Antibiotic treatment of bacterial infections has saved millions of lives and is considered one of the great public health successes of the 20th century. But the overuse of antibiotics has well-known consequences. Many bacteria mutate faster than we can develop new drugs, and there are now many strains of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. This situation has been declared by the World Health Organization as “a major threat to public health”. There is evidence emerging that links antibiotics’ disturbance of our body’s friendly bacteria to the increased prevalence of ‘modern plagues’ from asthma and allergies to obesity and inflammatory bowel disease.
With recent research avenues opening up, we are learning more about the myriad functions played by the diverse and complex ecosystem of our body’s microflora. According to infectious disease specialist Dr. Martin J. Blaser, each of us has 100 trillion bacterial and fungal cells, representing (likely) around 10,000 distinct species. Each species develops a unique set of properties to adapt to their particular niche of the human body – the microbes in your mouth are different from the microbes on your legs due to the characteristics of each particular body site, egs. pH level, level of moisture or oiliness, etc.
The American-based Human Microbiome Project, a groundbreaking research program at the National Institute of Health, has been studying the role of microbes in human health and disease since 2008. Their research demonstrates that each person’s microbiome within and among body sites, is unique to them in dynamics and composition. One of the program’s findings is that despite discovering wide variation of microbial communities between study samples in healthy subjects, there is great functional stability; in other words, there are many ways to construct microbial communities to perform similar functions.
Most people are surprised to learn of the wide array of vital metabolic and protective functions that our body’s bacterial and fungal inhabitants perform. Blaser calls them another vital organ like your liver or kidneys. Microbes safeguard us against pathogens, help manufacture Vitamin K, and help keep our blood pressure stabilized. Most chemicals in your bloodstream are products of microbial activities. Bacteria help extract our nutrients, digest lactose and make amino acids. The number of individuals of a particular species can vary over time, sometimes in response to behaviours; for example, changes in diet can cause a significant increase in certain microbial populations going from one hundred to billions in just a few days.
With such a complex system at play, it’s no surprise that nurturing your body’s microflora can take some work; simply going to a pharmacy and picking up a probiotic may not cut it. Many probiotic supplements are untested and unregulated and contain the same limited strains of bacterial culture. However, recently, there are some really well-targeted probiotics that are performing well in the research. Lactobacillus plantarum HEAL9 and Lactobacillus paracasei 8700:2 improved cold and flu-like infection rates and severity in double-blind placebo controlled trials. And Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 have shown to be safe and effective in restoring healthy vaginal ecosystems in multiple clinical studies.
For most people, building up your immune system over time is important to help prevent the need for antibiotics in the first place. Antioxidants from deeply coloured fruits and vegetables or in supplement form can help, as well as eating fermented foods like kimchi, yogurt, sauerkraut and kombucha that provide a diverse array of healthy bacteria. There are some important lifestyle changes which are immune supportive such as stress reduction and improved sleep hygiene. With my patients who have an active bacterial infection, I often suggest a natural antibacterial like garlic that doesn’t disturb the important gut microflora in the same way.
Antibiotic use can’t always be avoided. There are many cases where it is an important part of a patient’s treatment plan. But with some diet and lifestyle changes and carefully chosen supplements, many people who take antibiotics can rebuild their microbiome, preventing negative health consequences and more extensive antibiotic use for years to come.