By now, you probably already know how I feel about antibiotics—they’re important medications that should be used only when absolutely necessary.
That’s because our bodies are meant to fight disease. And rushing to an antibiotic at the first hint of anything is quite detrimental.
But it’s an all-too-common trend. One that has come at a very high price—through fueling antibiotic-resistant infections, and creating additional health problems in the process.
I’ve always warned about these potential dangers. And now, a recent study shines a light on just how dangerous the threat truly is…
Antibiotics raise colon cancer risk
Over the last two decades, rates of early onset colorectal cancer have increased by about three percent a year. That’s a pretty rapid rise, which is why guidelines now recommend colon cancer screening start at the age of 45.
But what’s behind this trend? Well, as it turns out, antibiotic exposure might be a major factor.
In fact, the results of this latest study show that a history of antibiotic use raises colon cancer risk by nearly 50 percent among people younger than 50. (That’s compared to a nine percent increase among patients over 50.)
Researchers looked at primary care records of patients diagnosed with colon cancer in Scotland between 1999 and 2011. Then, they split the patients into two groups—those diagnosed before 50, and those diagnosed after 50—and matched them with healthy controls.
They also looked at antibiotic use history—calculating total antibiotic exposure (ranging from no history of use, to regimens exceeding 60 days).
In the end, researchers found that nearly half the patients had been prescribed antibiotics. And this use dramatically increased risk of colon cancer—especially among patients younger than 50.
But here’s the real scary part: Among the younger patients, the highest risk was for patients with a total exposure of just one to 15 days of antibiotics. Risk was still 46 percent higher for longer regimens, but interestingly, there was no association with regimens beyond 60 days.
(I must admit that these latter findings puzzle me. But I’m still pleased to see antibiotics in the hot seat for a change.)
Protect yourself with probiotics
These findings are particularly important because younger people with colon cancer tend to have a worse prognosis—due to late diagnosis.
Simply put: Doctors aren’t trained to look for this disease in younger people. So if a 35-year-old comes into the office complaining of abdominal discomfort, they probably won’t be sent for a colonoscopy.
(Personally, I will send younger patients for screening if I’ve tried other approaches and they haven’t gotten better quickly. And now with the advent of at-home tests like Cologuard, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.)
Now, as for why colon cancer is becoming more common in this younger population, there’s no question that some of the increase has to be attributable to junk food, sugary beverages, and the overwhelming rise in obesity. In addition to unnecessary antibiotic use—particularly in children and young adults.
All of this directly impacts your gastrointestinal (GI) microbiome—the environment in which your gut bacteria thrive. Indeed, your GI microbiome serves as the foundation for good health. And a compromised microbiome leads to a whole host of chronic diseases, not “just” colon cancer.
Previous studies on older patients drive this point home, showing that antibiotics alter microbiome diversity—which ultimately influences colorectal cancer risk.
And as this new study reveals, even a single course of antibiotics can wreak havoc on the microbiome. Especially since most people don’t take probiotics to help get their gut back in shape afterward. So, here’s my advice to you…
Never take an antibiotic unless absolutely necessary to fight off a life-threatening disease. Otherwise, the best course of action is nourishing your own immune system to help fight disease, and saying no to unnecessary prescriptions.
And remember, the simplest way to make sure your microbial population is thriving (and healthy) is by taking a high-quality probiotic daily. Look for one with multiple live strains of good (probiotic) bacteria—along with prebiotics and postbiotics.
“Antibiotic Linked to Rise in Early-Onset Colon Cancer?” Medscape Medical News, 07/05/2021. (medscape.com/viewarticle/954225)