Antibiotics and Digestion

It is no secret that digestion plays an important role in Hildegard of Bingen medicine.  At the same time, a lot has changed since Hildegard of Bingen and her medieval medical treatments.  Today, we have antibiotics, which did not exist 900 years ago.  So, what is the relationship between antibiotics and digestion? How do antibiotics effect our digestion?

We have become accustomed to the idea that bacteria are things to avoid, purge from the body, and disinfect from our surroundings.  All of this makes sense, given that the impetus of germ theory was quickly associated with the premise that all germs were “bad” – or at least had nothing good to offer.

Antibiotics and Digestion

The success of antibiotics in the prevention and treatment of illnesses has doubtless saved millions of lives, just as the propagation of anti-microbial agents and proper food handling techniques have prevented the kind of sweeping contagions that had previously been a regular part of life.

But there are always unforeseen consequences of such advancements and the prevalence of anti-bacterial products and antibiotic use is no exception.

antibiotics and digestion

The War on Germs

Unfortunately, the successful war on “bad” bacteria has created a host of new problems: a hyper-sterilized environment, over-prescribed antibiotic use, and a lag in research into the role that bacteria play in our health and wellness.

Nobody likes the idea of germs. But in our quest to rid the world of communicable diseases we have over-steered into an anti-germ obsession. With a great deal of help from Madison Avenue, the consumer product market quickly responded to the visceral appeal of the anti-germ movement.

Our lives surrounded by anti-bacterial products

We now have anti-bacterial soaps, cleaners, hand lotions, mouthwash, toothpaste, and cleaning wipes – even textiles and garbage bags can be found in anti-bacterial versions. While our homes, offices, and automobiles have become the front lines in the war on germs, our bodies have not responded as positively to these cleansing efforts as we might have thought.

In fact, the anti-bacterial compounds contained in many of these household items have proven to be somewhere between unhealthy and dangerous. Longitudinal evidence of unhealthy interactions and detrimental outcomes from exposure to these chemicals even triggered a ruling by the FDA. The lack of credible evidence that these chemicals actually reduce illness coupled with the evidence that the chemicals themselves are unhealthy, led the FDA to ban over-the-counter household products containing 19 different active ingredients designed for their anti-microbial properties.

Ironic health risks of anti-bacterial products

In their decision, the FDA noted growing research that indicates health risks including bacterial resistance and hormonal effects from the (now banned) chemicals.

The prominence of anti-bacterial soaps and other household products has also been linked with underdeveloped immune systems and more allergies in children.

The Dark Side of Antibiotics and Digestion

Widespread (and improperly managed) antibiotic use has not only led to new resistant strains of bacteria, but mounting evidence indicates that antibacterial use can damage the natural balance of gut bacteria.

antibiotics and digestion

There is a growing consensus among researchers that repeated or prolonged exposure to antibiotics can significantly alter the gut microbiota, which can in turn cause an imbalance in healthy bacteria – even permanently.

Healthy Gut Bacteria

An imbalance of healthy gut bacteria has been linked with a constellation of health problems including: autoimmune disorders, diabetes, obesity, depression, digestive disorders, allergies, autism, and persistent skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.

Some notable links include antibiotic use in infant and adolescents and the development of allergies and asthma. While in both cases much more research is needed to determine the exact nature of these relationships, there is substantial research that supports increased prudence in antibiotic use and a greater need for promoting positive gut health, especially in the young and old.

Preserving the precarious balance of intestinal bacteria

The fact that many of these problems are complex and overlapping on their own makes drawing clear connections with gut bacteria even more difficult. Even the notion of imbalance can be ambiguous, as it can be a result of some combination of too few “good” bacteria, too many “bad” bacteria, or not enough diversity among overall bacterial strains; all of which have yet to be definitively established.

Despite the headwind, researchers continue to build on the significance of gut health as it relates to a multitude potential health outcomes – many of which can have profound, life-long implications. To this end, an initiative started in 2008 by the National Institute of Health called the Human Microbiome Project hopes to accelerate this area of study.

What You Can Do?

Only take antibiotics when absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, most of us will have to take antibiotics at some point. So the next best thing you can do is to maintain a healthy lifestyle of moderation, get outside and get a little dirty, and maintain your digestive health through proper nutrition.

If you or your children require antibiotic intervention, be sure your diet includes plenty of prebiotic foods, fermented foods, and probiotics in order to rebuild your digestive gut flora.

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