And how are your intestines treating you today?

Jonathan Kaupanger
August 10, 2018 - 1:22 pm

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You can call it bubble gut, Montezuma’s Revenge, gippy tummy or just a disturbance in your nether regions. Whatever term you like to use, your gastrointestinal tract plays a big role in overall health. And those antibiotics you were prescribed just might be the cause of your stomach distress.

“We see a lot of patients who run into problems because they take antibiotics that eliminate the normal healthy bacteria that are in the gut,” says Dr. Curtis Donskey, Chair of the Infection Committee at the Cleveland VA Medical Center.  “Those normal bacteria provide a defense mechanism against pathogens and keep us healthy. When we take antibiotics that can put us at risk to develop infections.”

The human gut is a busy place. There are more than 10 trillion bacteria, including about 1,000 species living in our intestines. When our innards work properly they break down food into digestible parts, absorb nutrients and water as well as process waste products including toxins.    

Human entrails also help keep out disease-causing bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Our bodies’ immune systems learn how to tell the difference between what’s good and what’s bad from our intestines. According to Dr. Donskey, taking antibiotics can put us at risk to develop infections. 

The most common infection is caused by Clostridium Difficile or C. Diff.  Each year it causes more than 400,000 people to get sick and 30,000 deaths. Older adults in health care facilities are most at risk, especially if they’re taking antibiotics. You’re also at higher odds of getting C. diff is you’re dealing with colorectal cancer, inflammatory bowel disease or a weakened immune system caused by cancer treatments.

“I think there is room for patients to take a more active role in questioning whether they need an antibiotic,” says Donskey.  He suggests that you avoid going on antibiotics as much as possible. If you have to use them, choosing the antibiotic that’s least likely to cause problems is the way to go.  “Sometimes you have three to five choices,” says Donskey. “We can help pick the one that’s least likely to cause harm.”

Eating a balanced diet, including a lot of fruit and vegetables helps too. “The bacteria in the colon tends to help us digest vegetables and fruits that otherwise we wouldn’t be able to digest ourselves,” explains Dr. Donskey. He says we shouldn’t eat foods that are high in fat and sugar and avoid processed foods when possible.

Probiotics are healthy living bacteria that go in and try to fight off the bad organisms. “Evidence is fairly mixed,” says Donskey.  “Some studies are positive, others say they don’t do much.”  He doesn’t encourage his patients to take probiotics, but he doesn’t discourage it because it’s tone thing people can try to do.   

“We should always ask, do I need this antibiotic,” Dr. Donskey says. “It’s very helpful for veterans to be aware that sometimes there’s a tendency to just give antibiotics just out of common practice when we should question whether or not we need them.”

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