Recently take antibiotics? Here’s how to naturally heal your gut and restore your good bacteria to get you back to optimal health.
Antibiotics are medications that have life-saving uses for bacterial infections, such as strep throat and UTIs.
They kill the bacteria that cause the infection and prevent it from spreading, which can be important, especially for serious cases or in those who have compromised immune systems.
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The problem with antibiotics, however, is that they’ve become overused and prescribed even when viral infections are present (antibiotics can’t kill viruses). Remember: Antibiotics don’t destroy bad bacteria only, they also wipe out good bacteria. When they’re chronically overused, they can leave people in gut-compromised positions, which can influence many other areas of life, including immunity, mental health, digestion, detoxing, and even inflammation levels.
How Antibiotics Affect the Gut
Not only do antibiotics suppress bacterial infections, they can also cause an immediate decline in beneficial bacterial strains like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria. In some cases, they can also cause a rise in clostridium, a harmful type of bacteria that lives in the gut. (3)
Most antibiotics can also cause long-term changes to the bacterial landscape of the gut. While the gut may return to normal on its own without assistance, in many cases, it can take an average of four weeks after a single dose of antibiotics for the gut to begin this process. (4,5,6) If more doses are used, or frequent antibiotics are taken, the gut can experience permanent changes unless interventions are used. (7)
The potential even exists for antibiotics to change the gut so that bacterial groups remain altered for two or more years, including the addition of resistant strains to the gut, which can be problematic for future health. (8)
Beyond just the gut, antibiotics can also cause damage in mitochondria – the energy-producing powerhouses of cells. (9) Without healthy mitochondria, it’s possible for your whole body to feel run down and short on energy.
Antibiotics used in the first few years of life have the potential to create gut microbiomes that are drastically different from those who didn’t have them as children. This can lead to a greater likelihood of weight gain and obesity, both in childhood and the adult years. (10)
For years, antibiotics were over prescribed, and in some cases they still are. Taking an active role in your gut health means asking clarifying questions if you’re prescribed antibiotics, and if the source of an infection can’t easily be identified, asking your doctor to test for root causes can help eliminate unnecessary antibiotic use. For example, antibiotics aren’t effective against any kind of viral infection, and yet sometimes when symptoms of colds, flus, or other common illnesses appear, doctors will prescribe prophylactic antibiotics “in case” a bacterial infection is also present. These types of exposures can lengthen healing time from viral infections because of how they suppress the mitochondria, which are the cells’ energy producers.
Beyond these invisible signs of antibiotic damage, side effects can also be more obvious, like diarrhea, nausea, or vomiting. Some people can have allergic reactions to certain strains of antibiotics, like penicillin, so be sure to note any strange occurrences that happen, like sores in the mouth or itchy rashes, that may appear after starting a course of antibiotics.
Bottom line: While antibiotics can have specific health benefits, their side effects are broad. Since they destroy good bacteria as well as bad, they can cause lasting damaging effects. It’s important to make sure that you really need them before taking them and asking your doctor clarifying questions is the first step to becoming your own gut health advocate.
3 Things to Do When You Have to Take Antibiotics
Sometimes antibiotics are unavoidable and, for the gut-conscious person, this can feel stressful. But there are things you can do to maximize gut health and minimize long-term negative effects.
1. Follow Prescription Instructions
While you may not be thrilled to take antibiotics in the first place, it’s important to take the full course of your prescription. While some current research is looking at whether this is necessary, the answer is not yet definitive.
If you have to take antibiotics, take them the right way to ensure that the bacteria you’re fighting is truly wiped out. If you stop before that is taken care of, chances are you’ll end up on another course of antibiotics again soon, not to mention make yourself more susceptible to being antibiotic resistant the next time you encounter this same bacteria.
2. Take Probiotics Separately
It’s important to take probiotics during a course of antibiotics, but you need to spread them out. If you take them together, probiotics and antibiotics will virtually cancel each other out. Ideally, take probiotics at least three hours away from antibiotics. While there are differing opinions on what strains are best, taking a broad spectrum, high-dose probiotic is a good place to start to try to maintain status quo. Choose one with at least five different strains, and a combined dose of at least 100 billion.
3. Support Gut Health
Even though you’re going to lose some good bacteria in the process, supporting gut health while you’re taking antibiotics can reduce the severity and duration of your gut-related symptoms, especially when it comes to nausea and diarrhea.
Drinking bone broth daily, even two to three times per day, can help to boost gut health and function, thanks to the presence of several amino acids. These amino acids can also minimize damage to the digestive tract and have a protective effect on the barrier function of the gut.
Staying hydrated is also an important way to support gut health since healthy elimination and cells rely on proper fluid balance. If you’re already sick and needing antibiotics, hydration is crucial. Add an extra 10 to 20 ounces on top of what you drink when you’re healthy.
Finally, adding a collagen supplement can also boost gut health, and as a bonus, is a tasteless way to get in several grams of protein, even if your appetite isn’t great. You can add it to any hot or cold liquid without altering the taste.
5 Ways to Heal Your Gut After Taking Antibiotics
After your course of antibiotics is finished, there are five specific ways that you can help to restore normal balance to your microbiome.
1. Replace Good Bacteria
Because antibiotics wipe out good and bad bacteria alike, the most important thing to do is to recolonize your gut with good bacteria. This can be done in a few ways, but the fastest way is to take a probiotic supplement. Choose a broad spectrum supplement, with at least 10 strains, and without added fillers. Renew Life’s Ultimate Flora is an excellent supplement option that is available in most health food stores. It comes in capsules containing 50 billion live cultures, and for the initial recolonization, taking 2-3 capsules daily is ideal.
Eating probiotic rich foods is also important. Choose fermented foods with live and active cultures, like sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi. Avoid yogurt and kefir unless they don’t contain sugar – most commercial varieties of these products contain as much as 20 to 30 grams of sugar per serving, and that volume of sugar undoes any potential benefits from the few probiotic strains.
2. Repair the Gut
While you can focus on this during a course of antibiotics, it’s important to continue working on gut repair and healing after antibiotics. Bone broth, collagen, and even supplemental glutamine can help to ensure that the barrier function of the gut is intact.
Eating plenty of vegetables is also important since fiber helps the intestines to function normally. After antibiotics, some may experience irritable bowel or diarrhea, and fiber found in vegetables and fruits can help to restore normal bowel function.
While hydration is important during sickness, it’s as equally important after. Without enough water, the gut can’t function as it should, and neither can anything else in the body.
3. Support the Mitochondria
While most people aren’t concerned about their mitochondria, more should be! These are the powerhouses of cells, and when our energy makers in the cells aren’t functioning well, we aren’t going to feel our best. The gut needs mitochondria to restore proper function, as does the immune system, digestive system, and every other cell in the body.
Since antibiotics can damage mitochondria, it’s important to replace the nutrients that they need to get back to optimal wellness. (11) Nutrients vital for mitochondrial function include:
- B vitamins
These nutrients are found in abundance in a balanced Paleo diet, rich in vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and proteins.
4. Prevent Bacterial Overgrowth
Following antibiotics, certain people can be more prone to developing yeast infections or bacterial overgrowth from candida. This is because the body needs good bacteria to keep these naturally occurring bugs in check, and when that gets wiped out, the bad bacteria can rapidly proliferate.
Probiotic supplements, especially saccharomyces boulardii, can help to tame the yeast and restore proper balance. Ideally, this strain should be combined with a broad strain probiotic supplement to help further colonize common beneficial bacteria in the gut.
The other important factor for preventing or controlling bacterial overgrowth is to eliminate dietary sources that feed the bad strains. Sugar, refined flours, grains, and fast foods all contain junky ingredients that help bad bacteria thrive and don’t nourish good bacteria.
5. Support the Liver
If you’ve taken antibiotics frequently or several times in the course of a few years, it’s also important to support liver health. Research has shown that antibiotics are one of the most potent sources of drug-induced damage to the liver. (12,13)
The liver is the largest internal organ, responsible not only for detoxing, but for breaking down old hormones, producing cholesterol, synthesizing vitamin D, and helping to produce digestive juices.
Without the liver, we cannot survive. Start with a diet rich in antioxidants and healthy omega-3 fats. Vegetables that have a higher sulfur count – like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower – aid the liver in detoxing but also contain nutrients to protect it and help it to repair.
Bottom line: Even if you need to take antibiotics, it’s possible to minimize side effects and damage. You can do this by living a lifestyle that promotes gut health and steers clear of junk foods like refined sugars and trans fats.
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