When it comes to treating bacterial infections, antibiotics are an incredible innovation. But these powerful medications can also come with some powerful side effects.
The first antibiotic, penicillin, was discovered in 1928. Ever since then, this type of medication has been used to treat all sorts of infections caused by bacteria, including everyday illnesses like strep throat, ear infections, and urinary tract infections, along with more serious issues like sepsis.
“Antibiotics work by ridding the body of the bacteria responsible for infection,” says Ravinder Machra, MD, internal medicine specialist with West Tennessee Medical Group Primary Care in Dyersburg. “At the same time, though, the medication may also clear out some of the good bacteria in the body. But you can take some steps to help keep the good bacteria in while clearing out the bacterial infection.”
How Antibiotics Work
To really understand what effect antibiotics have on the body, you first need to understand how they work. They’re really quite fascinating!
Because these medications have been around for nearly a century now, most of us have never known life without antibiotics. Before antibiotics were used to treat bacterial infections, though, life could be quite dangerous.
In fact, before the advent of antibiotics, bacterial infections were the cause of 30 percent of deaths in the United States. That’s a lot of people dying from conditions that are now nearly entirely treatable with an easily accessed medication.
Each antibiotic works a little differently, but they all have the same basic purpose—they kill off the bacteria or they stop its growth. Some antibiotics do that by attacking the coating around bacteria, while others interfere with bacterial reproduction or protein production inside the bacteria.
The bottom line, though, is that antibiotics kill off bacteria. While that’s a good thing when it comes to the bacteria responsible for infections, like the sore throat-causing strep throat, it can be a negative when it comes to the other bacteria in your body.
Antibiotics & The Good Bacteria
When you think about bacteria, you may only think about the bad guys—the bacteria responsible for illnesses. The germy ones.
But the bad bacteria make up only a tiny fraction of the bacteria in your body, even when you’re sick. At any given time, you have billions and billions of microbes in your body, including bacteria.
These bacteria are responsible for keeping your body, including your gut, running efficiently. There are a number of different kinds of good bacteria, including Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli, which reside in the digestive, genital, and urinary systems.
When you take antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, the medication may kill off some good bacteria inadvertently while it’s ridding the body of the infection. Two different classes of antibiotics in particular—tetracyclines and macrolides—are known to wipe out good bacteria along with the bad.
How You Can Protect Your Gut While on Antibiotics
The good news is: Because we know that antibiotics can sometimes indiscriminately wipe out good bacteria, we can take action to help restore the good bacteria.
What can you do to protect your gut while taking an antibiotic? Talk with your medical provider about the effects of the particular antibiotic you’re being prescribed. You may have had a doctor in the past tell you to eat more yogurt while taking your antibiotic. There’s a reason for that.
Yogurt is packed with bacteria, including Lactobacillus acidophilus, which can help reup your bacterial balance while you’re taking an antibiotic. You can also eat other foods containing prebiotics or probiotics, which are both connected with improved gut health. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi contain probiotics.
If these foods aren’t appealing or you’re looking for a long-term solution, you might want to talk with your primary care provider or pharmacist about taking a probiotic supplement. These supplements contain the good bacteria to help keep your body balanced.
Beyond keeping your gut balanced and your digestive system functioning properly, keeping good bacteria in your body can also help you avoid other potential (and unpleasant) side effects from antibiotics, such as yeast infections. And you can still reap the benefits of the antibiotic going to work on the bad guys!
Primary care providers can care for everything from the common cold to chronic health conditions like high blood pressure. Need a new PCP? Schedule an appointment with West Tennessee Medical Group provider, Ravinder Machra, MD.