Whose Side Are You On?
Antibiotics vs. C. difficile
What’s at Stake When Taking Antibiotics
Each year, more than 150 million antibiotic prescriptions are written. Only a fraction of them are truly necessary. But, whether necessary or not, antibiotic use opens the door to a host of digestive problems, including the development of Clostridium difficile (known as C. diff.), a major digestive bacterial overgrowth syndrome associated with watery diarrhea, cramping, severe pain, dehydration, and fever. This risk arises because antibiotics can indiscriminately kill off many of the friendly or commensal species of bacteria that happily live in our guts and which are so necessary for enabling smooth digestion and nutritional health.
Some of the client’s I’ve seen with no significant history of IBS will develop lasting IBS symptoms following the use of antibiotics to treat a variety of illness conditions, including respiratory or other infections. This pattern of IBS development is called post-infectious IBS and represents another pathway through which people’s lives can be disrupted by lasting IBS symptom patterns.
What’s Going On Here?
Now, recent research helps us understand why unnecessary use creates such a c. diff risk. Clostridium difficile is able to secrete a substance known as p-cresol. When p-cresol is secreted into the digestive tract, it suppresses the growth of other bacteria that want to call your digestive tract home. Many of these bacteria contribute to a healthy microbiome. Therefore, when antibiotics are present, not only are these healthy bacteria being clubbed over their heads, but c. diff’s secretion of p-cresol further knocks out the “good” bacteria. The result is a wide open road for the c. diff bacteria to multiply, which results in the huge problem of severe and sometimes life-threatening outbreaks of diarrhea worldwide. Learn more about C. diff outbreaks here.
What Can You Do?
The most important step you can take to avoid or reduce the risk of contracting c. diff is to be very selective about when you use antibiotics. We often forget that our body is fully equipped with a number of proven tactics for overcoming infection. While taking antibiotics can potentially shorten the course of some other infection, the fact remains that we may be trading short-term relief for long-term misery. If we don’t absolutely need an antibiotic, don’t take it.
Second, if taking an antibiotic is truly necessary, make sure you are giving your gut’s microbiome a helping hand. You can do this by beginning to take high quality probiotics and prebiotics PRIOR to beginning your course of antibiotics and continuing with the use of these digestive supports right through your course of medication.
Finally, recognize that c. diff and other bacteria exist on all sorts of surfaces in and around of living spaces all the time. But, so long as our gut microbiome is in good working order, these external bugs don’t have much chance to gain traction in our system even as they make their way into our system through things we touch and then put in our mouths.
Therefore, when using antibiotics, take more time to practice various hygienic and antiseptic practices. Wash your hands more frequently. Use lotions on your hands to keep your skin hydrated, which seals off microscopic pathways by which c. diff can gain access to your body. And, during the time you are taking the medicine, get a clean sponge and be more diligent about wiping off and washing down kitchen and bathroom surfaces where these microscopic pathogens can reside.
C. diff isn’t a culprit in every case of IBS. And, post-infectious IBS is not the exclusive pathway by which IBS develops. Nevertheless, this blog highlights what we often overlook, which is that our body has natural systems of checks and balances to keep us healthy, and medicines like antibiotics can throw them off. Healthy lifestyle medicine practices, such as those I highlight in other blogs and vlogs can play an important role in helping you keep IBS in check.