Many of us will have taken antibiotics at some stage in our lives. Antibiotics are a type of antimicrobial substance that can treat and prevent bacterial infections. They’re widely prescribed around the world, and in many cases they can save lives.
Unfortunately, overuse of antibiotics has become a serious problem, particularly in the Western world. Antibiotics are frequently taken for conditions that may not really require them, which means that many people experience the side effects of antibiotics unnecessarily.
And there are many side effects! Especially for your gut flora. You see, the term ‘anti-biotic’ literally translates to ‘anti-life’. That’s because antibiotics can kill off all the bacteria in your gut – including the beneficial species.
As necessary as antibiotics can be to overcome an infection, it’s also necessary to replenish your gut flora after you’ve completed your medication. If you don’t, you may find that the long-term changes to your gut microbiome have serious consequences for your health.
In recent years, there’s been more research into what antibiotics actually do to your gut.
A 2011 report published in the journal Nature pointed out the potential dangers of overusing antibiotics, particularly in those with poor gut flora already.
Researchers explained that one of the biggest problems is that antibiotics can destroy gut bacteria to the point where they cannot ward off harmful pathogens as they should, allowing the ‘bad bacteria’ to thrive.
Antibiotics may even make permanent changes to the gut flora of infants if a woman takes antibiotics during her pregnancy. This is a serious concern because lack of diversity in friendly gut bacteria has been shown to contribute to a large number of diseases and complications in later life.
In fact, just one course of antibiotics may be enough to cause all this damage!
One study showed that just a single treatment of intravenous antibiotics resulted in significant alterations to the diversity of bacterial strains in a patient’s feces. Worse, these changes also suggested the overgrowth of Clostridium difficile, a particularly troublesome gut pathogen that can lead to severe diarrhea and colitis. (1)
In another study, it was found that even just a short course of antibiotics was enough to drastically reduce the number of bacterial strains in the gut to only about two-thirds. This study also showed that even while most of the microbiota were able to recover after six months, some species did not.
If short courses of antibiotics are able to make such major changes to the gut flora, more frequent use of antibiotics will likely have much more dramatics consequences.
Common symptoms following a course of antibiotics include diarrhea, gas and bloating. The antibiotics disrupt the normal balance of the gut flora and allow pathogenic microorganisms like salmonella or Candida albicans to grow uninhibited.
The negative effects of gut dysbiosis and low levels of good bacteria can lead to ongoing health problems.
For example, it’s been found that those with inflammatory bowel disease tend to have higher levels of pathogenic bacteria in their intestinal lining than healthy people, which is a major cause of their inflammation.
In addition, those with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis often have lower concentrations of beneficial flora (such as Lactobacillus and Bifdobacterium) which play a role in protecting against pathogenic bacteria, as well as mineral absorption and protecting the intestinal lining.
Poor gut flora can also cause weak immunity, poor digestion, and even autoimmune disorders (2).
Certain harmful pathogens can set off autoimmune reactions in joints and other parts of the body, while the lack of healthy gut flora can cause intestinal permeability (aka Leaky Gut Syndrome) which further contributes to autoimmunity.
Imbalances in the gut flora have been associated with food allergies, IBD, and other disorders. Worse, a weakening of your immune system could lead to you getting sick again – often with the same illness that led to you taking the antibiotic in the first place.
Equally worrying is the finding that excessive or prolonged use of antibiotics may even damage the liver. This study showed that antibiotics are now one of the most common medications to damage liver health. (3)
While overuse is certainly a problem, it’s also the case that antibiotics are very necessary in some situations. If you are prescribed a course of antibiotics, it’s important to weigh up the benefits of with the potential risks that may be caused to your overall health.
If you really do need to take the antibiotics, it’s vital that you care for your gut flora by taking probiotics before, during and after your treatment. This is quite easy to do with the right probiotic supplements and foods.
Research has shown that probiotics can reduce the risk of side effects associated with antibiotic use such as diarrhea. One review found that when children were given probiotics alongside antibiotics, their risk of diarrhea was reduced by more than 50%.
One important thing to remember is that because most probiotics are also bacteria, they may also be killed off by the antibiotics. The chance of this is greatly reduced if you take the probiotics well away from your antibiotics – at least an hour apart.
It’s even more important to continue taking probiotics after you finish your antibiotics course. This will help to restore some of the healthy bacteria in the intestines that may have been damaged or killed off. Some research has even shown that probiotics can help to replenish your lost gut bacteria to its original state.
A 2014 study examined the benefits of probiotic supplementation in patients who had been on the same course of antibiotics.
Over 63 trials, it was found that 83% of the patients who began with healthy, undisturbed gut bacteria and then used probiotics after their course of antibiotics showed restored microbiota.
Of the patients who already had dysbiosis and then used antibiotics + probiotics, 56% showed improved microbiota.
However, of the patients who used no probiotic after their antibiotic course, only 21% regained their lost gut bacteria. The researchers conclude that a healthy gut was much more likely when patients took a probiotic containing strains capable of restoring normal microbiota. (4)
Ideally, you should be taking probiotics before you begin your antibiotics treatment. However, this may not always happen if your illness is unexpected!
Some of the most effective bacterial strains to look for in a probiotic are L. plantarum (which helps to protect the membrane lining your gut), L. paracasei, and L. acidophilus (to regulate acidity in your gut and support your immune system).
It’s also important to choose a probiotic that uses some form of time-release technology (such as BIO-tract) that prevents the capsule being broken down in the stomach.
Eating fermented foods during and after antibiotics is also highly recommended. Fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, miso and yogurt contain powerful microbes that can help to replenish your gut flora. Species such as Lactobacilli are particularly helpful in rebalancing those healthy bacteria and improving your overall gastrointestinal environment.
After completing your course of antibiotics, the real work begins. It’s vital that you continue restoring your gut flora with a high-quality probiotic supplement. This should be one that combines a variety of probiotic strains with a high CFU count (colony-forming units) in order to ensure the best chance of colonization.
A probiotic supplement should contain at least 10 billion CFUs for it to be effective, or at least 5 billion CFUs for children.
Here are a few key benefits of our probiotic: