Since Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928 through an accidental finding, antibiotics have had a huge impact on the human race. Some of the diseases which we now expect to survive including bacterial meningitis and strep throat could have been fatal before the effects of antibiotics were known.
In this new age, we still require antibiotics to protect us from disease, but these ‘against life’ (literal translation of antibiotic) medicines which we use to defend ourselves from disease are also causing long term damage to the mutualistic symbiotic relationship between the gut microbes and human digestive system for the long term.
In this article I will consider the impact of antibiotics on your gut microbes and the ways that you can counteract their effects with dietary interventions.
The symbiotic relationship between humans and microbes
Mutualism is a form of symbiosis where two organisms live together with beneficial outcomes for both creatures. In a healthy individual, gut microbes are advantageous as they have important functional roles in the digestive system – they absorb and breakdown nutrients from food, they act as a protective barrier between the gut and the bloodstream, and they maintain the immune system found in the cells of the intestinal wall. And the gut microbes are happy as the are fed, they have a roof over their heads and space to roam. The perfect peace and harmony between many species of life all found in your belly!
How do antibiotics disrupt the equilibrium?
The colonisation of healthy gut microbes in the intestine is critical for many important biological functions, and their presence helps to outcompete the harmful bacteria which can cause disruption to this homeostasis. This is where antibiotics begin to fulfil their life harming prophecies, as we take them in order to kill the bad guys, but unfortunately sometimes the good guys get caught in the crossfire! Antibiotic forms a parasitic symbiotic relationship with our friendly bacterial hosts, which is the opposite of the mutualism causing many of them to die but benefitting themselves.
As the balance of the microbes in the digestive system becomes skewed, many opportunistic commensal bacteria which were once part of the tranquil habitat, decide its time to make their mark. As these commensal bacteria multiply, they may become pathogenic as well, causing harm to the body and leaving no room for those once helpful microbes to serve our bodies.
These changes can lead to intestinal inflammation and damage which may cause conditions such as intestinal bowel disease and food allergies, immunological issues such as autoimmune disorders and obesity and cardiovascular disease. So, we need a solution where we are still able to use antibiotic against microbial infections, but without the damage to the delicate environment housed within our guts.
Bring back balance through diet
Studies have shown that certain nutrients and probiotics modulate the gut microbial environment which could be valuable to bring back balance after antibiotic use.
Probiotics are commonly advised to be taken after antibiotic use but there is still more research required to understand which strains have the most potential to restore the ecosystem of the gut. This is a very interesting area of development and it is expected that probiotics could replace the use of antibiotics to some extent for therapy against infectious disease as well. Faecal microbiota transplantation where faecal microorganisms from a healthy person are injected into a sick person, is also growing in popularity and has shown some positive results, supporting the importance of a healthy microbiome.
Other nutrients such as curcumin found in turmeric and omega 3 essential fatty acids in oily fish and nuts, which are known for their anti-inflammatory effects, may also have substantial influence on the gut microbiota by increasing the number of beneficial bacteria. Consumption of walnuts which contain a high level of omega 3 fats, have be shown to reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer which scientist now theorise may be due to their impact on gut health.
Polyphenols, such as those found in green tea and chocolate, are also being researched for their role in gut health, as they are ordinarily known for their anti-inflammatory properties but it is thought they also play a key role in maintaining the plantations of the helpful bacteria in the intestinal wall. Polyphenols appear to have a targeted approach when it comes to gut microbes, only feeding the needy good, and starving those who harm. Further studies on polyphenols may reveal ways to tailor our intestinal bionetwork, so that we have the optimal balance of gut microbes that are right to fulfil our personal requirements.
Finding harmony in moderation
Antibiotics have been demonised in recent times, but their contribution to human health and longevity is without dispute. What we need to consider is counteracting their negative effects as we enjoy the benefits of their targeted actions. So, if you do take antibiotics or you need to take them due to sickness, then eat foods which protect your beneficial microbes so that at the end of your illness, your gut stays in harmony and you feel alive!