Everyone knows antibiotics can be lifesavers when doctors prescribe them to help us get well, or to recover smoothly after medical procedures. But what you may not realize is that many agricultural industries also routinely use antibiotics during food production.
So why is this an issue? Isn't it a good thing to kill those nasty germs wherever we can? It’s actually not that simple, because not all bacteria are harmful. And the trouble with broad-spectrum antibiotics is that they don’t discriminate between the good guys and the bad guys—they adopt a “take no prisoners” approach that indiscriminately destroys all the bacteria on the scene.
Antibiotics and Your Gut Microbiome
Your amazing body is made up of far more than just human cells—there's also a community of trillions of bacteria, known collectively as your microbiome, living inside and on you. A large portion of this microbiome resides in your digestive tract, where almost 80% of your immune system is also located.1
Ideally, about 85% of these bacteria are good guys called probiotics, which both work with your cells to enhance your health, and crowd out undesirable bacteria to keep those bad guys from gaining a foothold.
The problem with antibiotics is that just taking a single course may negatively affect your microbiome balance for as much as a year!2 And without enough of those probiotic good guys on board, it’s tough to feel your best.
To further complicate things, within every population of bacteria exists a small percentage of organisms that are naturally resistant to antibiotics. After an antibiotic treatment, only those resistant bacteria survive and with plenty of space to reproduce, they can quickly grow out of control.
What’s more, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics leads to increasing occurrences of antibiotic resistance, which creates new “superbugs” that aren’t easily treatable with available medicines.3
The Issue With Antibiotics in Food Production
Foods treated with antibiotics are problematic in three distinct ways:
• Antibiotic residue: It’s possible to ingest traces of antibiotics in the foods you eat, which can unbalance your microbiome, or in rare cases even produce an immune response.4
• Superbugs in food: Animals regularly receiving antibiotics have reduced numbers of probiotics in their own digestive tracts, paving the way for resistant bacteria to multiply. If you don’t fully cook meat from these animals, you could introduce a resistant pathogen directly into your own body.
• General antibiotic resistance: Even if you’re never directly exposed to treated foods, growing antibiotic resistance from overuse may still affect you as superbugs are introduced into the community and spread from person to person.
Common Foods Treated With Antibiotics
Agricultural antibiotic use is so widespread, you’re probably eating treated foods without even knowing it. Here are eight you need to know about:
1. Poultry: Factory-farmed birds raised in tight spaces receive antibiotics to compensate for unhealthy living conditions.
2. Eggs: Factory-farmed laying hens also live in high-density enclosures and receive regular antibiotic dosing.
3. Meat: To help them reach market size faster and prevent the spread of illness, factory farmed pigs and cows raised in crowded, unhealthy environments regularly get preventative antibiotic treatments. In fact, 80% of antibiotics used in the U.S. are given to livestock!
4. Dairy: Although lactating cows aren’t supposed to receive antibiotics because the residue gets into their milk, FDA testing found a small percentage of farmers ignoring this law. This means there’s a chance your milk, cheese, ice cream, and other dairy favorites are affected.
5. Fish: Farm raised fish suffer crowded conditions, along with an unnatural diet. To compensate, farmers regularly disburse antibiotics directly into fish pens and sometimes even inject these medicines into individual fish.
6. Honey: Beekeepers use antibiotics in their hives, and the residue can get into the honey. Standards for acceptable maximum residue levels vary from country to country, and since honey is often imported, it’s important to pay attention to its origin.6
7. Produce: The manure from animals treated with antibiotics is frequently used for fertilizer, which can result in soil contamination that could spread to fruits and vegetables growing in the treated locations.7
8. Tap water: While water might not technically be a food, it's an incomparable source of nourishment everyone consumes daily. When people take antibiotics, most of the medicine gets absorbed by their bodies, but traces of antibiotics still get flushed into the sewage system. Although wastewater is treated before it’s released into lakes, rivers, and reservoirs, some antibiotic residue remains in public water systems.
Whether we like it or not, paying close attention to the conditions and methods in which our food is grown or raised is a new requirement for optimal health. When it comes to fruits and vegetables, do your best to choose organic, and if you eat meat, dairy, eggs, fish,or shellfish, choose grass fed, free range, or wild caught when possible. Lastly, if you aren’t already, filter your tap water or consider a reverse osmosis system.
Practical Ways to Maintain Gut Balance
While it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid foods and water treated with antibiotics, increasing your awareness will help you make wiser choices and minimize your exposure.
In addition to making more empowered choices around your food sources, you can support your gut health directly by:
• Favoring a diet high in whole and plant-based foods. Many fruits, veggies, and grains—including dandelion greens, asparagus, bananas, and oats—are considered prebiotics, which means they contain fibers that encourage probiotic growth. However, because it’s hard to get enough prebiotic fiber in your daily diet, it’s wise to also incorporate a prebiotic powder supplement to make sure your gut bugs are getting the nourishment they need.
• Trying to avoid foods that destroy friendly flora, like GMOs, processed foods, pesticides, refined sugars, and artificial sweeteners.
• Only taking antibiotics and other medicines when absolutely necessary to get and stay well.
• Steering clear of antimicrobial cleansers, which can deplete your microbiome.
To give your microbiome an extra boost, supplement with a high quality time-released probiotic like PRO-15. Individualized formulas designed specifically for moms, kids, women, mature adults, and pets support glowing gut health for the whole family.
Hopefully, growing public awareness of the consequences of the overuse of antibiotics will encourage more responsible use of these powerful medicines, and over time we’ll begin to see a reduction of antibiotic treatments in food production.
For now though, take comfort in the fact that you have the power as an individual to positively impact gut balance and encourage optimal health for your entire family, no matter what challenges modern living presents.
1. Panda, S., Guarner, F., & Manichanh, C. (2014). Structure and functions of the gut microbiome. Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Disorders Drug Targets, 4, 290–299.
2. Zaura, E., Brandt, B. W., Mattos, M. J., Buijs, M. J., Caspers, M. P., Rashid, M., . . . Crielaard, W. (2015). Same Exposure but Two Radically Different Responses to Antibiotics: Resilience of the Salivary Microbiome versus Long-Term Microbial Shifts in Feces. MBio, 6(6). doi:10.1128/mbio.01693-15
3. Guran, H. S., & Kahya, S. (2015). Species Diversity and Pheno- and Genotypic Antibiotic Resistance Patterns of Staphylococci Isolated from Retail Ground Meats. Journal of Food Science, 6, M1291-8.
4. American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). (2014, September 3). Allergic reaction to antibiotic residues in foods? You may have to watch what your fruits and veggies eat. ScienceDaily.
5. Done, H. Y., & Halden, R. U. (2014). Reconnaissance of 47 antibiotics and associated microbial risks in seafood sold in the United States. Journal of Hazardous Materials, , 10–17.
6. Al-Waili, N., Salom, K., Al-Ghamdi, A., & Ansari, M. J. (2012). Antibiotic, pesticide, and microbial contaminants of honey: human health hazards. TheScientificWorldJournal, 930849.
7. Zhang, H., Zhou, Y., Huang, Y., Wu, L., Liu, X., & Luo, Y. (2016). Residues and risks of veterinary antibiotics in protected vegetable soils following application of different manures. Chemosphere, 229–237.
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.