I recently had to have a course of antibiotics for a skin infection brought on by… Stress. Anyway, as always when I need to take antibiotics, I was immediately struck by the effect they have on my digestive system. These drugs are strong. Don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely thankful that we have them. Life would be a lot more unpleasant, and probably a lot shorter, without them!
However, it’s also important to recognise that antibiotics don’t just target one bacterium. They are designed to help the body in the most efficient way possible, but that means they will also affect the enormous population of friendly bacteria that reside up and down the intestinal tract. Which is where the pickles come in.
Towards the end of a course of antibiotics, and for some time afterwards, it is vitally important to help your body build up a new community of friendly bacteria. To do that, you need to avoid the foods that encourage harmful bacteria, and incorporate the foods and supplements that bring in the good ones.
The main food to cut out is sugar in all its forms. Which means the usual culprits of biscuits, cakes, fizzy drinks, sweets and alcohol. Too much sugar in the diet only encourages the overgrowth of yeasts and harmful bacteria, and makes it much harder to build up the friendly flora that we actually need.
The foods that can help re-establish a colony of friendly bacteria are probiotics and prebiotics. Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain existing colonies of helpful bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterirum bifidum. There will be a separate article focussing specifically on probiotics, and what to look for when choosing one, but essentially you want to make sure you pick one that can actually travel through the stomach and reach the intestine to deliver the flora. As the benefits of probiotics become more and more recognised by the medical community, there are finally more reliable studies that can help when choosing a brand.
Prebiotics are foods that help feed and encourage the Lactobacillus and Bifido bacteria. And that’s where the fermented foods come in. It’s astonishing how so many different global cultures have prized, fermented foods in their usual diet, and how many have been used for stomach upsets and digestive problems for millenia, without really knowing why they are so good.
Prebiotic foods include sauerkraut, kimchee, torshi, most pickled vegetables (try to avoid ones with added sugar), kombucha, tempeh, miso and tamari. Then there are the fermented milk and dairy products, such as live yoghurts, kefir, buttermilk and cottage cheese. The easiest ones to make at home are the fermented vegetables, and trust me, once you start, no meal will seem complete without a tablespoon of your own pickles on the side.
There are foods that are naturally prebiotic without being fermented. These include asparagus, artichokes, bananas, the entire onion family, garlic and leeks. Ginseng and green tea are rich in polyphenols, and are known to have a beneficial effect on the intestinal flora.
Some people recommend taking a course of probiotics whilst you are on antibiotics. Personally, I think this might be a waste of money. I recommend adding as many of the prebiotic foods into your diet as possible, and starting a course of probiotics on the last two days of your antibiotic course, and then continuing with both the prebiotics and probiotics for a good few weeks afterwards.
Get pickling and your health will thank you for it!