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Can Antibiotics Make You Gain Weight?

Intriguing new research shows that it isn't only cows who can pack on the pounds from unnecessary antibiotic use.

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The human gut contains more than 100 trillion individual bacterium from more than 500 different species, and 10 bacterial cells for every human cell. Of the 5 million genes identified in the human body, only 30,000 are found in human DNA; the rest are microbial genes. This drives home the idea that our bodies are not single autonomous creatures but symbiotic aggregations of multiple organisms.

The intricacies of how human health is influenced by the microbiome is a huge field of inquiry, the surface of which has barely been scratched. As Scientific American recently put it, “The recent literature on human symbionts is wondrous but still groping at the edge of understanding.”

To help shed light on what these microbes are and how they influence human health, the National Institutes of Health launched the Human Microbiome Project in 2008. The purpose of the five-year, $157 million project is “to characterize microbial communities found at multiple human body sites and to look for correlations between changes in the microbiome and human health.”

Antibiotics are crucial, lifesaving components of our medical system, but what this emerging field is telling us should lead to a more balanced level of respect for their powers. We may be going nuclear on our microbiomes unintentionally, as we gun for the bad guys, creating even badder guys in the process. And we may be giving ourselves obesity via subtherapeutic antibiotic therapy, thanks to residue in the environment and the animal products we eat.  Personally, I’ll take my antibiotics as seldom as possible, and skip the fecal transplants.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.
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