The deadly antibiotic risk that stays hidden for decades

We’ve all heard the old adage: You have to take the good with the bad. And as much as I wish it weren’t true, sometimes that’s the case even in medicine.

Sometimes, in order to treat one problem, you need to do something that causes harm in other ways. Now, those cases should be few and far between. But when you need life-saving medication, for instance, you need to be willing to take the risk of side effects. Even if they’re pretty serious.

But with other medications, say ones for a headache, or toenail fungus, serious risks just don’t measure up against the benefits the drugs provide.

The fact is, though, that most drugs come with inherent side effects. Not just the life-saving ones. Let’s not forget that acetaminophen is the leading cause of liver failure in the United States. And yet people pop Tylenol like candy, not thinking about the potential repercussions.

Or statins. Which may very well lower cholesterol, but at an unbelievable cost. They’ve been linked to everything from weight gain and liver damage to memory loss and diabetes.

I could name hundreds of other cases like this. Cases of drugs whose side effects and risks far outweigh their potential benefit.

But today I’m taking aim at just one of those, thanks to a new study.

Today’s topic? Antibiotics.

We already know that antibiotics come with a litany of unpleasant effects — wreaking havoc on the gut, for one. But this study I want to tell you about points out another risk that is news to me.

According to a new study, taking antibiotics in early or midlife can up your risk for colorectal adenoma after age 60. And colorectal adenoma is the precursor in the majority of colorectal cancer diagnoses.

In other words, when antibiotics wreak havoc on the gut, it’s not just for the week or 10 days you’re taking them. Decades later, you’re still suffering the effects. But instead of just dealing with relatively minor side effects like diarrhea or stomach cramps, you’re at increased risk for colorectal cancer. The reason may be that antibiotics interfere with the gut microbiome’s ability to protect against cancer.

The numbers are striking. The researchers mined data from the Nurses’ Health Study and found that women between the ages of 20 to 39 and 40 to 59 who used antibiotics for longer than 15 days were 73% more likely to develop colorectal adenoma later in life.

Given the gross overprescribing of antibiotics we’ve seen in this country — and which doctors are finally fighting back against — this study is relevant to a lot of people. And it’s a good reminder that antibiotics are not a panacea. They have their place, but they should be used judiciously.

At least this study gives me hope that mainstream medicine is finally recognizing a few key points:

  • There is a gut microbiome.
  • The gut microbiome plays a role in health and disease.
  • We need to limit the use of antibiotics and sources of inflammation that may drive tumor formation.

They are finally wising up and realizing that maybe there is something to the idea that doctors are prescribing too many unnecessary drugs. And that our gut needs love and attention. Bravo