of antibiotics in the commercial livestock industry. Commercial livestock are kept in small quarters and fed food that is meant to fatten them up, rather than keep them healthy. This results in a higher rate of illness and infection in the livestock. To combat this, most commercial farmers feed their animals antibiotics as part of their diet to “prevent” bacterial infections in their animals, and thus keep their animals from becoming sick or dying prematurely.

A final contributing factor in the increase in antibiotic resistance is the increased usage of antibacterial soaps. When we had our septic tank serviced, the technician said it was evident that we didn’t use antibiotic soap in our home. He pointed to the layer of pink bacterial slime that lined the tank and explained that antibiotic soaps kill that bacteria, thus making the septic tank process much less efficient and contributing to the development of bacterial superbugs. The increase in usage of antibacterial soaps is both unnecessary and a contributing factor in the creation of antibiotic resistant superbugs.

So what are we to do? Antibiotics are becoming less effective because they are being overused. With each use of antibiotics, we run the risk of creating more drug resistant strains of bacteria. So an obvious strategy is to lessen the need and usage of antibiotics. This can be achieved by only using antibiotics when they are necessary. People often ask their doctor for antibiotics at the first sign of a cold or flu, however, since colds and flus are viruses, antibiotics are ineffective in their treatment. A better strategy is to work on strengthening the immune system so it is more able to deal with cold and flu viruses: avoiding tobacco and excessive amounts of stress, getting regular exercise and sleep, eating a whole foods based diet that includes lots of fruits and vegetables, and moderation in the consumption of alcohol, sugar, simple carbohydrates and mucous producing dairy foods. You may also boost immunity with herbs, superfoods, vitamins, massage and acupuncture. Probiotic foods or supplements can also boost immune function and help the body fend off competition from harmful bacteria. If antibiotics are necessary than it is important to follow the medications’ instructions and take the full coarse of medication, even if you are feeling better.

To combat the growing problem of antibiotic use in the meat and dairy industry, you can choose to buy organic options that avoid antibiotic and hormone use in their livestock. It costs more but it better for your health and for the health of the planet.

Finally, rather than using antibiotic soaps choose a good old fashion bar of soap or soft soap and wash an area with warm water for at least 15 seconds. This is very successful at removing bacteria and viruses that may be hitching a ride.

Our society has become a little obsessed with getting rid of “germs.” While we want to avoid the potential negative impact of bacteria, we must be careful not to create a bigger problem in the process. With a little effort and common sense, we can hopefully find a way to successfully coexist with the oldest life form on earth.

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