Antibiotics and digestive problems

Effects of antibiotic use on the digestive system

Antibiotic resistance is perhaps the most well-known side effect of long-term use of antibiotics – a type of drug resistance, where a micro-organism can eventually withstand exposure to the antibiotic as a result of over-prescription and reliance.

However, there are actually many other side effects that can result from the long-term application and unnecessary use of antibiotics. Even short-term use (while often essential), can lead to issues.

One of the most significant effects is their impact on the digestive system, and the balance of microflora in the gut (a community of beneficial bacteria).

Can antibiotics cause digestive issues?

The simple answer is, yes they can.

Antibiotics work by either wiping out bacteria (bacteriocidal antibiotics) or by stopping bacteria from growing (bacteriostatic antibiotics).

Undoubtedly, they can be effective in overcoming bacterial infections. However, as mentioned above, the cost associated with such treatment is the risk of unwanted side effects and complications.

One of the main difficulties with antibiotic use is that, while they’re intended to destroy bacterial cells, they cannot be programmed to kill only harmful bacteria (i.e. the pathogen causing the condition). They also destroy friendly bacteria, which is vital to the proper workings of the digestive system.

As a result, antibiotics commonly lead to an imbalance of good and bad bowel flora (dysbiosis), which can in turn lead to symptoms such as constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), bad breath, nausea and upset tummy.

Perhaps, more worryingly, antibiotics can also have a direct and negative impact on the immune system. Good bacteria exist in their millions throughout the body – on the skin, in openings like the oral cavity, nose area and genitals and, arguably most importantly, in the intestines of the digestive system. They undertake essential functions in all of these areas, however their most important role is to protect our bodies against prospective pathogens. The antibiotics are therefore damaging our bodies’ natural ability to defend itself.

Imbalance of intestinal flora and immune function

Healthy intestinal flora is important for numerous functions in the body, including forming stools, sustaining a healthy digestive system and generating important vitamins (such as B vitamins). Yet, they’re most crucial to the ideal functioning of our immune systems.

You may be surprised to learn that the most important part of our immune system is located in the gut. 70% of all antibody-producing cells within the body are situated in what is termed “Gut Associated Lymphoid Tissue” or GALT. This represents the biggest group of immune cells in the body.

Imbalances of gut flora can have a number of unpleasant side effects and manifest itself in many ways. For example, fungi (like Candida albicans) and bacteria like pathogenic strains of Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and C difficile tend to make the most of the opportunity presented by the body’s reduced resistance, which means that they are then better able to grow more easily. This is a primary reason why antibiotic courses normally lead to thrush (a yeast infection caused by Candida overgrowth).

Similarly, C difficile infections have become prevalent in hospital wards and rest homes over the years. This is because, after antibiotic treatments, C difficile organisms can grow rapidly in the absence of the body’s natural defences. The bacteria produce toxic compounds that inflame and kill the cells that line the large intestine, which can in turn cause intense diarrhoea and internal bleeding. Several other digestive ailments and complaints are also quite typical, such as dysbiosis, toxic bowels and IBS to name just a few.

How to balance your gut bacteria

Research indicates that the damage caused by antibiotics to the gut can last for a far longer period than was previously believed.

In 2013*, Stanford University experts in the USA examined the friendly gut bacteria in 3 healthy adult women both before and after each of 2 cycles on an antibiotic. After the first round, they discovered that the medication affected the level of the women’s friendly bacteria in the gut drastically, perhaps even permanently. After the second cycle half a year later, they discovered that the impact was even greater.

As a result, it is advisable to take antibiotics only when absolutely necessary, i.e. when an infection is bad enough to cause discomfort and distress, or is life threatening or a risk to others. They should never be used as a repeated “quick fix” for small afflictions and lengthy programmes ought to be avoided wherever reasonably practicable.

If antibiotic intake is unavoidable, many individuals find it helpful to supplement their diets with additional friendly bacteria (probiotic supplements), before, during and after the programme of antibiotics is finished. It is believed that this will help to re-populate the digestive tract with the healthy bacteria that the antibiotics have decimated.

* https://med.stanford.edu/news/all-news/2013/09/scientists-show-how-antibiotics-enable-pathogenic-gut-infections.html

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Could I have Candida?

What is Candida albicans?

Candida (also sometimes referred to as a thrush, yeast or fungal infection) is a single cell, plant-like fungi. It starts life as a yeast, which everybody has in their digestive systems and other mucous membranes from birth. It also lives on the skin.

In terms of how it acts in the body, Candida is an overgrowth of yeast (referred to as Candidiasis) that usually starts in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and gradually spreads to other parts of the body. It is a resilient and invasive parasite, which usually attaches itself to the intestinal wall and can (if left untreated) become a permanent resident of the internal organs.

You might be surprised to learn that recorded incidences of Candida overgrowth date back as far as the 1700s. Hippocrates identified the presence of yeast infections as thrush in patients.

What are some of the known causes of Candida?

When all is well, the Candida yeast is kept under control by the healthy flora that we have in our bodies and, more particularly, in our digestive tract (sometimes referred to as “friendly” or “good” bacteria). In this way, it normally co-exists with many other types of bacteria, in a state of balance.

For instance, Candida albicans is part of the normal flora of the mucous membranes of the female genital areas, gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, which cause no disease. However, overgrowth of this species may be the cause of infections that could include thrush (oropharyngeal Candidiasis) and vaginal Candidiasis (vulvovaginal candidiasis).

Unfortunately, the modern diet, lifestyle and environment are not always conducive to healthy bacterial growth. We are exposed to an ever-increasing amount of toxins and junk foods on a daily basis, as well as stress in our lifestyles and pollution and chemicals in the air we breathe and the water we drink.

It is thought that overgrowth of yeast tends mainly to occur in those with weakened immune systems or those whose levels of good bacteria have diminished as a result of some external factor (e.g. through stress, disease (such as diabetes), pregnancy and/or the use of antibiotics, birth control pills, steroids or other long-term medication).

When the body’s defences are weakened, it provides fungus with optimum conditions to grow. This allows Candida to enter the bloodstream, travelling through the body to colonise areas such as the urinary tract, vagina, tissue, nails, mouth, skin and other organs.

Once such overgrowth has begun, if not diagnosed and treated appropriately and promptly, it can result in a chronic systemic problem. It is thought that large numbers of yeast germs can weaken the immune system further, thereby perpetuating the problem.

Candida has the ability to produce around 75 toxic substances that can poison the human body. These toxins are believed to contaminate tissue and weaken the immune system, glands, kidneys, bladder, lungs, liver, brain and then the nervous system.

What are some of the symptoms of Candida?

Overgrowth of Candida can lead to a number of unpleasant symptoms, including:

  • fatigue
  • sugar cravings
  • brain fog
  • allergies
  • blurred vision
  • depression
  • digestive problems
  • joint discomfort
  • muscle pain
  • chronic diarrhoea
  • yeast vaginitis
  • bladder infections
  • menstrual problems
  • and constipation.

A Candida diet

It is widely advocated by natural health practitioners that people suffering from a Candida overgrowth might benefit from eliminating certain foods from their diet, restoring gut health and altering their lifestyle.

Some yeast is always present in the digestive system, but its growth is kept in check by way of the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. This is thought to be assisted by a diet which maintains correct acid/alkaline characteristics.

Therefore, a diet dominated by high sugar intake (which the yeast demands to maintain its presence and growth) and foods containing yeasts or fungi (such as mushrooms, cheese and milk) can lead to a disturbance of this delicate balance.

Supplements can also offer much needed support. For instance, to alkalise the body, remedy disbiosis (by helping to increase numbers of good bacteria) and to elimiate parasites and other pathogens. High-strength, multi-strain probiotics, anti-fungals, digestive enzymes and plant-based powders are all possible additions to support a Candida diet.

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Is dairy bad for me?

Some people swear by dairy, claiming that it’s essential for strong bones and teeth and a generally strong constitution. Others feel that their bodies react poorly to dairy, with resulting increased mucous levels, stomach pains and congestion. So is dairy good or bad for you?

Well, as with most things, the answer depends on a number of factors, including the make-up of your own individual body, as well as whether you are consuming dairy in moderation. There is no denying the fact that dairy is, for one thing, acid-forming in the body, which can lead to inflammation and, as such, you should not be consuming dairy in excess. It is also high in saturated fat and, unless you are careful, can often contain contaminants (such as hormones and medication).

Dairy allergy

In this modern age of dietary awareness, many people may jump to the conclusion that they have a full-blown dairy allergy if they have a negative response to dairy. However, this may not always be the case. If in doubt, consult your doctor or an allergy-testing clinic.

A true dairy allergy is when the body goes into shock (or has an anaphylactic reaction) after ingesting dairy and is the response of the immune system to the proteins found in dairy products. Casein and whey are the two main components. Casein is the curd that forms when milk is left to sour, while the watery part that is left after the curd is removed is the whey.

A dairy allergy is an extreme sensitivity to these proteins and should not be confused with lactose intolerance.

Most symptoms of a dairy allergy (commonly hives, congestion and eczema) manifest within minutes after the person consumes dairy products. A dairy allergy can be mild or serious and varies among individuals. For example, the reaction can range from mild indigestion to anaphylaxis, which is an acute reaction.

Dairy allergies are a common problem, particularly amongst young children. Since children affected by dairy allergies are often too young to tell you when they are having a reaction, it is important for parents to be able to recognise the symptoms and have a proper understanding of foods and ingredients to avoid. Fortunately, it is one of the food allergies that has alternatives and is not always a permanent problem.

Lactose intolerance

A dairy allergy is commonly mistaken for lactose intolerance because they share similar digestive symptoms, but in actuality, a dairy allergy is very different to a lactose intolerance.

In contrast to a true dairy allergy (where there is an immune system response whenever exposed to cow’s milk proteins), people with a lactose intolerance can’t tolerate the sugar in milk (called lactose), because they don’t have the corresponding digestive enzyme – lactase – to cope with lactose sugar. An intolerance is not an allergy, because it does not involve the immune system.

A lactose intolerance is less threatening than an allergy. Triggered by the digestive system, the body can respond in a number of ways to the ingestion of lactose, but it usually involves a significant stomach upset. Symptoms can include extreme gas, bloating, diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach cramps, but not usually hives or breathing difficulties.

Living with a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance

The primary treatment for a dairy allergy is avoidance. Depending on severity, this will be either total elimination or limited consumption of dairy products.

However, there are a number of other techniques that can be used to live with both dairy allergies and lactose intolerances.

As with all food allergies and sensitivities, it is important to take allergy tests or go on an elimination diet to confirm that dairy is responsible for the reactions. Confirmation is extremely useful, because a wide array of foods can cause reactions and it is important to narrow down the true allergen.

Clearly, having a dairy allergy or lactose intolerance can present a very real day-to-day challenge in terms of ensuring a varied diet and optimum intake of nutrients. As with any restricted diet (for example, vegetarians, vegans and coeliacs) it is important to take proactive steps to ensure that the person with the allergy or intolerance is getting sufficient vitamins, minerals and other nutrients.

One of the easiest ways to do this is through careful dietary planning and supplementation. Dairy-free and lactose-free meal shakes and protein powders can be particularly beneficial, especially if they have been fortified with other nutrients.

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