Our first son has taken a lot of antibiotics. At the age of six months he came down with strep, bronchitis and a sinus infection. At age two, he came down with pneumonia. Interspersed and afterward up to age five he continued with about six rounds of antibiotics a year, give or take, for various sinus, ear and bronchial infections. We didn’t know what else to do besides give him the antibiotics--he would develop such terrible coughs we were so worried much of the time. It caused a great deal of stress and concern for my husband and me.
Recently, Dr. David Schultz, a licensed clinical psychologist and lecturer at Yale University's School of Medicine, provided me with an interesting piece that in part addresses the hygiene hypothesis as it relates to antibiotics. The writing taken from “The Vaccination Dilemma” is by Dr. Philip Incao while the book is a compilation by Christine Murphy of various perspectives on childhood vaccinations. Dr. Incao writes, “Research has revealed a list of factors…that correlate with decreased risk of asthma and allergies, including the avoidance of vaccinations and antibiotics [such as] having little or no antibiotics especially before the age of two.” He continues, “If the hygiene hypothesis proves to be correct, it will have a revolutionary impact on the medical practice…There is an ecology of human illness. If we attempt to eliminate a single element of an ecological system, we disturb the balance of the whole in ways that can lead to unforeseen consequences. To these unforeseen consequences belong the dramatic increases in asthma, allergies, diabetes, autism and learning dysfunctions occurring in children today.”
Up to this point, it appeared to me that the hygiene hypothesis focused mainly on the child’s external environment. But directly affecting the world of bacteria within the child’s body makes more sense to me. When that world is disturbed, repeatedly, with little or no effort to reconstitute or repopulate the beneficial bacteria, through the use of probiotics, like acidophilus in yogurt, for instance, then that world can become unbalanced and new problems can emerge.
I recall a passage from Dr. Kenneth Bock’s book, “Healing the New Childhood Epidemics,” which states, “There are two different kinds of helper T-cells: Th-1 and Th-2. The Th-1 cells…attack pathogens directly, or send messages to encourage other immune cells to attack. The Th-2 cells also attack pathogens but in a different way…by encouraging other immune cells to produce antibodies...then attack foreign substances, including bacteria, viruses and also allergens…Because these Th-1 and Th-2 cells work together, it’s important that they stay in balance. But this doesn’t always happen…there is a skewing of this balance, with an increase of Th-2 antibody production and a decrease of the activity of the Th-1 cells…The skewing of immunity to the Th-2 dominance makes it harder for people to fight off the viral, bacterial and fungal infections that lie within their cells. It makes them prone to many common illnesses. The excess activity of the Th-2 cells also triggers and overactive immune response with can result in allergy and autoimmunity…Overactive Th-2 immunity results in too many attacks on the substances that don’t need to be attacked, including pollen and common foods such as milk and wheat. The final result is allergy. Allergy triggers inflammation as the body fights to free itself from presumed invaders. When the inflammation strikes the airways, asthma can occur.”
In other words, the T-cells can become out of balance where one kind is weak and the other is overactive. The weak one can’t fight off illness, like it should, while the overactive one overreacts causing unnecessary inflammation and allergic reactions. This described our son so well: He would get sick, we’d give him antibiotics which would “enable” the T-cell to remain weak rather than rising-to-the-challenge to fight off the illness. By continually giving him the antibiotics his T-cells would remain out of balance and the T-cell responsible for inflammation/allergies would never be reigned-in, put-in-check or calmed down.
Another problem with antibiotics is that leaky-gut can occur when the intestine walls become holey from an overgrowth of bad yeast or candida which can be caused by antibiotics killing off all bacteria (good and bad). When this happens, food particles that normally would be contained in the intestine leak out into the blood stream. The body is called upon to fight or deal with these food proteins. Immune systems come to the rescue but can cause immediate-IgE-food-allergies. Or in other bodies delayed-IgG-food-allergies are created leading to symptoms of the disorders of autism, ADHD or asthma.
Interestingly, our son was started on antibiotics just about the time I tried (unsuccessfully) to introduce cow’s milk formula, to which he developed an allergy. The downward spiral in health continued for the next five years where he often fell into various infections after a regular cold. His ability to fight illness became worse and worse. I remember being in the toy store on the cold winter day of his fifth birthday asking him to pick out a favorite toy. We had just returned from the doctor for the painful-to-listen-to non-stop cough he had developed. All he could choke out was, “Get the castle book” and we quickly went home. I felt so terrible.
Mostly because of what I learned from researching Flourishing and interviewing the parents and doctors, we were finally able to pull out of this cycle. I summoned up the courage to call a recommended naturopath doctor, a kind of medicine with which I had no personal experience and felt somewhat skeptical. This new doctor gave our son supplements to detoxify his body from mucus and reduce respiratory inflammation as well as improve the strength of his immune system. We started this in March. During April his congestion drained like never before. I literally ran around the park one spring day with a box of tissues chasing after him to blow his nose every few minutes--and I was quite happy about it. By May his mucus cleared, a chronic cough finally completely subsided and his breathing at night was tremendously quiet. Previously, I used to be able to “check on him” at the bottom of the stairs--I could hear him breathing and snorkeling from there. It was so stressful to hear this every night for my husband and me. But then, in May, I remember the night when I walked into his doorway and couldn’t hear him. I became worried and took steps closer to his bed and heard him breathing so peacefully. It is still a joy to listen to him at night and remains our favorite recurring topic of conversation between my husband and me.
This new naturopath doctor also explained to me that in addition to clearing mucus and decreasing inflammation using natural supplements and tonics he would work to strengthen our son’s immune system. Having read the passage above from Dr. Bock’s book about T-cells this made sense to me, i.e. reduce inflammation while improving immune response. It is my hope that by rebalancing his immune system his ability to fight illness will be corrected and his overreaction to the allergy-foods will eventually diminish and go away. After five months on the treatment we had a skin prick test. His allergies to dairy and egg remained, but were much less than the previous year. His dairy went from the size of a quarter to a dime. The egg went from the size of a dime to an eraser top. Another benefit that is intangible but immense is that his mood improved, within a few weeks. I don’t need to tell mothers how much easier life is when your child comes up for the bath on the first call rather than turning it into an “issue.”
Over the past eight months under the supervision of both of my son’s doctors (naturopathic and allopathic) he has been on antibiotics only once for strep throat. He has had many colds/viruses and even a mild ear ache and few fevers, but has recovered from them on his own. At first, my husband and I were fearful, then amazed, as we watched him conquer these invisible wars. It is our hope that his body rebalances. If his T-cells balance out perhaps he will outgrow his allergy faster. We will use antibiotics when an infection is serious, but will try quite hard to avoid them up to that point.
In closing, my thoughts about antibiotics are as follows. I believe antibiotics are important in the effort to help the body recover from serious illness. But the over-use of antibiotics can deplete the child’s (or anyone’s) natural and good bacteria supply in their gut and also disrupt the body’s T-cell balance causing problems in naturally fighting illness. While the bacterial supply can be remedied by supplementing with probiotics, there is a longer term negative effect by way of “leaky gut” which probably causes the more permanent food allergies. Further, how do you strengthen the T-cell that has become weak due to over use of antibiotics? Letting it work it out by fighting the illness itself seems to be the only way. It is like tough love--letting your loved one struggle because in the end that’s the best thing for them.
We are now quite careful to use antibiotics only when it is necessary such as for a high fever, strep throat, pneumonia, or other serious life-threatening and/or permanently damaging illness.
 Murphy, Christine, Editor, “The Vaccination Dilemma”, Lantern Books, 2000.
 Bock, M.D., Kenneth, Stauth, Cameron, “Healing the New Childhood Epidemics: Autism, ADHD, Asthma and Allergies. The Groundbreaking Program for the 4-A Disorders,” Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, New York, NY, 2008.