Can Antibiotics Increase Your Heart Attack Risk?
You may have heard that taking too many antibiotics can make them less helpful. This happens because bacteria become resistant to these medications over time. Sometimes, antibiotics may not work at all when you really need them and this can be quite dangerous.
But there’s a new reason to be careful about taking a lot of antibiotics. A new study found that women whose total time taking antibiotics was two months or longer had a higher risk of heart attacks and strokes.
In the study, more than 36,000 women in the Nurse’s Health Study were asked about their use of antibiotics at different times in their lives. These were in their 20s and 30s (young), in their 40s and 50s (middle age), and in their 60s and older (older age). Researchers also asked about the total length of time the women took them: less than 15 days, 15 days to 2 months, or 2 months or more. The women were followed for 8 years to watch for effects on their health.
Researchers found that women over age 60 who took antibiotics for at least 2 months during a 5-year period had the greatest risk (32%) of having a heart attack or stroke. Women who took a long course of antibiotics in middle age had a 28% higher risk. Women who took antibiotics for 2 months or longer in their 20s and 30s did not have a higher risk.
A possible reason for the connection is that antibiotics change the type of bacteria that normally live in the gut. Antibiotics can kill off “good” bacteria in the intestines that promote health. And they encourage the growth of “bad” bacteria that cause disease.
One type of bad bacteria produces a chemical called TMA. The bacteria create TMA from foods we eat like red meat, egg yolks, and products containing carnitine. TMA is converted by the liver into a substance called TMAO. And high levels of TMAO increase inflammation and the risk of blood clots. Both of these factors raise the risk for heart attacks and stroke.
It’s not the first time that researchers found a link between antibiotics and heart problems. A 2016 study of more than 320,000 people in Hong Kong found that taking an antibiotic called clarithromycin increased the short-term risk of having a heart attack, developing a heart rhythm problem, or dying when the heart stopped suddenly. The heart problems occurred about 2 weeks after starting that antibiotic prescription.
A rare but serious heart problem can also occur with a type of antibiotics called fluoroquinolones. They can increase the risk of tears in the main artery of the body, called the aorta. In 2018, the FDA warned that people who have a history of blockages of the aorta or high blood pressure, and the elderly should not take these drugs. Fluoroquinolones include ciprofloxacin (Cipro), gemifloxacin (Factive), levofloxacin (Levaquin), moxifloxacin (Avelox), norfloxacin (Noroxin), and ofloxacin (Floxin).
How can you avoid the heart risks of antibiotics?
- Ask your doctor if you really need a prescription. Very often, antibiotics are prescribed for infections that are caused by viruses instead of bacteria. Antibiotics are not at all helpful for infections caused by viruses.
- If you are prescribed an antibiotic that is linked to heart problems, ask if there is another antibiotic that would work as well. If you have heart risks already, tell the doctor who is writing the prescription.
- After discussing antibiotic use with your doctor, the next simplest dietary thing to do is to eat foods that are high in fiber. Check food labels for fiber content.
- While you are taking antibiotics, consider taking a probiotic supplement during and for a short period after completing the antibiotic. These can help to keep good bacteria in your gut and discourage bad bacteria from gaining a foothold.
- Eat probiotic foods. They contain live bacteria that can keep the bad bacteria in check. These include kimchi, kombucha tea, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut.
- Load up on pre These are substances in some high-fiber foods that help the good gut bacteria. Prebiotics are found in garlic, onions, asparagus, whole wheat pasta, green peas, sweet potatoes, and other foods with a high fiber content.
- Ask your doctor about TMAO testing. It can help you learn how much of this unhealthy substance is in your body and possibly harming your heart health. If it’s elevated, there are ways to reduce it.
Antibiotics are important life-saving drugs. But like most medications, there can be risks. Knowing the possible risks of antibiotics and taking appropriate steps can help you protect the health of your heart.
For more information on risks to your heart’s health, go to KnowYourRisk.