Is Antibiotic Overuse a Childhood Obesity Villain?

Glassware and things

In the realm of the childhood obesity theory, this story is destined to be seen by some as cutting-edge, and by others as coming from the left field. It’s from Maryn McKenna, who has written and published extensively about health issues.

Guess what, humans? It seems as if our habit of messing around with our internal flora has come back to kick us. The population of microbes that colonizes each of us is called the personal microbiome. They live in us, but it’s their world. If our tenants, the gut bacteria, are unhappy, they can do bad things — like make us fat.

What makes them unhappy? Being attacked by antibiotics. Every time we take antibiotics to kill bad microorganisms, a lot of the good ones die too, the ones we need if we are to, for instance, process our nutrients correctly.

Up until now, it’s been assumed that the good ones grow back, and maybe that process can even be helped along by eating yogurt or taking probiotic pills. Only now, it looks like that might not be the case. After a course of antibiotics, our friends the gut bacteria might never return to their former strength.

The whistleblower is Martin Blaser of the Langone Medical Center in New York, whose editorial in Nature (August 2011) sparked McKenna’s curiosity and caused her to quote his outline of the problem:

Early evidence from my lab and others hints that, sometimes, our friendly flora never fully recover. These long-term changes to the beneficial bacteria within people’s bodies may even increase our susceptibility to infections and disease. Overuse of antibiotics could be fuelling the dramatic increase in conditions such as obesity, type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, allergies and asthma, which have more than doubled in many populations.

One particular organism, H. pylori, influences the production of ghrelin and leptin, and those hormones both have a lot to do with obesity. Blaser and others want to explore the connection.

Illustrating one aspect of the connection, here is a paragraph from Christine M. Burt Solorzano and Christopher R. McCartney of the University of Virginia Health System, who are particularly concerned with how childhood obesity affects pubertal timing:

Leptin concentrations are directly correlated with fat mass, and leptin serves as a signal to the hypothalamus regarding energy stores in the adipose tissue compartment. Physiological effects of leptin include appetite reduction… Other factors relevant to obesity may contribute to the metabolic regulation of reproductive function, although their potential roles in pubertal maturation remain uncertain. For example, the orexigenic hormone ghrelin can influence the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis…

When kids take antibiotics for colds and ear infections, it wipes out their H. pylori. The damage gets even worse, because when a girl grows up with an insufficient assortment of beneficial bacteria, she can’t pass them along to her own children. These children are born with a disadvantage, not fully equipped to cope with life.

Heidi Stevenson, who has also written extensively on health issues for many publications, is also concerned about the link to obesity as well as other problems, and also quotes Martin Blaser:

We’ve seen evidence that suggests antibiotics may permanently change the beneficial bacteria that we’re carrying.

Stevenson comments,

Notice that term, permanent. Without considering the potential risks in the casual use of antibiotics, it now looks like conventional medicine is creating several pandemics of some of the worst chronic diseases known… Two of the most critical functions in health are drastically compromised in enormous numbers of today’s children. The ability to metabolize food and the ability to breathe are being stolen from this generation.

There seems to be a growing awareness that antibiotics are way overprescribed. At the same time, there are pressures on doctors to do this overprescribing. At any rate, researchers find it worth looking into the possibility that antibiotics could be a childhood obesity villain.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Antibiotics: Killing Off Beneficial Bacteria … for Good?,” Wired, 08/26/11
Source: “Obesity and the pubertal transition in girls and boys,”, 09/10
Source: “Gut Biota Never Recover from Antibiotic Use: Loss Extends to Future Generations,” Gaia Health, 08/29/11
Image by quatar (nicola), used under its Creative Commons license.


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