As the weather changes, most of us can clearly see cold and flu season approaching in the hacks and sniffles of our coworkers, classmates, neighbors, and strangers. In response to this awareness, I recently saw a well-meaning poster on social media remind people that antibiotics don’t work on viruses or do anything to touch the common cold.
The poster pointed out that not only will accepting (or worse- demanding) antibiotics for colds or the flu not help you, it’s harmful for everyone. The more that we as a nation take antibiotics (just in general but especially for inappropriate things) the less effective those antibiotics become over time. The more exposure bacteria have to antibiotics that don’t kill them, the more resistant they become. This leads to a vicious cycle we’re already quietly struggling with in which we need ever-stronger antibiotics, which take progressively longer and cost more to develop and produce, just to keep up.
Antibiotic-resistant diseases are a scary topic, but also one for another day. (If you want to get a quick introduction to the key points, check out the great TED talks on it here, here and here.) Today, I want to introduce you to another key point that no one talks about when writing or filling prescriptions: antibiotics do more than just wipe out the bacteria you want them to target.
- Antibiotics routinely interfere with or alter the effects of other medications (prescription and otherwise) in the body. Frighteningly, this includes everything from antidepressants to birth control. So while the risk-reward equation can certainly favor taking antibiotics when you genuinely need them, taking them when you don’t is like playing a pointless game of Russian roulette with other aspects of your health.
- Antibiotics obliterate your good gut bugs, too. Antibiotics do not discriminate between bad, disease-causing bacteria and good gut bugs your body relies on to keep you healthy. Taking a course of antibiotics wipes out everything, compromising your digestion and immune systems and leaving you vulnerable to new infections.
Obviously, then, the best option is simply not to take antibiotics unless you truly need them. When you do need them, compensate for their damaging effects by re-seeding your gut with healthy bacteria. There are several ways to do this, depending on your personal preferences and how much money you want to throw at the problem.
- Get probiotic pills. This is the most expensive and least recommended option since so many pills on the market right now aren’t worth their salt. However, if you have a great doctor or nutritionist who can hook you up and you don’t mind spending the money, go for it.
- Do kombucha or kefir shots. Well-made kombucha and kefir can be acquired tastes for some people, but they’re relatively inexpensive, readily available and rich in probiotics. You don’t want to guzzle a bottle after you’ve wiped out your good gut bugs or if you’re not used to drinking them regularly (trust me on this), but doing a shot glass worth each day until the bottle is gone can slowly and non-disruptively re-seed your gut with the good bacteria you need and help keep you strong and healthy.
- Eat lactofermented vegetables. These can be hard to find if you’re not into making your own and more expensive than kombucha, but they are available online if you find them more appealing or easier to get into yourself or your family. Again, go slow! Start with a teaspoon full each day so that you don’t make yourself sick and keep going until you’ve finished the jar.
In a perfect world, doctors would automatically prescribe gut-rebuilding probiotics in some form every time they prescribed antibiotics (and insurance would pay for it). Until the industry gets the full-scale overhaul that it needs, however, it’s up to us to be aware and proactive and protect our gut bugs ourselves!