No one likes getting sick, be it a cold or the flu. With our busy lives juggling work, family, and our kids, it’s easy to get run down. Sometimes we’re even faced with illness much worse than a cold or flu, like cancer, which you can’t simply get rid of by resting and eating chicken noodle soup.
While antibiotics can be an effective and sometimes necessary method to fight infection, they can also cause damage to our immune system. So how do antibiotics affect your immune system, and how do you rebuild your immune system after antibiotics? Read on to learn the best strategies and all about antibiotics and the immune system.
How Does the Immune System Work?
To fully understand how antibiotics work, we have to start where the battle begins—when a bacterium (a single-celled organism) gets into your body, usually through your eyes, nose, or mouth. If your body isn’t able to rid itself of the germ entirely, it quickly builds a defense to resist the invader. While the invasive substance is still in your system, you become sick with an infection.
Depending on how strong of a response your immune system is able to produce and the type of invader you’re fighting, this infection can last for a shorter or longer amount of time. While it's typically good to have a strong immune response, as it helps you fight off the illness faster, this response can sometimes be too extreme, indicating that the immune system has become overactive. Overactive immune systems are complicated, so we won’t get into them here, but you can check out our blog on that topic to learn more.
So can the body fight infection without antibiotics?Unfortunately, however strong your immune response might be, bacteria have many plans of attack, and it can be difficult for your body to fight off the invader without any assistance. That’s why you might need to take antibiotics.
Do Antibiotics Weaken Your Immune System?
While antibiotics can certainly be effective against bacteria, they do have unintended consequences for your body. Over time, antibiotics weaken your immune system.
Your immune system is designed to naturally grow stronger each time it fights off a pathogen (the invading substance such as a bacteria or virus). Antibiotics act as unexpected support, helping your body fight off the sickness faster, but also taking away its chance to grow stronger. If your immune system is weakened, you can develop issues such as digestive problems, sinus infections, and anemia.
In rarer cases, antibiotics can weaken your body’s natural defenses long term by inhibiting the chromosomal material of your cells, damaging your own tissue, and decreasing your natural capacity to fight off disease. Keep in mind, these issues are more likely to develop with long-term use of antibiotics, so unless your doctor has prescribed you medication for a certain duration, try to refrain from consistently consuming antibiotics for an extended period.
Another issue with antibiotics is that they become less efficient over time. When antibiotics are first taken, they launch a fast and effective attack against the invading substance. However, the longer you use the antibiotic, the more accustomed the pathogen becomes to it. Like a game of hide-and-seek with your kids, pathogens eventually learn to camouflage themselves to avoid the antibiotic’s attack. This is yet another reason why you should avoid long-term antibiotic use if possible. Eventually, the cost to your immune system begins to outweigh the benefits.
Why Are You More Likely to Get Sick Again After Taking Antibiotics?
Antibiotics act on the cell division mechanisms of living cells. This is why they are effective at attacking invasive, living cells like bacteria, but not viruses. Antibiotics are either bactericidal (capable of destroying invasive cells) or bacteriostatic (capable of slowing down or preventing invasive cells from dividing and multiplying).
Unfortunately, antibiotics have a hard time differentiating the “good” bacteria in your body from pathogens. As a result, antibiotics often attack and destroy useful substances; for example, the intestinal flora that aids your digestion.
Antibiotics also mistakenly attack bacteria whose role is simply to occupy an ecological niche in the human body to prevent more harmful germs from growing in that area. They can’t take over the neighborhood if there’s no housing available.
These unfortunate effects of antibacterials can cause further issues to develop, such as allergic reactions. Again, the biggest potential danger, especially if these treatments are repeated, is that the body’s natural immunity—its inherent ability to fight off invading substances and defend itself—will decrease, or sometimes even disappear.
How Do I Boost My Immune System After Antibiotics?
Luckily, there are helpful strategies you can do to help boost your immune system after taking antibiotics to rebuild the good bacteria essential to your immune system.
Probiotics, sometimes called “good bacteria,” are a great way to boost your immune system and improve your health overall. They can be taken during and after the antibiotic treatment. However, keep in mind that probiotics are bacteria themselves, and so they can be killed if taken at the exact same time as the antibiotic. If you do want to take probiotics while you’re still on antibiotics, make sure to take the two at least a few hours apart.
If you're taking probiotics after you’ve finished your antibiotic treatment, consider taking multiple supplements rather than just one. Diversifying the positive bacteria your immune system is getting will help strengthen it faster. That means you can get back to spending more time with your friends and family faster, too!
They say you are what you eat, and so it is with your immune system, whose strength is directly dependent on what we feed it. It’s easy to reach for a grab-and-go meal on your way out the door before work. We all do it. But remember, oftentimes pre-packaged foods, like cereal bars, lack nutritional value and are mostly sugar. This habit, combined with the fact that many of our foods are heavily processed before they hit the grocery store shelves, can result in a diet that lacks the vitamins and nutrients your body needs to stay healthy.
Changing your eating habits can be difficult, especially if you’re always busy with work or taking care of the kids. But remember, your health is vital to your success both at work and at home. Eating healthfully won’t just improve your immune system, it will improve your daily life, making you happier and more efficient at everything you do. It’s definitely worth it!
Vitamins are a key way to stimulate your immune system. Though you should technically be getting all of the vitamins you need from your diet, for the reasons we discussed above, it can be hard to do so. That’s why taking supplements is a great way to boost your levels!
Trace elements support your immune system in several vital ways. For example, the trace element selenium stimulates an enzyme, glutathione peroxidase, which neutralizes hyperactive forms of oxygen in your bloodstream that are called free radicals. Having too many free radicals in your body can negatively impact your health, which is why selenium is so important. If you’re worried about a selenium deficiency, don’t be; it’s readily available in supplement form.
Studies have shown that homeopathy, the process of introducing infinitesimal doses of medicinal substances to the body, can help rebuild the immune system. If you’re interested in how homeopathy can help you, ask a professional practitioner how you can begin your treatment.
What You Should Eat During and After Antibiotics
Here are the best foods to eat both during and after antibiotics to rebuild your body’s healthy gut bacteria (called gut microbiota). There are plenty that are naturally delicious in addition to being nutritious!
Unlike probiotics, which are living microorganisms, prebiotics are a food source for the good bacteria in your gut. Many sources of prebiotics include high-fiber foods. Our healthy gut bacteria digests and ferments the fiber to grow and thrive. Consuming prebiotic foods like apples, oats, and garlic after you finish antibiotic treatment helps the good bacteria in your gut regenerate, strengthening your immune system.
Fermented foods such as yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, kombucha, and kimchi are rich in probiotics and will improve your immune system.
Studies have shown that high-fiber foods help stimulate the growth of our healthy bacteria while also inhibiting the growth of bad bacteria. Try adding these high-fiber foods to your diet:
- Whole grains (oatmeal, whole grain bread, brown rice)
However, keep in mind that dietary fiber can slow down the digestive process in your body and therefore makes it harder for your body to quickly absorb drugs. For this reason, we recommend that you avoid eating high-fiber foods while you’re still on antibiotic treatment. Fibrous foods are great for boosting the immune system after this treatment is already over.
What to Avoid While on Antibiotics
Be aware that there are certain foods you should avoid while taking antibiotics since they will weaken their benefits.
Studies have shown that grapefruit and grapefruit juice can hinder the effects of certain medications, including antibiotics. As a result, eating grapefruit while you're taking antibiotics can prevent the body from processing the medication properly and inhibit its positive effects.
Foods Rich in Calcium
Foods that are high in calcium, like milk, may also affect your body’s ability to absorb antibiotics. Because calcium takes a lot of energy to absorb, your body struggles to absorb both the calcium and the medication simultaneously. As a result, your body becomes less efficient at processing and using the medication.
However, some studies argue otherwise that foods containing calcium do not inhibit your body’s ability to process medication. We suggest that you research both sides of the argument and come to your own conclusion.
Foods Rich in Iron
Red meat, liver, nuts, and other foods rich in iron block the effect of antibiotics, so avoid them for the duration of your treatment if possible. If you’re iron deficient and need to take an iron supplement, you can continue to do so; just make sure to take it two hours before or after you take the antibiotic.
Although alcohol doesn't reduce the beneficial effects of antibiotics, it does greatly increase your risk of developing negative side effects such as nausea and dizziness.
Acidic foods like grapefruit, oranges, and tomatoes should be avoided.
Try to avoid caffeinated foods and beverages like chocolate and coffee while on antibiotics. The antibiotic interferes with your body’s ability to expel the caffeine from its system. This can cause an excess of caffeine to develop, resulting in overexcitement, palpitations, tremors, sweating, or even hallucinations.
Surprisingly, tuna greatly increases your risk of having an allergic reaction to certain types of medications, including antibiotics.
Keep in mind that certain foods increase the time it takes for your body to absorb medications. This usually doesn't have negative consequences, unless the medication needs to work rapidly. We won’t get into that today, but we recommend that you check with your doctor about which foods can inhibit your body’s ability to process your specific medication.
Since they took off in the 40s, antibiotics have been subscribed left and right—in some cases they are necessary, while in others they are simply an easy way out of discomfort. Regardless, be aware of the side effects that antibiotics can have for your immune system.
Remember, taking care of your immune system in general will not only help you combat the side effects of antibiotics if you take them, but will also improve your health overall. It might take some time to develop healthy habits, but it will be worth it!
How Long Does It Take for the Immune System to Recover After Antibiotics?
Fortunately, the microbiota in your gut are resilient. In a recent study, researchers found that although antibiotics decimated the population of good bacteria in the subjects, this bacteria colony began to gradually regrow within 6 months. However, though most of the beneficial bacteria species did regrow, nine families of beneficial bacteria were missing. In some cases, unwanted bacteria had taken their place in the intestine.
On average, it takes about 18 months to regain a healthy microbiota as long as you take care of your body by eating healthfully and exercising.
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