Probiotics vs. Antibiotics

by Dr. Irene Belaga, Hippocrates Health Educator

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been citing glaring, escalating and repeated concerns about antibiotic and antimicrobial resistance growing at an alarming rate.

In 2011, Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the WHO said, “In the absence of urgent corrective and protective actions, the world is heading towards a post-antibiotic era, in which many common infections will no longer have a cure and, once again, kill unabated.” This sounds terrifying, but what is being referenced in actuality is a return to the early 1900s, prior to the advent of antibiotics.

In my work with patients and within myself, I often suggest taking a moment to sit with a thought, feeling or sensation when it is disconcerting. Doing so helps us remain receptive to the unknown in its boundless possibilities and to a view of reality that is broader than our momentary sense of truth. Taking a moment here leads me to ask, “What was the broader view of healthcare before antibiotics came onto the scene?” In 2013, research detailing the important relationship between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain referenced a historical shift in the early 1900s away from the medical community’s interest in gut health and toward antibiotics.

Probiotics, fermentation and their positive effects on health were already being studied at that time, but were simply trumped by the study and subsequent use of antibiotics. There is a common mental process, one of many maneuvers that the unconscious mind takes to defend itself against deeply troubling sensations called “splitting.” It compels us to see another person or belief as either all good or all bad.

Such splitting may have compelled the health community toward antibiotics and away from probiotics. Had the two been given room to develop and be utilized in unison, maybe we would not be facing such grave predictions about the state of mainstream medical treatment. Maybe our immune systems would be strong enough to combat the illnesses that antibiotics can no longer withstand.

In 2015, the general public was instructed to take the following protective actions against antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance: wash hands regularly, practice good food hygiene, avoid close contact with sick people and keep vaccinations up to date. We were also instructed to continue using antibiotics when prescribed by a certified health professional, take the full prescription and never use leftover antibiotics nor share antibiotics with others.

While I sympathize with the well-meaning nature of these suggestions and the continued efforts of the WHO to address the great danger that is antimicrobial and antibiotic resistance, the solutions suggested are flawed in one critical way. They maintain microscopic, blinder-clad focus on the great antibiotic and perpetuate the aforementioned “split,” denying the relevance of gastrointestinal health, once again.

We are continuing to assume that the cure, much like the threat, will be another manmade, laboratory-spawned invention. We now have the opportunity to sit with reality, to see the ramifications of the splitting that took hold many years ago and broaden our view. Researchers are giving probiotics and fermented foods a second look and studies abound. To what extent the findings will be integrated into treatment protocols remains to be seen. More importantly, what also remains to be seen is to what extent individuals will seek out the knowledge that is readily available and make informed health decisions accordingly.

As a psychologist, I am often asked to provide behavioral treatment to people who struggle emotionally while taking psychiatric medication. I look with great hope to research supporting the use of probiotics and fermented foods to reduce psychological distress and save my patients and many others from the side effects of psychiatric medication and the compartmentalization of health.

I envision a time when I can work with patients not only on the reduction of emotional pain, but on the development of expansive consciousness and the unleashing of human potential. There is already much support for the link between brain functioning and gastrointestinal tract health (journal article; contact Dr. Belaga for citation) and between oxidative stress and inflammation, both influenced by gastrointestinal microbes, directly affecting mood, and depression in combination (Internet search: Intestinal microbiota, probiotics and mental health: from Metchnikoff to modern advances: Part II – contemporary contextual research).

Anxiety symptoms and stress responses are being linked to gut health (journal article; contact Dr. Belaga for citation). Gastrointestinal microbes are noted to affect brain activity, behavior, cognition and pain sensitivity (http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/366281).

Psychologically speaking, the experience of excitement and anxiety are very similar processes. In both, the heart typically pounds more quickly, the mind races, the palms may sweat and the hands might tremble. The main difference is often the interpretation of what lies ahead. In this moment, we can fear what is to come as the strength of antibiotics wanes or we can look at the power of probiotics and fermented foods and feel excited that there is positive change upon us. I choose the latter.

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