Last updated September 24, 2018 by Lisa Richards, CNC   Reviewed by Katie Stone, ND.

Do Antibiotics Cause Weight Gain?

Can antibiotics lead to weight gain and obesity?

When it comes to taking antibiotics, there’s a fine line between good and evil. Yes, they’re sometimes necessary for treating serious bacterial infections. But they’re also extremely damaging to the body – particularly the gut. When used too readily and too often, antibiotics can wreak havoc that takes years to rectify.

Unfortunately, the over-prescription of antibiotics is a problem that’s on the increase all around the world – and it’s causing irreparable harm to millions. Antibiotics overuse has led to antibiotic resistance and the rise of ‘superbugs’, as well as a myriad of other health problems.

While these problems are concerning enough for the health of present and future generations, research is showing yet another antibiotics-related curse: they’re linked to weight gain.

The Link Between Antibiotics and Gut Dysbiosis

While we already know that antibiotics destroy gut microbiota, we don’t often make the connection between the importance of gut microbiota and managing weight.

Gut microbiota are beneficial organisms that live naturally in our digestive tract, helping the body to digest food, absorb nutrients, and counteract pathogenic microorganisms like Candida. They form the ‘good’ bacteria needed for a strong immune system and overall wellbeing.

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Antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria – ALL bacteria. They’re prescribed to treat bacterial infections and prevent the problem bacteria from reproducing further. In fact, the term ‘anti-biotic’ literally means “against” and “life”.

Substantial evidence shows that antibiotics can decimate the beneficial bacteria in our gut to such a degree that the ‘bad’ bacteria and yeast are able to take over and flourish. This can lead to dysbiosis, an imbalance of gut flora caused by too few beneficial bacteria and an overgrowth of bad bacteria, Candida yeast, and/or parasites. Research has found that taking just one course of antibiotics for a week can disrupt gut bacteria so severely, the effects can last up to a year. That’s a year for bad bacteria to grow and develop, completely disrupting your digestion and metabolic function.

Antibiotics and Weight Gain

Healthy weight management is only viable when all body systems are in balance. Everything you put in your mouth has to be processed by the gut – and to burn calories efficiently, the gut flora has to be functioning properly.

Those who are overweight or obese tend to have something in common – poor gut bacteria. In fact, the gut bacteria profile of obese people differs significantly from those in the healthy weight range. Research is now showing that these gut imbalances contribute to the risk of someone becoming obese or being able to lose weight. The greater the imbalance of gut bacteria, the harder it is to shed pounds.

These findings are compounded by evidence that antibiotic use in young children has a direct effect on their weight later on in life. A British study found that children who have been treated with antibiotics at an early age are more likely to become overweight or obese as adults.

Another report by JAMA showed that kids who had been treated with four or more courses of antibiotics before they were two years old ended up with a 10 percent higher risk of being obese. The researchers suggested that taking antibiotics killed off many of the gut bacteria involved in healthy weight management. This indirectly resulted in the metabolism being nudged in the wrong direction, thanks to more active populations of bad bacteria and yeast.

A more recent study has supported this notion, with evidence that antibiotic use in children results in persistent and progressive effects on their body mass index (BMI). This shows that treating young children with antibiotics can predispose them to gain weight throughout childhood, and likely into adulthood.

How Antibiotics Can Lead To Weight Gain and Obesity

Studies in mice have shown that changes in the gut microbiota caused by antibiotic use can alter the body’s metabolism in such a way that it leads to fat accumulation. It appears that the disruption to the ecosystem of the gut results in it being ‘programmed’ to lean towards obesity, due to a metabolic phenotype. The most alarming thing about this finding is that the “obesity-prone” metabolic phenotype persists long after the course of antibiotics has ceased – even after the gut microbiota has recovered.

It’s also been known for a long time that farm animals treated with antibiotics tend to gain weight more rapidly. Antibiotics have been used as a means of ‘fattening up’ farm animals for several decades, particularly in the US. Feeding antimicrobials helps to dramatically increase the average daily weight gain of livestock such as cattle and pigs.

This is because the antibiotics reduce the pathogenic bacteria in the intestinal tracts of the animals, preventing parasites such as worms from inhibiting their weight gain. This works out well for the farmer as it improves feed efficiency. However, we humans depend on the bacteria in our gut for our health and wellbeing!

Although it’s claimed that this method of growth promotion requires only small amounts of antibiotics in the animals’ feed, it’s thought to be a contributing factor in the worldwide spread of antibiotic resistance – not to mention obesity.

Why Antibiotics Are Usually A Bad Idea

When fighting a serious bacterial infection, antibiotics are necessary – and can indeed save lives. But that’s the only instance in which they should be taken! Antibiotics are NOT necessary for minor and/or non-bacterial illnesses, such as colds and flu.

And yet doctors still prescribe them – and patients still take them.

It’s important to understand that antibiotics can be very damaging – not just to the immune system, but to the body’s ability to maintain a healthy weight. Harm caused to the good bacteria in the gut by antibiotics can take months and months to rectify.

In that time, all sorts of invaders (like Candida albicans and other opportunistic pathogens) can take hold, sending your metabolism completely out of control. Just one course of antibiotics can alter your gastrointestinal environment and predispose you to weight gain.

And that’s not the only harm! Antibiotics cause a bacterial imbalance which can lead to:

  • A weakened immune system due to loss of pathogen-fighting immune cells
  • Dysbiosis caused by an imbalance of healthy gut bacteria
  • The growth and spread of harmful pathogenic bacteria, fungi and yeasts such as Candida albicans
  • Poor digestion and nutrient absorption
  • Symptoms of gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, diarrhea, gas, constipation

Avoid Antibiotics, Avoid Weight Gain

Healthy weight management is not just about calories in, calories out – it’s also about supporting the good bacteria of the gut. There’s a connection between your gut bacteria and its influence on the types of food you crave, how satisfied you feel after eating, and how well your body is able to turn that food into energy to be burned.

An imbalance of gut bacteria can result in cravings for ‘bad’ foods – often caused by Candida overgrowth – as well as poor digestion, hormonal imbalance, and a greater likelihood that energy will be stored as fat. This is the fast track to weight gain.

The great news is that there are plenty of alternative solutions for overcoming health battles that don’t involve antibiotics. Even better is the fact that these alternatives that both will prevent you from getting sick in the first place AND help to support a healthy weight!

Along with a healthy diet and regular exercise, the first step in weight management is to give your good bacteria the support that it needs to flourish. Taking probiotic supplements or eating fermented foods will go a long way in helping you shed pounds. And, of course, avoiding antibiotics until they’re necessary!

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