If you’ve never had to take antibiotics before, consider yourself very lucky. For most of us, at one time or another, we’ve been prescribed a course of antibiotics.
There are a variety of families of antibiotics that are available, which now range in treating a plethora of conditions. We use antibiotics to fight infection, and their main job is to kill bad bacteria that causes illness. Antibiotics are so effective because when you take one, it enters your bloodstream, travels through your body, and kills only the bacteria, and not human cells.
While the evolution and growth of antibiotic use has been successful in prolonging our lifespans over the years, it has also brought about incorrect use and abuse that can have severe long-term consequences.
When taking antibiotics incorrectly, we risk building resistance to certain strains of antibiotics. If we build resistance for an antibiotic, this means they will no longer be effective in our bodies the next time they are needed. Because of the rise in antibiotic resistance, more and more new antibiotics are being introduced, costs of antibiotics are rising, and resistance patterns are constantly changing. This makes now a more trying time than ever to choose the best antibiotic courses for patients. If these patterns continue, we may develop a huge problem on our hands of antibiotics becoming ineffective.
Another offshoot of taking antibiotics is the effect it has on the ‘gut flora’. The majority of the body’s bacteria live within the gut. Here, these bacteria are responsible for neutralizing toxins, inhibiting yeast and bad bacteria in the gut, and training the immune system to recognize and fight harmful bacteria and protect the body from disease. Unfortunately, antibiotics cannot distinguish between good and bad bacteria, and therefore, when they are in effect to kill bad bacteria that is making you sick, they also kill the friendly gut bacteria.
We need the friendly bacteria to keep our bodies healthy in many ways, so when antibiotics kill the good bacteria, it can affect your health negatively by creating an imbalance in our system. When the good bacteria are killed your body is more vulnerable to opportunistic infection of bacteria from the environment entering your body and overrunning your system. It can also give an opportunity for bad bacteria to multiply and overgrow (causing all types of candida and yeast overgrowth related problems).
To make the best of your antibiotic course treatment, take the following steps in ensuring the best health practices.
1. Take Antibiotics Only when absolutely necessary.
People who are healthy and take antibiotics infrequently, usually recover quickly. When antibiotics were first introduced, they worked so quickly and well with little side effects, they were seen as a miracle drug, and some saw them as an answer to all common illnesses. This is not actually the case because antibiotics can only kill bacteria, not viruses, so it is not beneficial to take antibiotics for the following conditions:
Most sore throats
Some ear infections
Some sinus infections
Stomach flu (viral gastroenteritis)
One factor that may be leading to the misuse or overuse of antibiotics is that doctors may prescribe them before receiving lab test results back that will identify the specific cause of infection. Another reason could be that people want an easy fix for their symptoms regardless of what is actually causing it and can pressure their doctors for antibiotic prescriptions. Some even take leftover antibiotics from a previous prescription or order them online from abroad for self diagnosed illnesses. These can all be dangerous and even counter-effective for treatment and overall health, so it is important not to abuse antibiotic use.
2. Take the ENTIRE course of antibiotics.
Most people will stop taking the antibiotics once they start to feel better, but there is a reason why your doctor prescribes you the specific type of antibiotic and the specific amount and duration to take them for. It is therefore important to finish all of the antibiotics, even if you feel better midway. If you stop the treatment early, there is a risk that the antibiotics have not killed all of the bacteria that is making you sick, and it can then mutate and become resistant. Again, this is not a guarantee it will happen to you if you stop, but there is no sure way of knowing who can safely stop early and who cannot so it’s best not to risk it. Keeping unfinished antibiotics for another occasion when you think you may need them can be dangerous, and may not be effective, as there are different types for different illnesses and bacterial infections.
3. Take Probiotics.
Let me start by saying that taking probiotics regularly is always a good idea. It is especially beneficial to take them during and after the course of antibiotic treatment. Probiotics are the “good bacteria” or live cultures that are either just like, or closely similar to the ones naturally found in the gut. When you take them, it helps to change or repopulated the intestinal bacteria to balance the gut flora. Aside from colonizing in the gut, taking probiotics during the antibiotic treatment course can have therapeutic effects as well, such as preventing antibiotic-associated diarrhea.
Just like every single body is different, there is not one type of probiotic that is good for everyone. Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium are two strains of bacteria that are very commonly taken as probiotics. Another is S. boulardii, a beneficial yeast that is useful during antibiotic treatment because the antibiotics do not affect it. These can be found in health food stores. Probiotics usually come anywhere from 250 million to 100 billion or more colony forming units (CFUs) per capsule. Generally, the more bacteria the better. Some probiotic products come in single strain form, and some come in combined strains. Some experts believe it is better to get ones with combined strains to strengthen the immune system best, but again, you have to find what’s best for you.
Specifically with antibiotic use, Saccharomyces boulardii lyo (can be purchased as the product Florastor) is the probiotic of choice. The main reason is because it is a yeast and not a bacteria, which means it cannot get killed by the antibiotics so it survives on its journey to the microbiome destination very well. This is also one of the best studied strains of probiotics that has shown to have a particular benefit in preventing antibiotic associated diarrhea and protecting against opportunistic infection that may arise from a weakened immune system and gut flora. This probiotic does not require prebiotic fibers to survive and is great for sensitive individuals and for children.
Another great probiotic that is likely beneficial for antibiotic use is Lactobacillus rhamnosus GG (can be purchased as the product Culturelle). It has shown to protect against antibiotic associated diarrhea. It is even a good idea to take a combination of Florastor and Culturelle together to get better coverage and protection.
Capsule form is usually recommended over powdered forms of probiotics, as it helps in having a delivery system to travel to the gut without being destroyed through the journey.
As previously mentioned, continue probiotic use well after you finish your antibiotic course for at least several weeks after in order to help rebuild the microbiome re balance the “good guys” in the gut. Continuing to take probiotics regularly is even better and serves great benefits for digestion, mental health, and immunity.
4. Take Prebiotics.
If you’ve never heard of prebiotics, they are closely connected to probiotics. These are actually a source of food for the probiotics to nourish them and help them multiply and survive in the gut. These make a great food source for probiotics because they are non-digestible fibres (for the human body) which means we cannot absorb or break them down and they travel safely down to the gut for the probiotics to absorb.
Prebiotics are just as important, if not more important than probiotics, especially during an antibiotic treatment for protecting and rebuilding a healthy flora. If it is at all possible, we recommend introducing prebiotic supplements before even beginning the course of antibiotics, if not, it is definitely a great Idea to take them at the same time and after the antibiotic treatment as well.
You can also get prebiotics from your diet, and sources such as bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, soybeans and whole-wheat foods. Soluble fiber is a great source of food for good bacteria to grow. Foods high in soluble fiber include carrots, squash, starchy tubers, turnips, parsnips, beets, plantains, taro, and yuca and raw chicory root and jerusalem artichokes.
5. Eat a diet that supports the body during antibiotic treatment.
Don’t rely on supplements alone to get the job done. To help with immunity, and rebuilding the gut flora, it is crucial that you eat a diet that supports your body to make the quickest and fullest recovery possible.
This includes eating generous servings of fermented foods and drinks during and after antibiotics, as they naturally contain a high amount of probiotics. These include kefir, yogurt, kim-chi, sauerkraut, kombucha, pickles, pickled beets and carrots( and other fermented veggies), miso soup, tempeh, cultured non-dairy yogurt (great for vegans and vegetarians), and even refrigerated probiotic chocolate like Attune chocolate bars (low in sugar, calcium fortified, and have a clean ingredient list).
For the rest of the diet, it is a good idea to eat nutrient dense and easy to digest REAL food in small portions to allow the body to use its energy to heal instead of using that energy to digest food. Adding gelatin rich foods such as bone broth daily along with other glycine-rich foods to promote healing of the gut and lining.
Limit your intake of simple carbohydrates and sugars. This is especially important when recovering from illness and after a course of antibiotics because bad bacteria love sugar. When we stay away from it, we help to “starve off” the bad bacteria and create an environment where they cannot thrive.
You can also benefit from eating a GAPS diet which is “specifically designed to heal and seal the gut lining, rebalance the immune system, and restore the optimal bacteria ecosystem within the gastrointestinal tract.” For more detailed information you can buy the wonderful book by Natasha Campbell-Mcbride, and go on the Gaps Diet website.
6. Extra Support.
Sometimes antibiotics can cause nausea and give you an upset stomach. For this, ginger is extremely helpful and effective in reducing inflammation and calming the digestive system. Fresh ginger is best, simply peel it, slice it into thin slices, boil it and let it simmer for about 10 minutes. If fresh is not available use dried ginger to make a ginger tea by simmering it in hot water for 3-5 minutes (depending on the strength you like).
Antibiotics can also affect the liver as it breaks down the medications (especially long term use), so taking a supplement of milk thistle (in capsule or tea form) is helpful in protecting the liver and supporting liver function. Glycine also helps protect the liver which is another great reason to drink the bone broth mentioned earlier.
Aloe vera is another great way to supplement and protect the lining of the gut and stomach. Drink fresh aloe vera juice or use aloe vera capsules.
Glutamine is an amino acid that is an important component for the gastrointestinal tract for repairing of the lining and elimination of yeast infections. So, taking an amino acid supplement or an isolated form of glutamine can be added to your routine when taking antibiotics.
Make the best of having to take an antibiotic course, and treat your body with great support during this time in order to make a fast and safe recovery!