The doomsday predictions about antibiotic resistant superbugs sound like the plot of a science fiction movie. The bacteria are coming! Who will save us when we don’t have any options left?
Conventional medicine has allowed us to put much of the onus of taking care of ourselves on someone or something else. Why take care of yourself and build your immune system naturally (it’s hard work!) when an antibiotic can knock an infection out with a snap of the fingers? The same principle has been applied to our food supply. Rather than raise animals in humane environments on a diet designed to keep them healthy (also hard work), our food system chooses the easy route and pumps cows, pigs, and sheep full of unnecessary antibiotics.
Now a Nevada woman has died. Her death from an antibiotic-resistant superbug, the bacteria New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase (NDM), is not notable on the surface. As of 2014, an estimated 23,000 people in the U.S. have died from bacteria like these, according to the CDC. The patient in question was a lady of 70, who had been in and out of hospitals for a two-year period in India with the last stay being in summer 2016. Not an unusual story, in and of itself. But here’s the worrying part. The CDC has determined that the NDM that the woman was infected with was untreatable by all available antimicrobial drugs in the U.S.
The Last Resort…Has Failed
There are a few antimicrobial drugs of last resort. One of them is colistin, a powerful antimicrobial not regularly used due to its damaging effect on the kidneys. While select bacteria that contain the mcr-1 (mechanism of colistin resistance 1) gene are immune to another drug, colistin functioned as a cleaner of sorts for anything else. That worked because the bacteria were not exchanging the gene. That is no longer the case. Bacteria are now exchanging the mcr-1 gene, and cases, where colistin is ineffective, began showing up in the U.S. in summer 2016. If that wasn’t enough to cause a deep and profound uneasiness, the NDM bacteria resistant to all available antibiotics didn’t even have the mcr-1 gene. This bacteria didn’t even need the gene we’ve identified as the one resistant to powerful antibiotics.
The Tipping Point
Is this the point where we find that we can’t go back? Is worldwide health going to spiral out of control, chased by ever stronger and more evolved bacteria? Indigenous tribes of foragers give us a glance at what the first line of defense, our intestinal flora, used to be. In a comparison of the microbiome of a small group of Italians and a group of Hadza foragers from Tanzania, the Hadza’s lack of exposure to antibiotics and highly seasonal, largely plant-based, diet resulted in a much greater and more diverse microbiome. Maybe they wouldn’t be able to fend off one of the new superbugs, but they likely would not have developed them in the first place. How do we get those microbes back? Can we get those microbes back? No one seems to have a good answer for that, but it’s clear that antibiotic resistant bacteria keep putting their star players in the game while the Western diet keeps yanking any and everybody out.
Eat Your Veggies
There is magic in a well maintained digestive system. Get your fiber may be a funny old people joke…until you haven’t pooped in a few days. A diet lacking in raw, organic plant matter is never going to provide the tools needed to move things through the digestive system, which gives harmful bacteria a greater chance to develop and take over. The Western diet in its current form provides them with the food they need to thrive. If the digestive system is compromised, bacteria takes advantage of that. In that system, antibiotics will be the answer at some point, making it that much harder to cultivate the natural defenses the immune system needs.
Antibiotic-resistant bugs are not only the health industry’s fault. Factory farms cannot be assigned all of the blame either. The decline of our natural bacteria and immunities has created the perfect hosts for the bacteria strong and adaptable enough to survive modern medicine and an increasingly unhealthy way of eating.
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- Antibiotic Side Effects Are Contagious – C. Diff Infections Are On the Rise
- US woman killed by superbug resistant to every available antibiotic – The Telegraph
- Notes from the Field: Pan-Resistant New Delhi Metallo-Beta-Lactamase-Producing Klebsiella pneumoniae — Washoe County, Nevada, 2016 – CDC.gov
- Gut microbiome of the Hadza hunter-gatherers – nature.com
- The Coming Cost of Superbugs: 10 Million Deaths Per Year – WIRED