If you’re one of the 4 out of 5 Americans who are prescribed antibiotics every year, then you know how big a role these antibacterial drugs play in today’s culture of medicine. In fact, healthcare providers prescribe nearly 270 million antibiotics to patients every year 1!
There’s no doubt that antibiotics can be lifesaving medicines, but research shows that approximately 50% of antibiotics may be prescribed inappropriately, contributing to widespread antibiotic resistance and an epidemic of insufficient gut bacteria amongst those in the developed world.
Fortunately, by understanding how antibiotics work and their effects on our body, we can take steps to use them responsibly while also making sure to protect and nourish our delicate digestive tract and our probiotic friends who reside there.
A Brief History of Antibiotics
Did you know that more than 2,000 years ago, ancient cultures brewed beer with an antibiotic-producing soil bacteria? Interestingly, it wasn’t accidental; researchers theorize that these prehistoric tribes were deliberately fermenting their libations to achieve tetracycline-like effects as protection from the many inhospitable microbes in their environment 2.
But, it wasn’t until well into the 20th century that scientists began to understand the power of antibiotics. In 1928, biologist Alexander Fleming unwittingly made one of the most profound discoveries of all time when he came home from a month-long family vacation to discover that one of the bacterial cultures he had left out was contaminated with a mold that had killed the original surrounding bacteria.
Fleming identified the mold as the Penicillium genus and later named the active ingredients in the mold penicillin, thereby ushering in the antibiotic era that has dominated modern medicine for most of the last century.
How Do Antibiotics Work?
Just as their name implies, antibiotics are “against life,” or more specifically, against bacterial life. Antibiotics work by either preventing bacterial cells from multiplying (so our immune system can finish the job) or by killing the offending bacteria completely. To accomplish this, the antibiotic chemicals interfere with important bacterial processes, like protein-building or cell wall structuring.
Antibiotics can be narrow spectrum—meaning they only work against a select few bacterial families—or broad-spectrum antibiotics, which are effective against a wide range of bacteria. Unfortunately, the overuse of antibiotics (especially broad spectrum types) has led to something called antibiotic resistance.
You see, there will always be some bacteria in every population that are naturally resistant to antibiotics. So, when you take antibiotics, they indiscriminately wipe out all of the susceptible bad and good bacteria in your system. Without other bacteria to take up space, the resistant bacteria now have free run of your body, where they can multiply and pass their resistance on to other bacteria that make your body their home.
The problem is that it’s a vicious cycle—every time we use antibiotics, resistant bacteria have the opportunity to grow and thrive, leading to even more resistance and possible “super bugs” that don’t respond to antibiotics at all.
The good news is that we can mitigate antibiotic resistance and the effects of antibiotics on our health by taking care of our microbiome.
Antibiotics and Your Microbiome
Your microbiome is the diverse ecosystem of all the bacteria living in and on your body, and ideally, it consists of 85% good bacteria (aka probiotics) and only 15% of the undesirable bacteria that can make you feel less than your best. Within this delicate balance, the good guys can support your health by helping you absorb nutrients and digest your food, maintaining your blood sugar levels already in a healthy range, supporting your immune system, and even encouraging emotional balance.
The problem with antibiotics is that they indiscriminately wipe out all the bacteria in your microbiome, both the bad guys they are targeting and the probiotics that are working so hard to keep you healthy. And when the good guys can no longer stand guard to crowd out the bad guys and perform all of their crucial life-supporting functions, the unwanted bacteria can take over, leading to temporary diarrhea and other digestive complaints.
The bad news is that research shows that just one course of antibiotics can negatively impact your gut microbiome for up to an entire year3. Just imagine what happens with continued antibiotic use beyond one course—and the depletion of more and more beneficial bacteria! After several cycles, you may even find that your health (beyond just your digestion) is impacted on multiple fronts.
Thankfully, probiotics can help make a difference when it comes to antibiotic use.
How Do Probiotics Help?
Probiotics are vital for every microbiome, but especially for those impacted by antibiotics. Studies show that probiotics can help to prevent the use of antibiotics in the first place by supporting your body’s natural healthy state, and that they can work to support healthy digestion and curtail antibiotic resistance when antibiotics are necessary 4.
Other research indicates that probiotics can have a dramatically positive effect on antibiotic use and overall health:
• Patients who supplemented with probiotics while taking antibiotics had a 60% reduced risk of having their gut microbiomes overrun with opportunistic microbes common after antibiotic use 5.
• Fecal transplants—that is, transferring probiotic-rich stool from one person to another—has been shown to be an effective and sometimes superior way to promote health, due to its ability to increase one's population of probiotic bacteria, especially in regards to overgrowth of undesirable bacteria6.
• Scientists discovered that antibiotics can reduce new cell growth in the brain—an effect that can be overcome by prioritizing gut health through exercise and taking probiotics7.
The truth is that you or someone in your family may need to take antibiotics at some point—the key is knowing how to properly and proactively support your microbiome in the process.
How to Be a Savvy Antibiotic (and Probiotic) User
The dreaded moment your doctor gives you the news that you must take a course of antibiotics is also the moment you should jump into action to make sure to fortify your microbiome. Here are six practical steps you can take.
1. Advocate for yourself. Before you fill an antibiotic prescription, make sure your doctor has confirmed the need with a lab test. Because so many antibiotics are overprescribed, you want to ensure it’s a necessity before subjecting your fragile microbiome to any drug’s nuking effects.
2. Always take probiotics! Ideally, you’ll already be taking a high-quality probiotic before you begin your course of antibiotics, but if you aren’t, it’s never too late to start. A multi-strain formula like Hyperbiotics PRO-15 will seed your gut with billions of beneficial microbes to keep things in balance. And, stay the course even after you are done taking the medicine—it can take an entire year to bring your microbiome back to a state of balance after taking antibiotics!
3. Spread out the doses. Because antibiotics indiscriminately destroy any and all bacteria as they make their way through your body, wait at least two hours after taking antibiotics before you take your probiotic dose. This gives the probiotics more time to settle in and set up shop in your gut.
4. Choose antibiotic-free foods. Did you know that antibiotics may be present in the foods you eat? Many farmers use antibiotics to fatten up their livestock, so you could be unwittingly ingesting antibiotics and damaging your microbiome if you eat tainted foods. Choose organic and antibiotic-free meat, dairy, fish, and eggs whenever possible and invest in a high-quality water filter to filter out unnecessary contaminants.
5. Focus on prebiotics. Much like fertilizer feeds a garden, prebiotics are indigestible fibers that feed your good gut bacteria and help them thrive so they can get to work supporting your health. Keep your friendly microbes happy and full with a prebiotic powder supplement and a diet high in whole, plant-based foods, including prebiotic sources like oats, honey, apples, bananas, Jerusalem artichoke, and onions.
6. Live a gut-healthy life. Nourishing your gut goes well beyond just taking probiotics while taking antibiotics. Making daily choices to stay away from microbial depleters like antibacterial cleansers and antimicrobial personal care products, being active, keeping your stress levels in check, and spending plenty of time outdoors will all help you create a gut environment conducive to a healthy probiotic population that is the key to long-term and vibrant health.
As more and more people realize the impact that antibiotics have on our individual health and that of our society as a whole, we’ll hopefully move towards only using antibiotics in emergency or clear-cut, specific situations where no other option is available. Looking ahead, the exciting new future of medicine may even include targeted probiotic prescriptions that aim to remedy your health by fortifying your gut microbiome with the exact probiotic strains it needs.
Until we get there, committing to using antibiotics responsibly and making the conscious decision to support your gut through all of life’s challenges is the path to long-lasting and dynamic health for both you and your entire family.References:
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2013). Outpatient Antibiotic Prescriptions—United States 2013.
2. Nelson, M. L., Dinardo, A., Hochberg, J., & Armelagos, G. J. (2010). Brief communication: Mass spectroscopic characterization of tetracycline in the skeletal remains of an ancient population from Sudanese Nubia 350-550 CE. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 143(1), 151-154.
3. Zaura, E., Brandt, B. W., Mattos, M. J., Buijs, M. J., Caspers, M. P., Rashid, M., . . . Crielaard, W. (2015). Same Exposure but Two Radically Different Responses to Antibiotics: Resilience of the Salivary Microbiome versus Long-Term Microbial Shifts in Feces. MBio, 6(6). doi:10.1128/mbio.01693-15
4. Ouwehand, A. C., Forssten, S., Hibberd, A. A., Lyra, A., & Stahl, B. (2016). Probiotic approach to prevent antibiotic resistance. Annals of Medicine, 48(4), 246-255.
5. Chamberlain, R., & Lau, C. (2016). Probiotics are effective at preventing Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of General Medicine, 27. doi:10.2147/ijgm.s98280
6. Brandt, L. J., & Reddy, S. S. (2011). Fecal Microbiota Transplantation for Recurrent Clostridium difficile Infection. Journal of Clinical Gastroenterology, 45. doi:10.1097/mcg.0b013e318222e603
7. Möhle, L., Mattei, D., Heimesaat, M., Bereswill, S., Fischer, A., Alutis, M., . . . Wolf, S. (2016). Ly6Chi Monocytes Provide a Link between Antibiotic-Induced Changes in Gut Microbiota and Adult Hippocampal Neurogenesis. Cell Reports, 15(9), 1945-1956.
Emily Courtney is a Writer and Editor at Hyperbiotics and mom to two fun and active boys. Emily is passionate about natural wellness and helping others learn about the power of probiotics for vibrant health! For more ideas on how you can benefit from the power of probiotics and live healthier days, be sure to subscribe to our newsletter.