As I covered last week, the bugs in your gut — a mix of bacteria, yeast and viruses — have a huge effect on your health. Our intestines benefit greatly when the proper species are present. When they work better, our whole bodies benefit, especially the immune system. Also, the proper flora tends to crowd out invasive species. When the helpful ones are killed off by antibiotics or starved out by a diet high in processed foods, other species can move in.
If the balance of your intestinal flora is upset, what can be done about it? One common approach is to use “probiotics,” which are foods or supplements that contain the helpful species. Probiotic foods include yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and kefir. They are made from regular foods that have been seeded with specific strains of bacteria or yeast, designed to ferment the food without spoiling it.
There are also probiotic supplements that contain millions of bacteria. Some research supports their use, especially during and after a course of antibiotics. This makes sense, just from the names; antibiotic translates as “against life” and probiotic translates as “supporting life.” In one study, probiotic supplements reduced colic in infants by about half. Other studies have shown them useful in preventing, as well as treating, diarrhea caused by antibiotics.
Some probiotic supplements, called prebiotics, include starches that the bacteria feed on, to ensure they will be well fed when they arrive in the bowel. A far more aggressive treatment involves transplanting intestinal contents from people with healthy flora directly into the intestines of patients with certain types of chronic diarrhea. This can result in dramatic improvements, but the whole problem could be avoided for many patients if they had addressed their immune problems naturally, without repeated antibiotic use.
There are several simple steps you can take to support your intestinal flora. First, avoid excessive antibiotic use, especially in young children. Repeated use in children increases the risk of asthma, allergies and eczema later in life, as well as certain types of diarrhea. Antibiotics should be used for emergencies only; several studies have shown them to be ineffective for some of the most common uses, such as sinus infections, any virus infection, and ear infections in children.
Antibiotics are the single biggest stress for our flora. Multiple courses are particularly problematic; it can take quite a while for your flora to recover, if they do at all. There are many natural alternatives to antibiotics with nonemergency problems. With recurrent ear or sinus infections, dietary changes (especially avoiding dairy and wheat products), electroacupuncture (done without needles), and chiropractic treatment have been shown to be helpful. Treating the neck works to improve lymphatic drainage, which reduces the tendency to develop infection.
Supplements also work for some patients to control sinus infections. In our office, we use food-based supplements as well as herbals.
Of course, “wellness eating” — a diet full of minimally processed, plant-based food that avoids refined sugars and other nonfoods — will not only support your flora, but also improve immune function. This in turn will make it a lot less likely you will need an antibiotic in the first place.
As always, the aim is to support health and wellness rather than attack diseases with drugs. This way, we avoid the downward spiral where the side effects of medications end up causing the patient to use even more medications to control them.
Dr. Michael Noonan practices chiropractic, chiropractic acupuncture and other wellness therapies in Old Town. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.