How bad are antibiotics for your health?

Evidence Shows Antibiotics Cause Mitochondrial Dysfunction


I get this question nearly every time I work in the emergency department, “Hey Doc, I feel like something is coming on.  I thought I’d get checked out and get some medicine to ‘nip it in the bud’.” The symptoms are usually congestion, maybe a cough for a day or two, or a “scratchy” throat.

That medicine that these patients have in mind are antibiotics.  But this post is NOT about the fact that many of the common bacterial infections are now known not to be improved significantly with antibiotics (otitis media, strep throat, etc).

No, you do not need antibiotics for most cases of Strep Throat or Middle Ear Infections

This post is NOT about the ugly truth that overprescription of antibiotics for what are almost certainly viral infections has led to resistant strains of bacteria for which those antibiotics are no longer useful.  And bacteria resistant to antibiotics are not only commonplace now, but are killing patients in ICU’s every year.

This post is about the effects of antibiotics on your body’s life-giving and life-enhancing energy powerhouse – your mitochondria.

You may think that there is no harm in getting antibiotics for a cough that happens to be a virus. After all, a pill may not help your viral infection, but if that cough turns out to be pneumonia an antibiotic would certainly help.

The bottom line here is that antibiotics work by inducing the formation of toxic reactive oxygen species (ROS) in bacteria and your mitochondria are very similar to bacteria. VERY similar.  See the problem?

Clinically relevant doses of the “bactericidal” genre of antibiotics such a quinolones, aminoglycosides, and β-lactams (anything similar to penicillin)—cause mitochondrial dysfunction and reactive oxygen species (ROS) overproduction in mammalian cells.

These are some of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics out there.

Your mitochondria most likely evolved from bacteria millennia ago.  The most prominent theory on this is called the “serial endosymbiosis theory.”  This theory is a favored model for explaining the origin of mitochondria – a particularly important event in the evolution of eukaryotic cells.  It appears the mitochondria may be the descendants of a bacteria that became established in our cells.  Whatever the origin though, these organelles produce nearly ALL of the energy in your body.

Mitochondrial dysfunction has been linked strongly to chronic disease and likely plays a major role in most of the chronic diseases known.  Since the brain uses nearly 70% of the body’s energy supply in the form of ATP per day, mitochondrial dysfunction likely has a prominent role in neurodegenerative diseases.

Antibiotics have long been known to be responsible for toxicity to the auditory, vestibular, and renal systems in some patients.  Certain antibiotics (quinolones) are even associated with spontaneous tendon rupture.  The authors of this paper show that clinically relevant doses of bactericidal antibiotics—quinolones, aminoglycosides, and β-lactams—cause mitochondrial dysfunction and reactive oxygen species (ROS) overproduction in mammalian cells. These bactericidal antibiotic-induced effects lead to oxidative damage to DNA, proteins, and membrane lipids. These deleterious effects of bactericidal antibiotics were alleviated in cell culture and in vivo by the administration of the antioxidant N-acetyl-L-cysteine or prevented by preferential use of bacteriostatic antibiotics.

So the next time you see your doctor to discuss antibiotics:

  1. Ask if your medical provider thinks this is a viral infection. If yes, then seek treatment of symptoms only.  I often tell patients that this will get better in about a 7 days if we do something and about a week if we do nothing.  In other words, it doesn’t matter what we do – but whatever we do, let’s make you feel better.
  2. If your illness does require antibiotics ask if there is a bacteriostatic antibiotic that would work in this situation. These antibiotics inhibit bacterial growth while allowing time for your immune system to rid the body of the infection.
  3. If you must use a bactericidal antibiotic, consider co-administering NAC (N-acetyl cysteine) along with it.

As always, remember that I am a Doctor – but not your Doctor.  Seek expert medical advise about your health before taking any of these recommendations.  AND REMEMBER, there is a price to pay for any drug you put in your body.  You may have to pay it today, or next month, or 10 years down the road.  But it must be paid.  Choose wisely.

Kalghatgi S, Spina CS, Costello JC, et al.  Bactericidal antibiotics induce mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative damage in mammalian cells.  Sci Transl Med.  2013 Jul 3; 5(192).

Lanny Littlejohn, MD


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