We are fortunate to live in an age where many infectious diseases that would have previously been life threatening can be treated simply and effectively with a round of antibiotics. Without a doubt, antibiotics have been over-prescribed in recent years, and their use should not be taken lightly. Having said that, used conservatively to stop the progress of acute disease, antibiotics are extremely valuable.
The problem with taking antibiotics is that they tend to not be very discriminating. So, when they go to work wiping out the “bad” bacteria that’s causing all the problems, they usually take the beneficial bacteria down as well. That means that the good bacterial colonies in our guts can suffer some extreme damage, if they’re not wiped out entirely, with a course of antibiotics.
Both during and after taking antibiotics there are some steps you can take to support and restore a healthy gut.
What to do while you’re taking antibiotics
It’s incredibly important that you finish your prescription, even if you feel better part way through, as failing to do so can allow bacteria to adapt and evolve, becoming drug resistant. While you’re still taking the medication, follow the guidelines from your pharmacist. For example, some antibiotics don’t mix well with alcohol, dairy products, and even sunlight.
Support your immune system
Be sure to stay hydrated, and get adequate sleep and rest while you are taking antibiotics, as your system is going into repair mode and needs your support. If you don’t have much of an appetite, eat what you can, and aim for nutrient-dense fluids such as bone broth (miso broth is a great option for vegetarians), freshly made fruit and vegetable juices, and smoothies.
What to do after taking antibiotics
To help restore your healthy gut bacteria, go for naturally fermented foods and drinks, which introduce live bacterial cultures to your digestive system. Fermented beverages such as kombucha and kefir are great options. So are fermented foods, like lacto-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and kimchi, or fermented dairy products such as natural yogurt, buttermilk, and sour cream.
Keep in mind that a jar of sauerkraut or fermented pickles from the supermarket shelf won’t carry the same benefits as homemade, as in order to be shelf stable it has likely been pasteurized, effectively killing off the beneficial bacteria.
During times of illness, and when working to repair and restore the gut, often times fermented foods alone aren’t enough, so you may want to seek out a therapeutic probiotic supplement. Not all probiotics supplements are created equal–you want to seek out one with at least 10 billion CFU (colony forming units) per day), and studies have shown that Lactobacilli, Bifidobacteria, and Saccharomyces boulardii are the most effective at reducing antibiotic side effects and restoring a healthy colony in your gut.
You’ll want to keep up the fermented foods and probiotics for about three weeks after you finish taking antibiotics. During this time, it’s beneficial to support your gut bacteria by eating lots of pre-biotic rich plant foods.
Prebiotics are indigestible fibers that work their way through our digestive tract to the colon, where they are fermented and broken down by the probiotic bacteria you’re looking to re-populate your guts with. Pre-biotic rich foods include pears, green bananas, plantains, asparagus, onions, leeks, and jicama.
If you find that even with the support of good nutrition, fermented foods, and pro and pre-biotics, your gut still doesn’t recover from antibiotics, speak with your health care provider to rule out inflammation or leaky gut syndrome.