Common infections and minor injuries, which once killed, are now treatable primarily because of the development of antibiotics.
But what happens when these antibiotics stop working?
The word “superbugs” (not exactly a scientific term) refers to bacteria that have grown resistant to more than one antibiotic.
Antibiotic resistance has developed into a deep concern for public health authorities worldwide, with India being at the epicentre of this global issue: about 95% of adult Indians carry bacteria that have grown resistant to antibiotics.1
Here’s a better understanding of how and why this happens, along with tips on how we can start taking matters into our own hands.
Antibiotic Resistance: An Overall Picture
When an antibiotic has been prescribed, in order to fight a bacterial infection, the more susceptible bacteria are killed, while the others manage to survive.
This is a natural phenomenon, because the DNA of microbes (whether bacteria or even fungi) evolves at a much faster rate than ours; it acquires or develops a gene that makes these microbes immune to that particular antibiotic.
These survivors then replicate, and their progeny make the infection persist. When this happens, the antibiotic needs to be changed.
But constantly looking for and switching to newer drugs doesn’t make sense for multiple reasons: it takes about 10-15 years and millions of dollars to make them and it isn’t a long-term solution, since the cycle just goes on.
What does make sense is building our immunity towards infections through nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.
Here are a few tips on how:
1] Take Probiotics
The bacteria that colonise our gut do some pretty incredible things for our health – especially (but not limited to) playing a large role in our immunity by controlling what passes into our bloodstream from digested foods.
So a great way to maintain a healthy gut, and consequently boost our immunity, is by filling up on foods that contain these bacteria, a.k.a. probiotics, or those than help increase their numbers, a.k.a. prebiotics via foods or supplements.
In fact, it’s particularly recommended that we have probiotics if we’re taking antibiotics, because the drugs don’t always differentiate between the good or the bad bacteria; both are destroyed. It’s important that we bring the good bacteria numbers back up through those foods.
2] Have a Low-sugar Diet
While carbohydrates are an integral part of our diet, their amount in the modern diet is more than ideal, especially in the form of sweets. High levels of sugar in the bloodstream don’t just raise the risk of lifestyle diseases like diabetes – there’s so much more that can go wrong!
More pertinently, high sugar in the bloodstream has been linked to an increased growth of the yeast Candida, which is responsible for most of the fungal infections we see.2, 3
An excess of refined carbohydrates (like wheat flour, white rice, corn flour etc.) has also been implicated in increased acne, which is associated with an excessive growth of bacteria that normally live in our skin.4
It may not be a direct effect, since these foods tend to result in weight gain, which in turn creates hormonal imbalances that also can increase the count of these bacteria. However, researchers do believe that the higher blood sugar levels help the acne-causing bacteria thrive.
Either way, cutting down on excess carbs will undoubtedly benefit your health in more ways than one.
On a side note, sugars may be entering your diet without you even realising it, by way of added sugars in processed food (and, very often, those labelled “low fat”).
3] Natural Remedies
Building up your immunity in general is always helpful, and the good news: it’s in our control since our nutrition largely affects our immunity.
And then there are certain foods that specifically help fight invading microbes. Here are a few:
Garlic has a compound called allicin, which comes into play when fresh garlic cloves are crushed, and is known to have antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral activities.5 This could be why studies show garlic supplementation prevents and reduces the severity of the flu and common cold.6, 7
As you may have heard from your mother or grandmother, turmeric is a great antiseptic. The main active compound in turmeric, known as ‘curcumin’, is what gives this spice its antimicrobial properties. Studies have shown that turmeric is even more effective than an antifungal drug called fluconazole, and also helps fight H.pylori infections, which is the cause of stomach ulcers.8
It appears as though coconuts really do live up to their reputation of being a superfood; its oil is extremely safe to use for cooking, is great for the hair and even fights microbes!
Coconut oil can fight Candida infections, and those by the notorious pathogen Staphylococcus Aureus, which causes everything from skin infections to dangerous diseases (like pneumonia and meningitis).9, 10 And, if you haven’t heard of a fungal infection of the scalp called tinea capitis, that’s because it’s rare in India – purportedly because of how frequently coconut hair oils are used in the country!11
Natural remedies may not be very effective in every case, given that the active compounds may be very little in them. Nevertheless, using them to spice up our food is tasty, safe and healthy, and they may work well alongside conventional treatment – thereby reducing the chances of infections surviving treatment and becoming superbugs.
And, if you do have to use antibiotics, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
1] Use them only if absolutely necessary
Many people pop antibiotics when they have viral infections like the common cold or the flu without realising that antibiotics are not effective against them. It’s best to first speak to your doctor, who may recommend getting a lab test in order to identify whether you have a bacterial or viral infection.
2] Don’t skip doses
An antibiotic’s dosage is based on studies that have calculated how much of the drug is needed in order to fight the infection. Skipping doses just increases the chances of the microbes surviving the treatment and becoming resistant to it.
3] Don’t self-medicate
It is not a good idea to pop antibiotics without them being prescribed by a doctor, since we may not be aware of the risks. Also, if a drug works for a friend, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’ll work the same way for us!
“Prevention is better than cure” is a line said so often that it’s nearly lost its meaning, until one thinks about this: when a person pays attention to their nutrition and boosts their immunity, that’s definitely one less person contributing to the growth of superbugs.
Let’s not forget the difference this makes to the rest of the world, either.
1. Kumar SG, et al. Journal of Natural Science, Biology, and Medicine 2013, 4(2): 286-291.
2. Sobel JD. Lancet 2007, 369(9577): 1961-1971.
3. Cormane RH, Goslings WR. Sabouraudia 1963, 3(1): 52-63.
4. Mahmood SN, Bowe WP. J Drugs Dermatol 2014, 13(4): 428-435.
5. Mikaili P, et al. Iranian Journal of Basic Medical Sciences 2013, 16(10): 1031-1048.
6. Nantz MP, et al. Clin Nutr 2012, 31(3): 337-344.
7. Josling P. Adv Ther 2001, 18(4): 189-193.
8. Martins CV, et al. J Antimicrob Chemother 2009, 63(2): 337-339.
9. Ogbolu DO, et al. J Med Food 2007, 10(2): 384-387.
10. Ruzin A, Novick RP. J Bacteriol 2000, 182(9): 2668-2671.
11. Garg AP, Muller J. Mycoses 1992, 35(11-12): 363-369.