For decades, nonorganic farmers have been using a feeding trick that speeds the growth of animals. Now, in a first-of-its-kind study, scientists have figured out that the same medicine cabinet staples used to fatten up livestock—antibiotics—could be making people obese, too. Antibiotics and obesity could be related by the drugs' ability to wipe out beneficial bacteria in the gut that could play a role in nutrient and calorie absorption. "By using antibiotics, we found we can actually manipulate the population of bacteria and alter how they metabolize certain nutrients," explains Ilseung Cho, MD, MS assistant professor of medicine and gastroenterology at New York University School of Medicine.
The novel finding from the mouse study appears in the online edition of the journal Nature and could help explain while American obesity rates have risen in step with antibiotic use.
The Antibiotics–Fat Factor
In the latest study, researchers found that changing the natural gut flora in mice by administering low-dose antibiotics resulted in a 10 to 15 percent higher fat mass six weeks later compared to that of mice that didn't receive the drugs. The antibiotic dose also threw off the animals' metabolism hormones, raising concerns that antibiotics in humans could be implicated in medical conditions like childhood obesity and metabolic syndrome.
While antibiotics have undoubtedly provided major lifesaving benefits since coming into widespread use after World War II, those benefits, along with the overprescribing of the drugs that is so common and their use in livestock, have come at quite a cost. Scientists already know that using low-dose antibiotics to raise beef, turkey, chicken, and pork-producing animals more quickly for market has led to a huge spike in antibiotic-resistant, hard-to-kill infections. In fact, those infections kill more people a year in the U.S. than AIDS.
Read More: 7 Appalling Meat Facts You Need to Know
For that reason alone, it's in your best interest to avoid antibiotics in meat. The latest research suggests you should avoid unnecessary courses of antibiotics from the pharmacy, too.
Antibiotic-Free Ways of Dealing with Common Infections
Sinus infections: More than 90 percent of sinus infections stem from viral infections, meaning taking antibiotics will do nothing to treat the ailment. Instead of pressing your doctor for a prescription, try reaching for vitamin C–rich citrus fruits like oranges, grapefruit, or nectarines. They help defend against viral infections naturally. Cruciferous veggies like cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, turnips, and radishes are immune-boosting, sinus-clearing foods to turn to, as well.
Another food defense? Visit an allergist to make sure you're not unknowingly living with a food allergy. Any food you're allergic to—be it wheat, milk, or nuts—could trigger an immune response that sends mucus production into overdrive.
The common cold: Grab a cup of organic yogurt to give the common cold virus the kill shot. Yogurt's beneficial Lactobacillus reuteri bacteria can actually take away the virus's ability to multiple. Selenium-rich foods like Brazil nuts and farmed oysters are also good picks to bolster your immune system and help you fight the common cold.
Ear infections: Many ear infections arise during a cold due to swelling, not because of bacteria. In most cases, the discomfort disappears in a few days without any medical intervention. Food allergies could be another hidden cause of ear infections, so if your child has frequent bouts, try experimenting with removing wheat, milk, nuts, soy, or shellfish from his or her diet and see if that helps.
Chewing gum sweetened with xylitol, a birch-derived natural sweetener, also reduces the risk of coming down with an ear infection by about 25 percent, according to Finnish research (Note: Xylitol is extremely toxic to pets, particularly dogs, so keep it out of paws' reach.)
A sore throat: Heal a sore throat using the power of plants, not chemical compounds found in antibiotics. Cardamom, the seeds of a plant from the ginger family and a favorite ingredient in Indian cooking, is rich in a compound called cineole, a substance with natural throat-clearing properties. Toss some in soup for an easy food fix. Another go-to ingredient? "Russian penicillin," as garlic is sometimes called. Eat garlic-rich foods or even brew a garlic tea and gargle with it for quick, natural relief.
Read More: 3 All-Natural Sore Throat Remedies That Work