Protecting your gut flora sets the tone for a healthy life.
Once thought of as a miracle drug that could do no wrong, a mounting body of research portrays antibiotics as your gut flora’s worst nightmare. Rather than just targeting bacteria that cause disease, antibiotics wipe out all microbes, both friend and foe, creating a microbiota imbalance that can lead to an assortment of health issues including weakened immune function, hormonal problems, allergies, eczema, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), mood disorders, inflammation, leaky gut syndrome, and obesity.
Despite this, and despite the growing concerns over global , mainstream doctors still dole out antibiotics as if they were passing around Tic Tacs. Skyrocketing rates of antibiotic prescriptions suggest that as many as four out of five Americans may be getting antibiotics annually according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Antibiotics shift the ecology of the body’s ecosystems by removing multiple species of organisms simultaneously,” says Dr. Ronald Whitmont, president of the American Institute of Homeopathy (AIH). “These ecological shifts are responsible for many of the side effects of antibiotics including yeast infections, antibiotic resistant organisms, immune system dysfunction, and chronic inflammation.”
Baltimore primary care specialist Dr. Marc Leavey agrees:
There is a delicate bacterial balance in our bodies that likely starts before birth and continues throughout life. Disruption of this balance can lead to upset stomach or minor bowel symptoms at a minimum, or a variety of resultant diseases ranging from secondary infections with pathogens to disruption of vital systems.
Why Gut Flora Health Matters
Studies show that our gastrointestinal tract is loaded with 100 trillion bacteria (about 3 pounds worth) both beneficial and harmful, collectively known as the microbiome. It’s now known that microbiome bacteria produce chemicals called neurotransmitters (such as serotonin) that significantly impact the central nervous system – especially our . This connection between gut flora and brain is called the . In fact, these neurotransmitters are so important that the enteric nervous system (ENS), which governs the function of the gastrointestinal tract, is often referred to as our “ second brain.”
“The vast majority of bacteria are harmless to people,” says Dr. Jerry Kanellos, chief operating officer for Australian biotech company Immuron. “In the human gastrointestinal tract, good bacteria aids in digestion and helps produce vitamins. They also help with immunity, making the body less hospitable to bad bacteria and other harmful pathogens.”
Each of us has a microbiome as individual as our fingerprints. Diet, lifestyle, environment, and especially strong medicines influence the health of our microbiome. The balance, or imbalance ( dysbiosis), begins early. One study showed how antibiotics administered to mother’s before cesarean delivery significantly changed the primary gut flora of their infants.
”In the case of infants with high exposure to antibiotics, the gut flora may never reach equilibrium,” says Florida family medicine specialist Dr. Faisal Tawwab.
It Gets Worse
Now research shows that antibiotics not only annihilate microbes your body needs, antibiotics can also destroy cells in the gut that prevent good bacteria from re-establishing new colonies. People who have been on long-term or multiple courses of antibiotics typically show a severe erosion of the glycocalyx (outer coating) that protects small, hair like projections in the small intestine called intestinal microvilli, which help maximize the absorption of vital nutrients. Antibiotics also inhibit the gut’s production of the antibody IgA, which aids in neutralizing pathogens. The combination of fewer IgAs produced with intestinal microvilli exposed, creates an environment ripe for opportunistic pathogens like – a common cause of leaky gut syndrome.
There’s also ongoing research into the very real possibility that antibiotics stop the growth of brain cells, says certified integrative nutrition coach Connie Rogers. Quoting a study from Science Daily:
“Antibiotics strong enough to kill off gut bacteria can also stop the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a section of the brain associated with memory.”
In the study, the researchers gave a group of mice enough antibiotics to become nearly free of intestinal microbes. Compared to untreated mice, the mice who lost their healthy gut bacteria performed worse in memory tests and showed a loss of neurogenesis (new brain cells) in a section of their hippocampus that typically produces new brain cells throughout an individual’s lifetime.
How To Know Antibiotics Are Doing A Number On You
In most cases, if antibiotics have damaged your gut flora, you will experience symptoms such as allergies or digestive problems (upset stomach, diarrhea, constipation, excess gas), according to Tawwab.
“The two biggest culprits are ciprofloxacin and clindamycin,” says Tawwab. “They lower the production of fatty acids responsible for reducing stress and inflammation in the body. These two antibiotics can disrupt your gut flora for four months or more.”
It’s also common for women to experience interminable yeast infections following a course of antibiotics.
“Chronic yeast infections are almost always associated with low IgA,” says Dr. Amie Skilton, a naturopathic physician and herbalist.
Dr. Barry Sears, a leading authority on anti-inflammatory nutrition, says a common symptom of antibiotic-induced gut trauma is fatigue because “microbial fragments can more easily enter the blood.” Sears, author of the Zone Diet book series, says this can also lead to more severe neurological problems if those same fragments enter the brain via the .
According to Whitmont, antibiotics can cause dysbiosis in any of the organ systems that depend on the gut for nutrition.
“These symptoms can include behavioral, pulmonary, cardiac, and nervous system changes that can manifest as chronic inflammation,” says Whitmont.
You could also find yourself putting on weight — a lot of weight — after using antibiotics. Antibiotics have been associated with obesity and weight gain in children as well as adults. Researchers attribute these changes to the altered gut microbial composition.
Antibiotics classified ascause the most damage because rather than targeting specific pathogens, they go after them all.
“They are also used without testing for a specific class of microbes that may be causing the problems,” says Sears. “You run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater with broad-spectrum antibiotics. A more specific antibiotic would be far better but probably more expensive.”
Common broad-spectrum antibiotics include:
Your age and overall health before taking an antibiotic also plays into the amount of turmoil your gut microbiome experiences. Studies indicate that children may suffer most. According to a report that appeared in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, by altering the gut microbiota, which compromises the immune system very early in life, antibiotics “could negatively influence long-term health, particularly in boosting the risk of developing asthma, allergies, and obesity.”
How Long Will My Gut Flora Be Messed Up?
Factors such as the strength and type of antibiotic and how long you’ve been taking them determine the severity of microbiome imbalance. According to Sears, diet also plays a role. With a standard Western diet, you can expect a minimum healing time of “a few days” after stopping the antibiotics.
“But the microbial diversity will be lower than before starting treatment,” says Sears.
A better approach, according to Sears, is to improve your diet during the antibiotic period so the balance of microbes will be better following treatment.
Leavey says that the most common antibiotics generally have a “relatively short-lived” effect on the bowels. “However, studies have shown that more potent (antibiotics) can affect the bowel flora for months to a year.”
Kanellos holds a more pessimistic view:
“It could take weeks or months before the microbiome returns to normal. The damage can be so severe that the gut flora never recovers without intervention.”
According to Skilton, certain antibiotics trigger a greater release of endotoxins (a toxin inside bacterial cells) and cytokines (molecules associated with inflammation) than others. Higher daily doses of antibiotics are more impactful. Prolonged use of high-dose antibiotics can cause extreme damage to the microbiome that may take years of restorative therapy to reverse, if it can be reversed at all.
And contrary to common belief, Skilton says intravenous antibiotics can have the same negative impact on gut flora as oral drugs.
5 Ways To Protect Your Gut From Antibiotics
1. Don’t Take Them Unless Absolutely Necessary – Of the estimated 154 million prescriptions for antibiotics written in doctor’s offices and emergency departments each year, 30 percent are unnecessary according to data compiled by the CDC and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Researchers found that most of these unnecessary antibiotics are prescribed for respiratory conditions caused by viruses – including common colds, viral sore throats, bronchitis, and sinus and ear infections – which do not respond to antibiotics. These 47 million excess prescriptions each year put patients at needless risk for allergic reactions or the sometimes deadly diarrhea, Clostridium difficile.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, an Infectious Diseases Society of America representative, says the five most over prescribed antibiotics are:
Another problem on the upswing around the world is self-prescribing, which occurs when people use antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription. In the U.S. this normally happens when people buy antibiotics illegally or use antibiotics intended for someone else. Many countries permit over-the-counter purchases of antibiotics. Self-prescribing contributes to antibiotic resistance and often destroys beneficial gut flora unnecessarily from trying to nurse symptoms that cannot be treated with antibiotics, such as sore throat or cough.
2. Use The Natural Antibiotic Silver — is the world’s , but it went out of style with the discovery of penicillin in 1928. But now that antibiotics are ruining microbiotas and that bacteria strains are evolving resistance to antibiotics, scientists are once again turning to those silver antibacterial properties our ancestors long relied on. , for example, is the most powerful natural antimicrobial in existence, which means you can give up immune-disruption antibiotics and stay healthy the natural way. Silver Healer is extremely simple to use. You can make it at home for the price of distilled water. Then there’s , a 4,000 PPM highly condensed version of silver that you only need a few drops mixed into a glass of water, to gain the same effect as drinking 8 ounces of regular colloidal silver. Great for carrying around for travel or immediate emergencies. This is the most bioavailable silver in the market with 200 times higher ability to address infection because of chelation. It can kill more than 600 varieties of bad bacteria, while leaving the good bacteria intact.
3. Probiotics And Prebiotics – The main difficulty after a course of antibiotics – especially the broad-spectrum type – is restoring the diversity of beneficial bacteria. Probiotics are supplements that introduce live beneficial microbes into your digestive tract and help improve your gut health. According to Kanellos, probiotics reduce gas, bloating, and abdominal pain associated with IBS. It’s important to use probiotics that survive stomach acids. offers the only all natural probiotic-and-antioxidant combination product that 100 percent survives the harsh conditions of the stomach and arrives alive in the small intestine to get to work for you.
Prebiotics help feed your new beneficial microbes. A prebiotic is a specialized plant fiber that beneficially nourishes the good bacteria already in the large bowel or colon. While probiotics introduce good bacteria into the gut, prebiotics act as a fertilizer for the good bacteria that’s already there. An excellent prebiotic is in the mix of some superfoods, such as.
4. Molecular Hydrogen – This amazing helps gut microbiomes stay healthy by reducing oxidative stress, which often leads to inflammatory conditions. molecular hydrogen tablets are potent and easy to use. Tablets are simply placed in a liquid beverage, preferably water, and take 10-15 minutes to completely dissolve.
5. Watch What You Eat – Diet is crucial to maintaining a more balanced gut microbiome – especially during and after a course of antibiotics. “Eating wheat, dairy, sugar, unhealthy fats, and fried foods can make it harder for your gut to recover,” says Tawwab. “Be sure to stick to a well-balanced, healthy diet while on antibiotics for an overall faster recovery time.”
Eat fermented foods that contain live cultures and have not been pasteurized, since pasteurization kills the beneficial bacteria. Good choices include sauerkraut, kimchi, coconut kefir, and kombucha. Many of these foods are rich in lactobacilli, a type of bacteria that can benefit your gut.
Many holistic practitioners believe fruits and vegetables (especially artichokes, peas, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts) are the best sources of nutrients for a healthy microbiota. They are high in fiber, which can’t be digested by your body, but fiber can be digested by certain bacteria in your gut, which stimulates growth. Try to find true organic fruits and vegetables grown without pesticides. Chemical sprays and systemics are proven to destroy good bacteria.
The Antibiotic Meetup
One more important note about the impact of unnecessary antibiotics: It’s not just people who suffer.
“Antibiotics don’t cease to exist once they are eliminated from the human body,” says Whitmont. “After these drugs are excreted via urine or fecal waste they enter the environment where they join with other antibiotics and other drugs used in human and veterinary medicine.”
Residues of these drugs persistent in the environment and have built up in ground water supplies around the world. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, these chemical contaminants have already had profound effects on the growth and development of most wildlife species.
Thomas Ropp Longtime journalist Thomas Ropp is an environmental advocate and proponent of living healthier. After spending most of his life in Arizona, he relocated to a Costa Rican rainforest ten years ago and helped with reforestation projects to expand the habitat of the endangered mono titi monkey. He has dual residency in the United States and Costa Rica.
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