Three mornings ago I wrote my first piece in a series on antibiotic resistance and the problems we are facing with ever-evolving drug resistant bacteria. That same afternoon, the CDC happened to issue a press release on antibiotic resistant Superbugs and how these bacteria are a posing threat to hospital patients. A vast majority of the antibiotic resistant infections are acquired during a hospital stay; however, Superbugs do not remain confined to the four walls of a hospital. Superbugs are ever-evolving creatures which have been disturbing our society since antibiotics were first introduced.
The expenditure of antibiotics used in the hospital setting does aid these bacteria in their evolution as Superbugs, but did you know that eighty percent (about thirty million pounds) or more of the antibiotics used in the USA is administered to livestock? That percentage is growing every year. What does farm animals’ antibiotic consumption have to do with human disease?
In my first piece on antibiotic resistance I talked a bit about the great benefits the farmers saw when they administered low doses of antibiotics to all of their livestock every day; they grew larger faster with the same amount of food as before, and to top it off they were healthier. What’s not to love? Did some of those farmers think that it’s too good to be true? If they did, they were probably right. Misuse of antibiotics on farms is considered to be the biggest influence on antibiotic resistant Superbugs. But, the side effects of antibiotics are addicting (bigger, healthier animals = more food = more profit) and much too beneficial in the “here and now” to worry about the future. But we are in the future. There is no going back to change the modifications that the bacteria have made; it’s an ever-evolving genetic modification, and these bugs are unrelenting.
At any given time, all animals (including you and I) have bacteria in our bodies. Actually, we have bacterial cells in our body than cells that make up our body! Everyone has beneficial bacteria, and it’s necessary for our survival to have those little bugs inside of us. We can also harbor bad bacteria, even if we are not showing signs or having symptoms of an active infection. Simply stated, some bad bacteria wait until your immune system is susceptible and then they present as an infection and symptoms opportunistically.
The same bad bacteria live in bodies of the livestock, and more often than not, are being fed antibiotics. The bacteria spend their time acquiring a taste for the antibiotics…and learning how to take countermeasures against modern medicine. The antibiotics are ceased before slaughter, and the animals are given a period of time to allow the medication to leave their systems. But, these mere bacteria have already matured and the animal is now a carrier of Superbugs. During slaughter there is a large percentage of contamination of innards on the meat we will eventually eat. Contamination of which is near impossible to avoid. The bacteria can then multiply, at a rate dependent on their environment. An example of how this affects humans directly is when the meat is handled improperly, or undercooked, the handler/consumer(s) are much more likely to become ill or infected with a difficult to treat Superbug.
In the medical field we see patients who have seemingly easy to treat bacterial infections. These infections may or may not already be Superbugs when they were acquired and are treated, but that does not seem to matter to bacteria in the long run when antibiotics are used. The way that the bacteria work is amazingly intriguing. Just as humans can become resistant to a drug if taken to treat a disease for a long period of time, these bacteria can become resistant to the very medications used to kill them. As with the animals, when a patient is treated with antibiotics, a percentage of the bacteria are able to alter their makeup and become capable of surviving in an environment with that antibiotic; thus creating Superbugs. What does not kill them makes them stronger.
An asset of the most prevalent Superbugs is an outer membrane, which is Gram-negative. You have likely heard that phrase, but what does it mean? In the year 1882, Mr. Gram found that when he stained his bacteria samples with something not much unlike food dye, he noticed that some cells retained the coloring after a rinse, while other cells lost their color. When looking under a microscope at samples of bacteria, cells that retain the purple color are Gram-positive while those that lose their pretty purple and when counterstained become a red and are Gram-negative. The Gram-negative cells are protected by an extra layer, the outer membrane, which consists of protein and liposaccharide. This outer membrane is what protects the Gram-negative bacteria when subjected to harsh environments and also keeps that purple stain out. This outer layer supports the transformation of mere bacteria into Superbugs after antibiotic exposure. A type of bacteria with capabilities far superior to others; including their ability to pick up resistance genes and increase virulence.
What can essential oils do about these superbugs? Chemical components found in some essential oils are capable of breaking down these outer membranes which protect the Gram-negative bacteria, as well as do other things to inhibit their growth. This is something that scientists are already studying in hopes of putting a curb to the prevalence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Now that I have explained some basics on how Superbugs are created, I will dig deeper into essential oil components and their potential benefits as bacterial infection treatments in my next piece.