Early Antibiotic Use Leads to Future Health Problems

Baby weighing
Early antibiotic use disturbs immune system development. Picture by Andreas Bohnenstengel
Today on BBS, we take a break from simple research updates to look at an interesting commentary published in Nature Immunology. Researchers admit to the dangers of antibiotics in children.

I can honestly say that I consciously avoid mentioning my interest of probiotics and intestinal flora to my doctor. It’s my experience that many health providers, and even some researchers, still consider research about probiotics and intestinal bacteria as quackery. I suspect that this is also the experience for many of my readers as well. While personal experiences may sometimes tempt me to stereotype the medical community, I take heart that today’s top scientists are taking these ideas seriously. This is abundantly clear in a recent commentary by Sebastian Zeissig of the University Medical Center Schleswig-Holstein in Germany and Richard S. Blumberg of Harvard Medical School in the United States, which was published in Nature Immunology.

The authors boldly assert that early childhood antibiotic use can lead to later health problems. Understandably, this idea may actually seem strange or opposite to commonsense thinking for those ignorant of the latest research, which includes many health providers. However, the more one knows about the interactions between the body and bacteria, the more logical it becomes.

Recent research in intestinal bacteria in both humans and animals support their ideas. Microbial colonization in the intestines occurs during the first three years of a child’s life, and, during this period, intestinal bacteria provide many signals for the developing the immune system. Studies on young animals show that the loss of commensals during this crucial timeframe causes physical changes in lymphatic structures of the gut and altered immune cell development and function.

Researchers now know that antibiotics lead to long lasting changes in bacterial populations. In some ways, antibiotic use can be compared to detonating a nuclear bomb in a forest. It wouldn’t be surprising when only cockroaches and pigeons survive, and whole populations of essential, but less hardy, species are eliminated. After factoring in the necessity of intestinal bacteria for immune development, it’s only a miniscule leap of understanding to properly appreciate the potential risks of antibiotics on an infant’s future health.

They suggest that with each antibiotic exposure the risk of later disease increases. Potential diseases include inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, atopic dermatitis, and multiple sclerosis, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in today’s society. They also cautiously suggested that susceptibility to cancer and autism could also be affected.

When looking towards the future, the authors note, “More attention needs to be paid to monitoring the structure and function of the microbial community before and after the administration of antibiotics.” They suggest unique precautionary measures to prevent problems when antibiotics cannot be avoided, like saving fecal materials from patients to use as bacterial resupplies after treatment. For those that have already been treated as infants, they call for more research aimed at finding ways to reprogram immune system.

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