Antibiotics are used to fight infections caused by bacteria. Most people have taken them at some point in the past, or will have to in the future. The problem with antibiotics: they kill bacteria (or stop it from multiplying), but cannot differentiate between the good bacteria that your body needs to help you keep a healthy gut, and the bacteria causing you to be sick.
The first step is to only take antibiotics if you really need them. Many illnesses are caused by viruses, and antibiotics don’t kill viruses! Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between an illness caused by a virus and a bacteria. If you have a cold, give yourself a few days to see if you improve on your own – your body has a great capacity to fight infection! You can also ask your doctor if you need antibiotics now or if it would be reasonable to do a “wait and see” approach (sometimes they will give a prescription for you to take only if you aren’t improving).
Meet your Bacteria:
You have 30 trillion to 400 trillion bacteria in your body, the majority of which are found in your gastrointestinal tract. Some bacteria are harmful to our body, but the majority of your gut bacteria is helpful to you. Your helpful gut bacteria are necessary for functions such as:
- Protecting against ‘bad’ bacteria and pathogens that cause disease
- Breaking down toxins
- Making vitamins
- Helping to manage weight
- Making short chain fatty acids that help keep the gut lining healthy
When you take antibiotics they kill the bacteria making you sick, but they also kill the good bacteria that help keep you healthy. When the gut bacteria balance (the balance between the helpful and harmful gut bacteria), contains too many ‘bad’ bacteria and not enough ‘good’ bacteria, you may start to see symptoms such as gas, bloating, nausea, obesity, anxiety, depression, inflammation, and other immune systems dysfunctions.
The health of your gut microbiome is a much bigger part of your life than maybe you realize, so, how can you keep your microbiome healthy, even after taking a medication that disrupts the balance of bacteria?
Tips for Growing a Healthy Gut Microbiome:
You and your bacteria may be more similar than you think! In order to grow and thrive, what do you need? Healthy foods! Your good gut bacteria’s favorite food is fiber, which is found in plant foods. If your body is lacking in fiber, the helpful bacteria may begin to starve, and can cause break down of the protective layer of the gut, which can lead to further inflammation and disease.
- Eat a diet high in fiber foods. Think beans, broccoli, berries, whole-grain, avocados, other fruits and veggies. Really, any plant-food is going to contain fiber. Here’s a great reference: https://www.med.umich.edu/mott/pdf/mott-fiber-chart.pdf
- Increase intake of fermented foods. Fermented foods such as kombucha, yogurt, and sauerkraut contain probiotics that help to add helpful bacteria in your gut. (Note: Beer loses most of its probiotics during the brewing process, so, although fermented, drinking will not promote better gut health- good try though!)
- Limit your intake of red meats, fried foods, and foods with added antibiotics. Antibiotics given to the animals that you eat can be passed to your gut, further damaging your microbiome.
- Hydrate. Drinking water helps to move nutrients throughout the body and gut, and helps your gut to remove toxins and pathogens.
- Take a prebiotic or probiotic (more on these below). Help provide more bacteria to your microbiome and feed your healthy bacteria.
- Avoid sugar and processed foods. Sugar and processed foods feed the harmful bacteria in your gut so it may disrupt your microbiome.
- Exercise Regularly. Your gut bacteria works best when you are active, because activity promotes a higher diversity of good bacteria.
- Rest well! Sleep increases your body’s ability to handle a bacterial infection by increasing your cells’ ability to destroy pathogens.
Tip #4 is to take a prebiotic or probiotic, but what’s the difference?
- Probiotics are foods or supplements that introduce live ‘good’ bacteria. I think of probiotics as “professional bacteria”, that make themselves at home in your gut to improve the health of your digestive system. Fermented foods and plants have probiotics, or they can be taken through supplements. It is good to remember that if you take a probiotic, you have to feed the new bacteria to keep them happy, otherwise they won’t set up shop and heal your gut. What do probiotics eat? Prebiotics!
- Prebiotics are nutrients for your ‘good’ bacteria. Think of fertilizer that you use to grow plants. Similarly, prebiotics are what grows and feeds your good bacteria. Prebiotics are really just a form of dietary fiber that can be found in many plant foods, such as garlic, onions, bananas, apples, oats, flaxseeds, and more.
The bottom line: After taking a round of antibiotics, the balance of bacteria in your gut has changed. This is the perfect opportunity to reintroduce ‘good’ bacteria in your gut and feed the helpful bacteria, which will greatly impact your overall health. Lifestyle habits such as eating whole-plants foods, drinking plenty of water, keeping your body moving, and resting well can provide your microbiome with exactly what it needs to grow back healthier than before.