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The Difference Between Antibiotics and Probiotics

The topic of probiotics can often be confusing, especially how they relate to antibiotics. As their names may suggest, the two are essentially polar opposites of one another. Antibiotics are sometimes essential, and their widespread use (and associated issues such as GI upset) is partly responsible for the explosion of popularity the probiotics industry has seen since its inception. Opposite as they may be, probiotics and antibiotics can actually work collaboratively.

First, let’s take a closer look at the key differences between antibiotics and probiotics.

Antibiotics: A Miracle of Modern Science with Some Caveats 

It’s difficult to believe that there was once a time in which bacterial infections that are now easily controlled with antibiotics would result in the premature deaths of millions worldwide each year. Prior to the 1940s (when large-scale production of antibiotics began for the first time), the threat of a simple infection spreading and eventually causing death was the norm. That is, until penicillin was developed and went on to change the world.

The function of antibiotics is quite straightforward — to decrease the amount of bacteria present in the human microbiome. Antibiotics are unique in that they’re able to seek out and kill bacterial without disturbing human cells.

Antibiotics also work to disrupt the DNA-copying capabilities of bacterial cells, as well as inhibiting protein-building. 



Types of Antibiotics 

Not all antibiotics prescribed today function in the exact same way. Some are “bactericidal” in that they work specifically by killing bacteria, while others are “bacteriostatic;” their goal is to stop bacteria from multiplying. Antibiotics can also be either broad-spectrum or narrow-spectrum in nature. Broad-spectrum antibiotics address bacteria throughout the body in a generalized manner, while narrow-spectrum options target specific types of bacteria.  

Here are just three of the most common classifications of antibiotics, as well as how they differ from one another.

Beta-lactams

Beta-lactams is a classification that includes the popular drugs amoxicillin, penicillin and cephalosporin; these are among the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the world. They work specifically by killing bacteria that are protected by cell walls (not all bacteria have cell walls). These are molecules that have linked together (a process blocked by beta-lactams). Without cell walls to support themselves, pressure builds up and leads to bursting of the membrane – this action is the desired primary function of antibiotic treatment.

Macrolides

Macrolides, such as azithromycin, erythromycin and clarithromycin, are unique in that they target protein-building mechanisms called ribosomes that create proteins both in bacterial and human cells. Because macrolides only work to block bacterial ribosomes, however, they don’t typically interfere with functionality of the human body. Instead, they simply inhibit the process of bacterial protein building, one reason why they’re so effective against infections of the skin and respiratory tract.

Quinolones

Quinolones like ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin, for example, are typically prescribed to treat such infections as pneumonia and bronchitis. They operate by stopping bacteria from making copies of their DNA, which causes the DNA strands to break and cannot be repaired. Though increasing in use due to the elevated presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, quinolones are often reserved for severe infections that cannot be treated with beta-lactams or macrolides.

Side Effects

Antibiotics can play a crucial role in fighting off nasty bacteria, which is why they remain important as a medical strategy. Many people experience mild to moderate side effects shortly after beginning a course of antibiotics. These antibiotic side effects include diarrhea, upset stomach and even potential development of rash (in which case a doctor’s attention should be sought). On a grander scale, antibiotic overuse can lead to the buildup of resistance, meaning your body may not respond to antibiotic treatment when it truly needs it.

Another important thing to understand about antibiotics is that even a single course can be enough to dramatically disrupt balance within your gut microbiome. Antibiotics are singularly focused on killing bacteria throughout the bod and are not too effective and differentiating between the bad and good bacteria. Because the goal is to kill as much of the bacteria population causing the illness, antibiotics tend to cut a significant swath without discrimination.

Probiotics to the Rescue

Anyone who has experienced the side effects of antibiotics knows that they’re not always temporary. Disruption in the microbiome can be challenging for the body to address on its own, which instead leads to larger amounts of harmful bacteria than should be present settle in on an ongoing basis. Symptom wise, this can mean GI issues such as leaky gut, and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) among other ailments. As an extreme example when balance is non-existent, the intestines become a perfect environment for the growth of Clostridium difficile, which can lead to life-threatening diarrheal infection.

One way to potentially prevent acute or chronic side effects related to antibiotic use or overuse is to take a probiotics supplement. Probiotic supplements are specifically formulated to deliver large numbers of beneficial bacteria to the gut, bolstering their brethren microbes that are already hard at work in the fight against harmful organisms. Supplementing with probiotics helps to balance pH level, which creates a more hospitable environment in which “good” bacteria may happily proliferate. Over time, the gut can be repopulated with beneficial organisms, thus resolving many of the issues caused by taking antibiotics.

They may be polar opposites to many degrees, but antibiotics and probiotics can actually work in tandem to address harmful pathogens while also maintaining balance in the gut microbiome.

How to Choose Probiotics to Combat Antibiotic Side Effects

There are so many different types of probiotics available on the market today, it can be positively head-spinning. If you know what to look for, however, you can cut down on your chances of making the wrong decision, and also make the decision much more quickly. Here are several considerations for choosing probiotics to combat antibiotic side effects:

Choose a Single Strain Supplement

A lot of companies sell probiotics supplements containing numerous strains, all packed together in the same dose. While this may seem like a good idea at face value, in some cases, different strains fight against one another for dominance, killing each other in the process. Choose a probiotic supplement that features one specific strain for best results.

Pay Attention to CFUs

Most probiotics supplements list a number of “CFUs,” an acronym for “colony forming units,” which can often extend from the millions into the billions. It’s not uncommon for manufacturers to boast about astronomical amounts of CFUs in their supplements, but research has shown that the human body is unable to process more than 8 billion CFUs at a time. Avoid probiotic supplements with more than 8 billion CFUs; you may likely be paying more for nothing.

Ensure Cultures are Active

It doesn’t matter how many CFUs are contained within a probiotics supplement—if they aren’t viable, live or active, they are a waste of money. For example, some probiotics require refrigeration and if left at room temperature at any time can inactivate or kill them. Choose a reputable brand that can show how production methods and testing ensure strains are alive through consumption.

Consider Price Point

Pricing is all over the map in the probiotics space, which exacerbates consumers’ confusion about what they’re paying for or why. This is especially true for consumers who are new to the ever-burgeoning but exciting world of probiotics. There are some products out there with very low prices, and like anything else in life – you get what you pay for. If you are serious about adding probiotics to your health regimen, then you know that quality and proven efficacy that the right probiotic can give you will be a worthwhile investment. Feeling great is priceless!

Keep Taking Probiotics after Antibiotics

Many people have heard that probiotics can help to curb the side effects of antibiotics, and when needing antibiotics decide to see for themselves by concurrently taking probiotics. The fact is, however, antibiotics remain active in the body to some extent past when the last dose is taken, and while this is by design, it can also disrupt balance in the microbiome. The best approach is to continue taking probiotics for at least one month after you’ve finished your course of antibiotics. This way, your gut microflora will get a much-needed chance to regain the healthy balance it needs to function optimally.

Antibiotics can certainly help save lives, but the problems they’re capable of causing should not go overlooked. Fortunately, restoring balance to the gut microbiome is possible, thanks in large part to the help of probiotics.

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