Curd, Yoghurt and Probiotics
I have often written on this blog (here and here) about the useful role antibiotics play in combating life threatening infections. But I have also been repeatedly asked by the readers about the side effects of giving antibiotics and so I reasoned that instead of answering individually to every commenter who raises the same question again and again let me write out a detailed blogpost on it to which I can refer them to next time i get asked. So bear with me as I take you on a slightly detailed tour of the side effects of antibiotics and what we can do to minimize them.
For those who came late to class or are just reading this blog for the first time- the short version is – antibiotics are germ killers, drugs which destroy bacteria in our bodies. now if you pay careful attention you can see that that I said “bacteria” and not “harmful bacteria” for antibiotics not only kill off the disease giving bacteria (called pathogens) but also their harmless cousins living inside our body (called commensals) which actually have some good effects on us- an example would be like spraying a weed killer and killing the grass too.
Now if you think that this killing off of a few harmless bacteria is of no consequence let me assure you that it does have some direct effects on our health. The current theory of human health called the human microbiome theory – says that human bodies are a mass of human cells and bacterial cells with the bacterial cells outnumbering the human ones – which means we are more bacteria than human. Kind of a difficult concept to get around our head isn’t it?
So the theory goes on to say that as long as these healthy and harmless bacteria dominate our bodies they do two things for us. Their first help to us is – the good bacteria prevent the harmful, disease causing bacteria (like Clostridium Difficile – the dysentery causing bacteria) from multiplying limitlessly and dominating our stomach (imagine getting daily dysentery or rather don’t) and the second benefit of the good bacteria is that they produce good things for us like absorbing vitamins – the intestinal bacteria or our gut bacteria is mainly responsible for absorbing Vit.B-12 from our guts – from the food which we eat. In the absence of these bacteria the vitamin is not absorbed and passes straight out through our body- from the other end- uselessly.
So that makes it a no-brainer doesn’t it? we need these bacteria for better absorption and digestion of our food and in the absence of these bacteria we are not only losing all the important bits of the food we eat -getting nutritional deficiencies in the process but even if we take tablets full of supplements even that is not going to be absorbed but only lost from our bodies. Hence we need these bacteria to survive and they need us to thrive- a simple give and take relationship- till death do us part.
Now all this is disturbed – temporarily- when we take antibiotics. Our digestive system is put out of sync with our body and we get loose stools called AAD- Antibiotics Associated Diarrhea, which is by far the biggest side effect of taking antibiotics. And that’s where some scientists thought up the idea of Probiotics- which is the very opposite of Antibiotics. If “Anti”-biotics kill bacteria then “Pro”-biotics help bacteria grow, right? And the way to do it is by adding live bacteria to the diet through various supplements and food products like yoghurt and curd.
Some of the commonest probiotics contain organisms like Lactobacillus and yeasts which are freeze-dried to preserve them in tablet form. Once inside our stomachs they can gain their original forms, multiply and restore the good vs bad bacterial balance. The same purpose is solved by eating yoghurts and curds and fermented products which contain natural probiotic yeasts and bacteria. Yoghurts are thought to contain single varieties of bacteria only while natural homemade curds have been found to contain both yeasts and bacteria in abundant numbers – the more the merrier (better) .
So this has made it simple right? When you take antibiotics you better take some probiotics too – to prevent the side effects. But unfortunately it’s not so simple – hard scientific evidence of the benefit of taking probiotics is still not available and there are still questions about which are the actual beneficial bacteria and how much to take and whether the yeasts (which are fungi) can take advantage of an already sick body with a weakened immune system. Till now, despite numerous studies going on all over the world, we don’t have clear answers for the doubts whether probiotics really work as they are claimed to do. The only hard evidence is from a Cochrane Review (Johnston,2011)- Cochrane reviews can usually be trusted as good science- after studying 3400 patients decided that probiotics work and are beneficial to a certain extent.
So we can conclude off by deciding that taking Probiotics helps in preventing the stomach upsets after taking antibiotics even if we don’t know which antibiotics is taken or for how long it is taken. And natural probiotics like curds and yoghurts certainly are better than the tablet supplements which have been stored for months together as dried forms. After all the very definition of a probiotic is a LIVE bacteria which benefits the host by improving the intestinal microbial balance and so what good is a tablet which has stayed in a pharmacy fridge for months together and the bacteria are all dead. If fermented milk contains the best bacteria which is made into the tablets- then its better to eat some live yoghurts or curds in that case, right?
So next time you hesitate to take an antibiotic because antibiotic tablets always gives you a tummy ache and loose stools – go eat some good, home-made curds and thank the good bacteria for helping to restore balance inside your body.
P.S. there is one yucky way of sending in the probiotic bacteria immediately (and directly ) to your stomach – only used in desperate cases – called Fecal Transplant- but let’s not even go there – I don’t want to talk about it and chase you off my blog forever. So, just eat curd/yoghurt through your mouth ok?