If I say the word “antibiotic resistance bacteria” you will probably wrinkle your face in disgust and run for the next hand sanitizer. If you ever watched the TV show “24” you know Jack Bauer. He is a fighter who is always adapting his strategy to new threats. Both, Jack and antibiotic resistance bacteria have a destructive reputation. They leave behind a trail of ashes and dust. At least that’s what we think.
If you ever watch another TV series “The Walking Dead” you know what’s ahead of us. Resistant bacteria and viruses will destroy humans and it will come down to Darwin’s theory – The Survival of the Fittest. Two friends of mine were called into the test lab just recently. On two different occasions they were confined to a hospital bed. A nasty bug resistant to oral antibiotics forced them into an involuntary weight loss program, since they brought up everything they ate and drank. Remember drinking and eating (and breathing) is vital for survival. The resistant bacteria also hosted both sweat lodge and freezer parties in their bodies. So how come such tiny creatures can put us in such misery?
Let’s understand how bacteria tick and what creates antibiotic resistance
The first thing you have to know about bacteria is that they are very, very old. In fact bacteria are the oldest living organisms on mother earth. They’ve been around for billion of years (humans and Jack Bauer not so much). However, with no disrespect bacteria are very, very simple organisms at the same time. One bacterium consists of only one cell. The cell is filled with liquid and in the liquid floats one piece of DNA with very few genes. Some bacteria are equipped with a kind of a tail so they can move forward. Jack Bauer runs, uses the subway or a helicopter to get to places.
Not only are bacteria very old and simple but like an army there are a lot of them. This might be too much information for you but about 10 trillion of these little critters live in you or on you right now. For a comparison, a human body like Jack Bauer’s is made up of atrillion of human cells. In other words you and I have 10 times more bacteria cells than human cells. I know, hey? Basically we are more bacteria then we are actually human!
No matter how overpopulated that might sound to you, bacteria are essential to health and happiness. Especially the 500 or so species that call your gastrointestinal tract their home and can make you flourish. Good bacteria do all kind of vital things that keep us alive.
- They digest your food.
- They make vitamins.
- They educate your immune system to keep the bad relatives out.
Antibiotics mean to bacteria what Jack Bauer means to terrorists
The bad bacteria are not supposed to be in or on you at any time. But once they find a way in, they can replicate very fast (Jack Bauer does not have any clones). One bacterium can become two within 20 minutes. Do the math yourself but let me assure you if your immune system is weak, a bacterial army can take over your body within a very short period of time. The men flu is not a hoax, ladies. They are really sick!
Fortunately a wonder weapon with the name antibiotic was invented. Antibiotics mean to bacteria what Jack Bauer means to terrorists. War! Antibiotics act like a nuclear bomb and tear bacteria in parts by blowing up the bacterial membrane. Or they work like a birth control pill and interfere with the reproduction process. However, from a bacterial perspective neither solution is nice and threatens the survival of all bacteria. And you know if there is something life threatening to Jack Bauer he finds a way out of it. It’s natural. It goes for bacteria as well. They find a way to adapt like they have in the past billion of years. After all, antibiotics might not have been the worst thing that has happened to them (thinking of ice age, dinosaur, …).
Bacteria live and learn like they did in the last billion of years
And just like Jack Bauer, if you’ve walked into a trap once you better remember not to walk into the same trap again. If you walked in the rain and got wet you better remember to take an umbrella the next time it rains. Just because bacteria are simple and microscopic tiny super small it doesn’t mean, that they do not apply the same rules. It’s trial and error. You live and learn (from others).
And that is what bacteria do as well. They talk to each other. And if one guy has survived an earlier antibiotic attack it might have developed a strategy to survive (which would be mutation or “engineering” and sharing of a protective gene). It then lends the protective gene to its fellow bacteria in need. And this is why your doctor always wants you to complete the full course of antibiotics even if you feel better after two days. Doctors want to make sure that there are no survivors that can pass the secret on to new bacteria.
The downside for you in regards to antibiotics is:
1. The more often you expose your body to antibiotics the more likely it is that bacteria adapt to the antibiotic. So you start with antibiotic A. Your bacteria adapt to antibiotic A. Next time you take antibiotic B (because A didn’t work for you anymore). Then your bacteria adapt to antibiotic B. Then you take antibiotic C and so on until you’ve reached a point where you’ve tried all antibiotics available. To make that very clear. The amount of antibiotics you have taken in the past may have caused antibiotic resistance bacteria in you.
2. According to an article in the NY Times “no new class of antibiotics has been discovered since 1987, largely because the financial returns for finding new classes of antibiotics are too low.” Because antibiotics are only taken for a short period of time drug companies rather concentrate on medication for more lucrative drugs for diseases like cancer or that are taken for a longer period of time. Shocking isn’t it?
3. Antibiotics are not very specific. They kill whatever bacteria come into their path. Unfortunately that also means the death penalty for your good bacteria. Those that are vital for your immune system and your health and happiness.
4. And just when you thought you are safe because you don’t take antibiotics, I would like to bring to your attention that you are very likely to get your share of antibiotics from the milk and meat you eat. Antibiotics are used to treat livestock in Canada, USA and Germany. So think twice whenever cheap meat at the supermarket excites you or the A&W commercials lure you in with burgers made from beef that was not exposed to hormones and steroids. They don’t mention antibiotics.
Read here the report released on April 2014 from the WHO in regards to the world wide crisis of antimicrobial resistance.
More to come:
- What you can do to not become a host of antibiotic resistant bacteria.
- The importance of good bacteria for health.
- How bad gut bacteria determine what foods you crave and what illnesses you have.