Repopulate! Keeping Your Gut Healthy On Antibiotics

My house has the Two Week Rule: no doctor unless the illness is getting worse after two weeks. Unfortunately, both my daughter and I passed that two-week mark for completely different bacterial infections, and found ourselves taking antibiotics. I was worried.

Both of us have digestive problems and antibiotics are harsh on that system. So I read some of my nutrition books, chatted with friends and family, and flipped through the web for advice. Here is what I found:

Yes, antibiotics can cause stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, and exacerbate existing intestinal problems. Why? Because antibiotics kill bacteria, but they don’t stop with just the infection plaguing you, they wipe out the beneficial bacteria in other parts of your body as well.

Our gut is filled with an effective and diverse population of microorganisms (also called flora) that help us digest our food to get the nutrients we need. You can put all the healthy food in your mouth you want, but unless your body is breaking it down and absorbing the vitamins and minerals, you will become ill and eventually die. Killing off our natural digestive ecosystem with antibiotics is a dangerous side effect, especially for those prone to stomach upset.

Also, certain antibiotics target specific bacteria. According to my nurse friend, “This gives other bacteria the opportunity to take over their territory and cause illness. For example, C. Difficile is a bacteria many people have and it doesn’t cause a problem. But when someone is on long term antibiotics, its competition is killed off and it can cause a terrible intestinal infection and kill your intestines (literally).”

The key to gut health during and after a course of antibiotics is probiotics. Probiotics are active live cultures of beneficial bacteria. They can repopulate your intestinal track during and after a course of antibiotics. The National Institute of Health acknowledges several studies that show their effectiveness on health, but there is still much research to be done. The easiest way is to take a probiotic supplement. Be sure to check the label for its intended purpose, that the front label matches the ingredient list on the back, and the expiration date. But since there are no strict regulations on these supplements, there is a safer and yummier way to keep your gut healthy. Probiotic food!

Probiotics are in fermented foods- living food that goes right to your intestines to keep it active and healthy. Fermentation is an anaerobic (without oxygen) cellular process where sugars are converted into acids, gas, or alcohol. Since early human days, fermentation was a way to preserve food. It is still a tasty and healthy way to eat, used in many cultures around the world. There is an excellent chapter explaining the science behind fermentation in Culinary Reactions: The Everyday Chemistry of Cooking.

According to the latest research we should be incorporating probiotics into our regular diets, on meds or not. “…it’s clear that they have at least some positive effects on human health, ranging from the enhanced nutritional contents of the foods themselves, to alleviation of inflammatory bowel conditions, to restoring normal gut microbiota after antibiotics, to enhancement of the immune system, and possibly even weight loss.”

Yogurt is a good one, but kefir is better because it has more strands of the beneficial bacteria. The flavor tingles your tastebuds. You can find kefir in most supermarkets by the yogurt section. Cowbella is my favorite brand.

Fermented vegetables have been a part of most global cuisine, except the American diet (go figure.) Sauerkraut is from cabbage and most of us know it as a hot dog topping. But not all sauerkraut is fermented the traditional way, so be sure to check the label on this common condiment. Here is a good recipe if you want to make your own. Fermented pickles and olives are also the traditional way of preserving, but sadly, most brands on the grocery shelf use a quick method that does not have any probiotics in it. Again, read the labels, ask your store manager to stock some true fermented pickles and olives. They taste better too!

Miso soup is from a fermented soy based paste. Kimchi is Korean, spicy fermented cabbage. Pak Dong is the Thai version of fermented vegetables. Puckers is my family’s brand- very addictive.

And finally, tea! Specifically dark teas, which are fermented, dried, and then pressed into cakes. Pu-erh is the most common one in America, but Dark Rose is my favorite.

Sourdough bread is from an active culture, but there isn’t any evidence I could find that the cultures stay alive after the high heat of baking. So, although it is on lists of probiotic foods, my biologist husband is skeptical about this one.

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods is a great resource for making your own fermented foods. I made my first batch of kimchi using the author’s recipe and it was very delicious!

According to Tieraona Low Dog, M.D’s book Healthy at Home, my trusted resource, “Take your probiotic two hours after each antibiotic dose and continue taking them for four to eight weeks after finishing treatment to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria.” Aloe Vera Juice can be very soothing for your throat, especially if antibiotics cause indigestion (I suffer from GERD so the aloe is really helpful.) And finally, cut down on refined sugar (this includes white flour.) Bacteria loooove sugar and the bad-infection bacteria don’t need any more encouragement. Your nice, gut bacteria will get everything they need from a healthy diet.

I finished my short course of antibiotics while constantly repopulating. My daughter is on long-term care, and I’m happy to report both of us have not had any stomach problems. Even if you don’t have pre-existing gut issues, adding probiotics to your diet while on antibiotics will help you stay healthy. And keeping them in your diet afterward will ensure you have repopulated with the beneficial flora we all need.

Rebecca Angel was one of those kids that put the dragon book on top of her pile in the hopes that someone would say, "Hey, I'm into that stuff too!" Alas, she had to wait until she was an adult to find fellow geeks. Luckily, she married one and their kids are too. Rebecca is a lover of tea, science literacy, music, funky tights, RPGs, anime, manga, comics, fantasy books and movies.