Before we jump in, I want to establish that I believe antibiotics are among the most important discoveries of medical science and have greatly reduced the number of deaths from infection and saved millions of lives since their invention more than 90 years ago.
I will say, however, we should all know the consequences of antibiotics on our gut health and also be aware of the problem we have globally (and especially here in the U.S.) with antibiotic overuse. Let’s dig in…
The pros and cons of antibiotics
Antibiotics are a double-edged sword! They can help but also hurt us if not used appropriately. According to the CDC, at least 28% of antibiotics prescribed in doctors offices and emergency departments across the U.S. are unnecessary.
Unfortunately, what many medical providers might not tell you, around the time they hand you your prescription and send you on your merry way, is that antibiotics disrupt your gut microbiome and can result in new onset or worsening of previous digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation and even irritable bowel syndrome. If used in early life , they have been associated with autoimmune conditions such as arthritis and inflammatory bowel disease.
We have anywhere from 30 to 100 trillion gut microbes. While antibiotics are life saving and necessary to treat many conditions, studies show that they can wipe out anywhere between 40-90% of our microbiome – yikes! (If you’re new here, here is some insight on how your microbiome impacts your overall health.)
There are some factors to take into consideration that contribute to this percentage:
- Type of antibiotic used (broad spectrum is more destructive)
- Number of antibiotics
- How many courses of antibiotics you take
- At what stage of your life you take them (taking them before the age of one, before your microbiota has fully developed is associated with worse outcomes)
- How robust your microbiome was to begin with
Antibiotic overuse is a significant issue that we should all be aware of so that we can be advocates for our health and decide what is right for us. In fact, there is a growing number of bacterial infections that are becoming resistant to antibacterial medications because of antibiotic overuse.
How do we prevent improper use of antibiotics?
Whenever you’re prescribed an antibiotic make sure to ask your doctor a few questions including
- Do I have a bacterial infection? In which case antibiotic use would be appropriate
- Do you know which bacterial infection I have? Can we take a culture to make sure we’re using appropriate antibiotics
- How long do I have to take it for?
- What are the benefits and risks of taking this antibiotic
- How can I strengthen my microbiome while taking these antibiotics?
Knowing this information will help you and your doctor make the right decision together for you and will empower you with knowledge that you’re on the right course and are both together on this.
How can you recover your gut health after antibiotics?
Did you recently take antibiotics? Do not fret! There are some facts that might bring you peace of mind and also ways to recover that good bacteria and take steps to get back to optimal health.
The good news!
- Some studies have shown that microbiomes have evolved to develop resistance genes (resistome) to make sure they are not truly wiped out. They demonstrate that, after one course of antibiotics, we will have recovered most, but not all, of our microbiome in 1.5 months. Unfortunately, studies have found that several species were still undetectable in most of the study subjects after 180 days.
- Despite a mild yet long-lasting imprint following antibiotics exposure, the gut microbiota of healthy young adults are resilient to short-term broad-spectrum antibiotics intervention and their antibiotics resistance gene carriage modulates their recovery processes.
Ways to recover your microbiome:
- Avoid processed foods
- Avoid refined sugars
- Hydrate with water
- Eat a variety of plants
- Eat fermented foods
- Be patient but persistent
Extremes, flaws and red flags in the health space to be aware of
Now that we’ve discussed the global issue of overprescribing antibiotics and the negative impact that it can have on our health, it’s time to face the truth – the healthcare industry is flawed!
When it comes to our health, I know many of us have blind faith that everything a healthcare professional recommends or prescribes is the best thing for us. The truth is, while it is my hope that all individuals in the healthcare field have their patients’ best interest in mind, they are only human and could fall prey to the flaws of the system (even doctors!).
The current medical model is disease centered and very much like an assembly line. Healthcare professionals are trained in school to focus on treating illness and the concept of preventive medicine and treating the whole you goes by the wayside. Thus, the antibiotic overuse crisis! Additionally, the money hungry healthcare system puts unrealistic pressures on medical professionals to diagnose and treat in 15 minute visits without giving them a chance for the thorough examination that they were trained to provide.
Another component of this is patients’ desire for a quick fix! I’ve seen many patients actually request antibiotics!
Hey, I get it! I want to be seen, diagnosed and treated fast. I want to feel better immediately. But somewhere along the line, we were conditioned to think antibiotics can fix most infections. The reality is that many infections, like the common cold, are viral. Viruses are not controlled by antibiotics. Although we may think an antibiotic is helping us feel better when we have the flu or a cold, it is usually the passage of time that is helping us recover.
In addition to this, I see so much nonsense and extremism in the health space. This stems from a complete lack of balance and common sense of what medicine actually is. To make matters worse, incorrect dialogues on social media about how to manage your health have only caused more confusion.
With this said, it is my advice to you to stay educated, pay attention, and be an advocate for your health! It is excellent to have trust in our physicians but you need to be involved in your treatment and aware of what you are putting into your body. So ask questions!
This might go without saying, but you also need to stay vigilant when faced with the products and health solutions pushed to you online. I am sure there are some good products and methods out there, but it’s important to be a smart consumer.
Here are some read flags to be aware of in the health space:
- Pushing meds without talking about all other aspects of medicine
- Pushing food as the only medicine
- Pushing only “natural remedies” – this usually equates to selling supplements and detoxes. If you have read my previous probiotic supplement posts, you know that I do not routinely recommend them.
- Promoting restrictive diets such as keto, paleo, low carb, as well as diet pills and detoxes
Using probiotic supplements after antibiotics may cause harm
The research behind probiotics has always been controversial. Previous studies have shown effects ranging from negative to positive and everything in between.
There were two studies, however, that used different methods of examining the microbiome. They went deeper into the colon to get further data on the effects of probiotics after antibiotics
They found that probiotics seemed to delay or even impair microbiome recovery after antibiotic use when compared to no intervention at all! So the people that were left to recover without any supplements achieved better results than the probiotic group. Bottom line, probiotics are likely not the answer to your recovery after antibiotics use, at least not until we have a more personalized and precise way to use them!
Integrative and lifestyle medicine 101
It’s not just putting a band aid on a problem and hoping it goes away. This means taking the whole patient into account, searching for the underlying cause of the disease and using evidence-based practices and lifestyle interventions to help prevent illness, heal the acute problem and reverse chronic disease while also providing lasting health strategies to help the patient thrive!
It is exactly what we should all expect medicine to be and a method that I am very passionate about! I use this approach with all of my patients and the results are tremendous. Here are a few of the benefits:
- It’s healing oriented (not just for an ailment but for the whole you!)
- Establishes a closer relationship between provider and patient
- It is a personalized approach to medicine
- Allows us to focus on the mind, body and spirit
- It’s a way to promote health through self-care
Lifestyle medicine doctors still use medications, procedures and other modern medical techniques when appropriate to prevent, treat and reverse disease. The difference is that we first and foremost use what nature has provided and what science has confirmed for us as the way to health. It includes:
- Whole plant predominant nutrition
- Stress management
- Restorative sleep
- Social connectivity
- Avoiding toxic substances
The bottom line on antibiotics
I hope this information helps to educate you on the benefits and drawbacks of antibiotics on your health. I also hope it has opened your eyes to why you need to be your biggest advocate!
I know many of you have been disillusioned with traditional medical care and our healthcare system, but have you ever been treated by a Lifestyle Medicine doctor before? Give it a try! I am available for virtual consultations nationally and internationally and there are other doctors out there that take this approach to medicine and specialize in gut health that can help as well.
Health is a balancing act. The medicine that we take, lifestyle choices that we make and foods that we eat all matter and every decision has an impact on the dynamics and chemistry of our physical make-up.
In this life, we only get one body and it’s up to us to take care of it. Let’s feel empowered to take control of your health!
Get your Intro to Gut Health Guide to build a resilient microbiome!
The content of this blog post is for education only, for medical advice contact your doctor or book an appointment online.