Antibiotics save lives, but they also have important health consequences, especially for children’s good gut bacteria.
This week, Atlas Biomed took over the blog to talk about what happens when your kids go on antibiotics, and how probiotics can help.
From birth, the human body works together with its first gut bacteria to train the immune system to recognize pathogens and defend against infections. This essential milestone in an infant’s development can be set back by antibiotics with knock-on effects that continue into adulthood.
Antibiotics are essential for treating bacterial infections and during childhood can help to keep children healthy. However, a problem with antibiotics, for both adults and children, is the digestive issues they can cause, such as an upset tummy, diarrhea, or constipation.
Taking one course of antibiotics can have short-term effects on the gut microbiome, but their effects can still be present 6 months later, and in some cases, even permanently. Antibiotics during pregnancy or infancy are linked with an increased risk of asthma and allergies, as well as weight gain later in life.
This article by Atlas Biomed, a British company that makes gut microbiome tests, explains the links between antibiotics in childhood and long-term health, and how probiotics can help alleviate the side effects and consequences of antibiotic treatment.
Early-life microbiome development
The first few years of your infant’s life are critical for the gut microbiome. For example, research shows that natural birth “seeds” good microbes like Bifidobacteria in the gut, whereas c-section deliveries tend to disturb the development of the microbiome.
Another factor is early-life nutrition. For example, breastfeeding contains probiotic bacteria and prebiotics (food for gut bacteria) that nourish and strengthen the baby’s gut. On the other hand, formula (even supplementing with breastmilk) also affects the make-up of a baby’s gut microbiome.
Factors that influence a baby’s microbiome
delivery method (c-section or natural birth)
nutrition (breastmilk or formula)
Typically, it takes about 3 years for a child’s gut microbiome to stabilise, making this a vital window of time for future health and wellbeing. Scientists believe that it also explains why antibiotics in early life are associated with a range of health problems in adulthood.
Antibiotics in childhood
Antibiotics are essential for fighting bacterial infections, but they’re not gut friendly. Nowadays, most people have been treated with antibiotics for infections such as strep throat, ear infection, conjunctivitis, chest infection, or a urinary tract infection.
However, many antibiotics can’t just target the bacteria making you sick, they also affect the good (and harmless) microbes in your gut. Plus, even before prescribing them, it can be hard for the doctor to work out if the infection is caused by a virus or bacteria, meaning that sometimes antibiotics might be unknowingly prescribed for a viral infection. So, not only will they not work, they will also disturb the fragile gut microbiome.
In fact, up to 33% of antibiotics in the US are prescribed unnecessarily according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This can contribute to antibiotic resistance, where bacteria no longer respond to antibiotics, but in the short term, antibiotics can have detrimental effects on the gut microbiome.
Antibiotics and the Microbiome
Babies and children are naturally curious and they explore the world with their hands and their mouths, which means that they are exposed to more bacteria (and viruses) than adults. It’s not a bad thing though, because it helps build their immune system.
Unfortunately, it can also make them sick, in which case, they might be prescribed antibiotics. Even though antibiotics are essential because they help us fight serious infections, scientists think that they might be contributing to asthma and autoimmune conditions, like inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis).
One study from 2016 found that children who had been given antibiotic treatment had less diversity in their gut microbiome. Diversity is an important sign of health because the more different types of bacteria in the gut, the more stable it is. For example, children who were given antibiotics during infancy had less probiotic microbes, like Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus, which are central to the developing human microbiome.
A diverse microbiome promotes and supports growth and development, including that of the immune system. But emerging research shows that it’s not just antibiotics in early childhood that can cause a problem, even prenatal antibiotics have been shown to increase the risk of conditions such as asthma.
A Danish study in 2018 found that exposure to antibiotics both before and during pregnancy increased the risk of the child getting an infection that required a hospital stay.
What’s more, the changes caused by antibiotics in early childhood can have long-term implications.
Antibiotics and long-term health consequences
Antibiotics in childhood can have short-term side effects, like diarrhea and upset tummies, but researchers are discovering that it could have some more serious long-term health consequences too.
Obesity is regarded as a global health problem, and much of the blame has been put on poor diet, lack of physical exercise, and genetics. But now, evidence suggests that antibiotics in early childhood are also associated with obesity.
To find out what antibiotics might be doing to children’s gut bacteria, researchers have been studying how exposure to antibiotics affects their body mass and health later on. A main finding is that antibiotics (especially several courses of antibiotics) is associated with higher risk of childhood obesity and weight gain.
However, the researchers are quick to highlight that these results have limitations. Obesity is not caused by one single factor, but a combination of factors. So while antibiotics might play a role by disrupting a child’s microbiome, nutrition, sleep, watching TV, education, and genetics are involved too.
Diabetes and metabolic diseases
Diabetes type 2 is another big disease of our time that, like obesity, is linked to diet, lifestyle, and genetics. Researchers have also found links with repeated antibiotic exposure in adults. Interestingly, in children, antibiotics are associated with type 1 diabetes (juvenile diabetes).
Children under the age of 1 treated with antibiotics were at an increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes before they reached 10 years old. This risk was particularly increased for children treated for ear infection or chest infection and born by c-section. Juvenile diabetes is a serious and life-long disease in which a child is dependent on insulin medication because the pancreas cannot make it.
In the US, 8.4% of children have asthma according to the CDC. This chronic lung condition is caused by inflammation of airways that is triggered by allergies, cold air, exercise, pollution, and illnesses like a cold or the flu.
Recent studies have found a possible link between the use of antibiotics in infancy with asthma. In particular, antibiotic use within the first 12 months of life is associated with asthma (and also hayfever). This has been echoed by The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, which recently published an article recommending that less antibiotics in childhood could help lower the incidence of asthma.
Just remember that other factors are also involved in asthma. For example, how the baby was delivered (c-section or natural birth) and nutrition (breastmilk vs formula) are also associated with asthma risk, with scientists suggesting that part of the reason is how the microbiome develops as a result.
How probiotics can help with antibiotic side effects
One of these unpleasant consequences is antibiotic related diarrhea, and it affects to 30% of people given antibiotic therapy. Fortunately, we now have the tools to help the gut microbiome recover from antibiotic treatment: probiotic supplements. Jetson has tailored Gut Recovery probiotics with proven benefits for combatting the side effects of antibiotics. So let’s take a look at what’s inside their Jettie Kids Gut Recovery Probiotics and why it can help:
- L. rhamnosus GG: there’s strong evidence that this strain can help prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea, especially in children.
- S. boulardii: this probiotic is actually a type of yeast with superpowers for combating diarrhea caused by antibiotics, including children.
- B. subtilis: this strain is able to reduce antibiotic associated diarrhea when taken at the same time as antibiotics.
- B. coagulans lactospore: this probiotic strain, when used in combination with other probiotics (like the ones above), may help with antibiotic-induced diarrhea.
- B. clausii: this is another probiotic strain of Bacillus that helps reduce diarrhea in several instances, including due to antibiotic treatment.
Probiotics and prebiotics to restore balance
After the antibiotic treatment is over, the gut will probably still need help to recover diversity and balance. This is where you can benefit from synbiotic supplements - the combination of probiotic bacteria and prebiotics that are designed to feed the good bacteria in your gut.
Prebiotics might seem like a foreign concept, but it’s actually quite simple. Good gut bacteria turn specific food molecules into vitamins and short-chain fatty acids that keep the gut healthy and keep invaders at bay. For example, good bacteria love fiber (most of which your body can’t digest), so dietary fiber is a prebiotic.
Jetson knows this too, because they have supplements with pro and prebiotics for kids: Jettie Kids Probiotic + Prebiotic. They contain good bacteria and inulin (from Jerusalem artichoke), as well as rice husk that both support the abundance of probiotic bacteria in the gut.
You can also boost the prebiotics in your family meals by adding whole plant foods to your diet. Based on our research into the science of prebiotics, we’ve found that these foods can also support gut microbiome diversity and beneficial bacteria:
For now, at least, kids will be kids and they will explore the environment around them and almost certainly pick up colds and tummy bugs along the way. Some will have furry pets, which will also contribute to how the microbiome develops.
As they get older and onto solid foods, ensuring they eat a healthy, balanced diet full of fibre (which they’ll probably tell you they hate) will help to enrich and diversify their gut. And if they do need antibiotics, now you’re equipped to understand the side effects and help their gut bacteria recover afterwards.