Antibiotics form an integral part of the miracle that is modern medicine. Although the first antibiotics were used less than 100 years ago, they have completely changed the way in which medical treatment is applied. The most modern approach to their use, however, requires an appreciation for all the ways in which antibiotics impact the balance of bacteria both in and around the body.

On the path to smarter antibiotic use

Thanks to antibiotic treatments, patients now survive many otherwise devastating bacterial infections. Unfortunately, the success of antibiotics has led to their over-zealous use for conditions in which they are inappropriate, such as common viral infections. Once believed to be a harmless, preventive measure, such unnecessary use of antibiotics has contributed to a variety of unintended consequences. Not only does excess antibiotic exposure encourage the development of bacterial strains that are resistant to the drugs, they can also wreak havoc on the digestive tract.

Smarter use of antibiotics means that healthcare providers now attempt to provide antibiotic treatments only when they are proven necessary. Another aspect of smart antibiotic use is protection of the digestive tract with tools such as co-administration with probiotics.

The role of the gut microbiome

Human health is maintained in part by the vast number of “friendly bacteria” that live on and in the human body. In fact, the role of these microbes is so important that the human body actually contains at least as many non-human cells as it does its own cells! This “microbiota” provide us with a vast array of genetic material and associated functions referred to as the microbiome.

The gut microbiome generates important proteins that contribute to digestive health and can even influence conditions such as diabetes and obesity. Their most basic function, however, is to monopolize available nutrients and space such that potentially harmful bacteria are simply crowded-out from the gut.

The effect of antibiotics on the gut

Even with the most targeted of treatments, there are certain to be some friendly bacteria that become collateral damage during use of antibiotics. This loss can leave more space for potentially pathogenic microbes to grow and flourish in the gut. Such enterococcal overgrowth can include the potentially life-threatening condition of C. difficile infection and can commonly manifest with symptoms such as fever, abdominal pain, nausea and diarrhea.

Protection and restoration of gut health during antibiotic use

An important step to protecting and restoring the gut microbiota is the use of probiotics. These doses of friendly bacteria help to replenish the gut microbiota despite antibiotic treatment. Probiotics can be taken as a supplement in capsule form and can also be obtained from certain foods such as natural yogurts. Prebiotic compounds such as inulin help to feed friendly bacteria and can also help to promote digestive health.

In some cases, particularly when virulent pathogens have over-run the gut, probiotic and prebiotic treatments alone may be insufficient to restore the health of the microbiota. When this happens, chronic diarrheal disorders can develop and additional antibiotics targeting the pathogenic organisms may be required before a healthy microbiota can be re-established.

Choosing your digestive care center

Although this article is intended to provide helpful health-related information, it is not a substitute for professional medical advice or care. If you are concerned about digestive health or the effects of antibiotics on the gut, please consider contacting a qualified medical professional in your area.

Consider choosing Digestive Care Physicians for all your digestive healthcare needs. The Digestive Care Physicians staff includes a physician’s assistant, nurse practitioner, and four physicians. Together, the team serves patients from the Atlanta metro area including Roswell, Milton, Duluth, Canton, Suwanee, Duluth, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, and Marietta. Choose from any of the Digestive Care Physicians four locations in Johns Creek, Alpharetta, Cumming, or Lawrenceville, GA.

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