New Study Shows Link between Antibiotic Exposure in Infants and Obesity

Written by P. Humbargar

Image: Sura Nualpradid

A new study has found a possible link between antibiotic use in early childhood and obesity. This should not come as any big surprise, as farmers have been feeding their healthy livestock antibiotics for decades since they know that doing so increases their weight for market. Of course, children are not livestock, but the fact that this link has been discovered is another reason to avoid the overuse of antibiotics in young children.

The study, published in the International Journal of Obesity, analyzed over 10,000 children and found that antibiotic exposure prior to 6 months of age was consistently associated with increases in body mass. Overall, these exposed infants had a 22% greater chance of being overweight by 30 months.

Although the study concluded that the effects of very early antibiotic exposure are modest at the individual level, further studies are needed, as there could be substantial health consequences that are as yet unknown.

Antibiotics not only kill the bad bacteria that make us sick, they also kill the “good” bacteria and other microbes our bodies need to thrive. Called “microbiota,” they help the body breakdown complex molecules in our food and build vitamins our bodies cannot otherwise manufacture; and they work with our immune systems to prevent attacks from harmful microbes.

These good microbes may also play a role in how our bodies absorb calories.

Dr. Leonardo Trasconde, the lead author of the study, has this to say:

We typically consider obesity an epidemic grounded in unhealthy diet and exercise, yet increasingly studies suggest it’s more complicated. Microbes in our intestines may play critical roles in how we absorb calories, and exposure to antibiotics, especially early in life, may kill off healthy bacteria that influence how we absorb nutrients into our bodies, and would otherwise keep us lean.

Although the study doesn’t say that infants exposed to antibiotics early in life will become obese, it does show a correlation and is one more reason for parents to be informed about the proper use of antibiotics.

Antibiotics have done a great deal of good in treating bacterial infections and have saved many lives. But there is no doubt that they have been over-prescribed for many years.

It is now well known that the dramatic rise in antibiotic-resistant bacteria is primarily due to the overuse of antibiotics. Antibiotics were developed to treat bacterial infections, but for decades they have been used to treat viral illnesses that they have no effect on and are used to fatten cattle and other food animals that are not sick.

According to the CDC, antibiotic resistance is one of the world’s most critical public health threats. When used improperly, antibiotics stop working effectively and can no longer cure the bacterial infections for which they were meant.

Taking antibiotics for viral infections, like colds, most sore throats, acute bronchitis, and many sinus and ear infections, may do more harm than good. Besides contributing to the rise of antibiotic resistance, doing so will not cure the infection; it will not keep other people from getting sick; it will not help your child feel better; and it may cause unnecessary and harmful side effects.

Be informed, and talk to your doctor about the best treatment for your child’s illness; and although it is tempting, especially when you have a crying, sniveling infant, don’t demand antibiotics when he/she says they are unnecessary.

As parents and other responsible adults, we need to understand that antibiotics are not a cure-all and that many of the potential consequences of their use and overuse are probably still unknown. The link between early antibiotic use and childhood obesity may be only one among many unforeseen effects that will come to light in the years to come.

For additional information about antibiotic resistance and the proper use of antibiotics, visit the CDC website.


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