The human gut hosts a huge community of microbes, potentially even before birth, which helps us digest and absorb nutrients, and plays a crucial role in metabolism and the immune system. Some of the microbial strains in the microbiome may be highly beneficial while others might have the potential for harm. Antibiotics can indiscriminately kill any kind of gut microbe.
Studies using animal models have shown that in early life, antibiotics can disrupt the gut microbiome, which causes metabolic disruptions including obesity. Research has also suggested that the way the gut is colonized by microbes also influences the risk of obesity in adolescence.
Scientists that were investigators in the Growing up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcome (GUSTO) study examined the link between antibiotic exposure in infancy and childhood obesity. Reporting in the International Journal of Obesity, the researchers finally confirmed the connection between antibiotics and metabolic disease risk in human infants. Their work showed that antibiotics interfere with the development of the microbes in the gut in infants and that the risk of childhood obesity is also increased when infants have to receive antibiotics.
"Childhood obesity is a growing concern for the many adverse health effects it brings in adulthood such as type 2 diabetes. The infancy period (first year) represents part of a critical window of development which can have a lasting effect on subsequent health and disease later in life," explained the leader of the GUSTO substudy, Professor Lee Yung Seng, Head of Paediatrics at National University of Singapore (NUS) Medicine among other appointments.
"Acquisition of gut microbes in infancy is a highly dynamic and vulnerable process. Use of antibiotics during this process can disrupt the normal colonization and development of infant gut microbiota, and this may consequently influence a child's weight gain and obesity risk," added Dr. Neerja Karnani, Adjunct Assistant Professor at NUS Medicine's Department of Biochemistry.
The mechanisms linking the microbes in the gut to the risk of obesity are still unclear, but this study highlights the importance of weighing the benefits and risks of antibiotic treatments in infancy.
The GUSTO project also examined the connection between childhood obesity and sleep deprivation, a study that is outlined in the video.