There’s been a lot of talk surrounding antibiotics as of late, especially concerning how their overuse contributes to antibiotic resistance. Now, there’s additional concerns to take into consideration.
In a new paper published in the journal Gut, researchers suggest that taking antibiotics for a long period of time is linked to the development of growths on the bowel that can cause cancer. Though experts urge the results of the study will require further investigation, and advise that people shouldn’t necessarily stop taking antibiotics, the study authors note that their findings only add to accumulating evidence that the diversity of bugs in the gut may play a part in the development of tumors.
In the study, researchers analyzed data from 16,600 nurses participating in a long-term U.S. trial called the Nurses’ Health Study. The team found that it was nurses between the ages of 20 and 39, and who took antibiotics for two or more months, that were at a higher risk for developing certain forms of bowel polyps called adenomas in old age. Women in their 40s and 50s were even more at risk for being diagnosed with an adenoma later in life.
Though the study didn’t take into consideration how many polyps turned into cancer, the authors note there is a “plausible biological explanation” for the patterns witnessed. “Antibiotics fundamentally alter the gut microbiome, by curbing the diversity and number of bacteria, and reducing the resistance to hostile bugs.
“This might all have a crucial role in the development of bowel cancer, added to which the bugs that require antibiotics may induce inflammation, which is a known risk for the development of bowel cancer.”
“The findings if confirmed by other studies, suggest the potential need to limit the use of antibiotics and sources of inflammation that may drive tumor formation.”
Dr. Jasmine Just, a health information officer at the charity Cancer Research U.K. weighed in on the research, saying, “This research is at a very early stage so it is too early to draw definitive conclusions.”
“People who are prescribed antibiotics by medical professionals should continue taking them and discuss any concerns with their doctor.”
Since the paper only looked at precursors of cancers, it’s hard to be know the exact risks for individuals. Bowel cancer can be dependent on various things, such as family history of the disease, as well as diet, alcohol consumption, and smoking.
Dr. Sheena Cruickshank, an immunology expert at the University of Manchester, notes that anything that disturbs our gut bacteria, like changes in diet, inflammation or antibiotic use, has the ability to affect our health. “Whilst the data adds to our growing knowledge of the importance of the gut bacteria to our health, I would be concerned about advising people to avoid using antibiotics,” she says, interpreting the results of the study in regards to any potential increase risk “very slight and very variable.”
Though more research will help better understand how antibiotics may play a part in cancer, this particular research is very interesting, especially considering there are many prior studies that have looked at how the microbes in the bowel may affect our health.