Antibiotics, Probiotics, Prebiotics
What good and What harm?

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What to do when you’re taking antibiotics? Are there any natural ones?

What treatments might help you recover faster?

What can you take that minimises unwanted reactions by your body to them?

First: if you have begun a course of them, even against your will, you should complete the recommended course (unless you have clearly had a bad reaction to them).

Not to do so means that the bacteria for which you are taking the antibiotic may survive and develop resistance to it, passing that resistance on to the next individual. Then that antibiotic won’t be so effective in future.

That’s what’s happened from antibiotic overuse, so now scientists are in a race. Some bacteria have learned to resist even our best attempts.

Science may be mighty, but on current showings, the bacteria are mightier still, mutating faster than we can keep up. (Hence MRSA - Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus - and other such, now confronting hospitals and people with poor immunity.)

We've made it worse for ourselves by giving the drugs to animals to stop them getting ill. Then we eat the meat and absorb the drug from the meat. Initially that may stop us getting ill, but pretty soon the bacteria get round it so that antibiotic is no longer effective for us.


Then there are the side-effects. In Chinese medicine, most antibiotics have the following effects:

So, you’re taking a course and not feeling as well as you’d like. The effects of Spleen deficiency, Blood deficiency, Damp and Blood Heat etc include, for example:

  • digestive disturbances 
  • loose stools
  • nausea
  • tiredness
  • depression
  • yeast infections of the vagina or mouth

Some can affect you even more severely, upsetting your

  • kidney
  • liver
  • bone marrow.

Unfortunately, they can also cause

  • colitis, an inflammation of the large intestine (colitis can occur as late as 6 months after taking the antibiotics) and
  • allergic reactions.

So nowadays, doctors are more circumspect about prescribing them.

Nevertheless, they can and do save lives so we should be grateful.

(Well, I am certainly MOST grateful! I got osteomyelitis after a skiing trip many years ago, and although it took a long time, and a considerable amount of pain before it was diagnosed, once the doctors worked out what the problem was, antibiotics fixed it in a few days. However, since I knew nothing of Chinese medicine at that time, it took several months to recover my strength.)

Pro-biotics to the Rescue!

Take Action!
If you are taking a course and your doctor hasn’t already suggested it, take pro-biotics. 

Pro-biotics are the good bacteria and yeasts that flourish in and support a healthy digestion.

They occur naturally if you eat a healthy diet, containing raw or lightly cooked unprocessed and unrefined food, because you inhale them from a healthy environment and they are naturally present in or on many natural foods.

They are probably present in the birth canal of healthy mothers, so babies born naturally probably pick them up on their way out.  

But packaged, refined and processed foods are not so good. These foods have often been micro-waved to heat them and kill off both the bad and the good. 

Many other manufacturing processes also destroy them.

Pro-biotics also don’t thrive in you if you eat highly refined foods, sugars, sweets and so on, because these favour the opposition - the illness-causing bacteria and their friends, including thrush.


You find these ‘good’ bacteria in natural yogurt, by which we mean yogurt that has been made using what is called a yogurt ‘starter’, or another natural yogurt as a starter.

Look carefully at the list of ingredients if you are buying yogurt. If the yogurt is sweetened and has a sell-by date some way off in the future, it probably isn’t what you want.

It should contain words like

  • ‘Streptococcus thermophilus’. 
  • Some modern companies have come up with their own proprietary brands like L. casei immunitass (the ‘L’ stands for Lactobacillus).

Make your own Yogurt

You can also make your own yogurt. We used to, at home on our farm, using our Jersey dairy cows' milk straight from the cows - hence not pasteurised.

We used a culture which we left in the milk over night. But nowadays you can buy powders that you dissolve in water, then gently warm and then leave overnight.

Other foods contain pro-biotics!

Actually, you get similar yeasts and good bacteria in great quantity in traditional foods like sauerkraut.

Sauerkraut, love it or hate it, is basically shredded cabbage, pickled in brine and stored in a sealed container (traditionally in the ground, to maintain a steady temperature) for a while during which fermentation occurs, allowing a succession of bacteria and yeasts that were naturally present on the cabbage leaves to fight it out.

If the seal remains unbroken, and if you put in the correct mixture of salt water and cabbage, the resultant sauerkraut is highly nutritious. It contains enzymes to help you digest it, it’s got many good pro-biotics, it contains vitamin C, and it has a very long shelf life. 

Which is why German sailors who took it with them on long voyages didn’t get scurvy, a fact that wasn’t lost on the British, who eventually came up with the British lemon. This gave us equally sour-looking faces. (Sorry. Treading into other territory here.)

If you pasteurize the cabbage before sealing it in the brine mixture, it doesn’t work. You just get old, salty, cabbage. That’s because pasteurisation kills the very bacteria and yeasts that do the job.

The same happens with yogurt, once you’ve made it.  If you heat it up, you kill off its probiotics. (But as you’ve killed off what makes the food good, it will last longer, unless you’ve let any ‘bad’ bacteria creep in, in which case it will go bad.)

Pro-biotic supplements

You can also buy concentrated pro-biotic supplements, some of which weren’t produced using milk, so anyone allergic to milk might find these beneficial. You get them in health shops, in bottles, and some of them should be kept refrigerated.

For someone on antibiotics, this is probably the best form to take. There’s another reason for taking the supplement rather than the yogurt, to do with the fact that yogurt is deemed a ‘cold’ food in Chinese medicine; for more on this see below.

When to take probiotics?

At one time, it seemed senseless to take pro-biotics at the same time as the antibiotics because the latter would destroy the former. Research and experience has muted this opinion. 

So do take probiotics while you are taking the antibiotic, but not at the same time of day.

In order for the probiotics to be the most effective, they should be taken at least two hours after each dose of the antibiotic.

When the antibiotic course of treatment has been completed, double or triple the pro-biotic supplements for two weeks.

Probiotics should be taken with food or shortly after eating as food dilutes the stomach acids enough for them to survive their trip through to the intestines where they belong. (Some probiotics are enterically-coated so that they don’t dissolve in the stomach acid, and these don’t need to be taken with food. At least, that’s the theory.)

What is actually going on here?
What happens is that the antibiotic changes the ph (acid/alkali) balance in your body and allows what might otherwise be friendly substances - in small quantities - to increase and threaten your health.

For example, a woman's vagina should be acidic. Most women have the fungi responsible for yeast infection in their vagina all the time, (where the yeasts have other beneficial functions, when held in check) but the normal acidic environment prevents overgrowth and symptoms of yeast infection.

When a woman takes an antibiotic her ph changes to become more alkaline and a yeast infection can occur.

Antibiotics, oral contraceptives, even menstruation and pregnancy, and diabetes, are some of the factors that can alter the normal pH and result in a yeast infection.

More information on a healthy gut?

These little ‘friends’ are usually unicellular organisms which outnumber the tens of trillions of human cells in a single human body. So the pro-biotics are just seeds for our personal agriculture. The pro-biotic bacteria have a growth curve inflection point of about 40.5C (105 degrees F), about 3 degrees above normal human temperature.In other words, they live happily up to about 40.5 Celsius

So when we get a fever, our body is favouring our own 'good' bacteria and yeasts over the pathogens. Children have spiking fevers up to 40.5C which seems to be nature's way of preserving them long enough to grow a strong immune system. 

Of course, since antibiotics tend to reduce your fever at the same time as they kill off both good and bad good bacteria, the immune system in your gut receives a double whammy.

First the antibiotics kill your good guys, then you make it easier for the bad guys to proliferate because the good guys multiply best when you have a fever, which the antibiotic prevents.

Here's what some of the researchers say:

"Antibiotics are a double edged sword. Their power of fighting infection is indiscriminate towards all bacteria. All bacteria succumb to their powers, no mercy is shown towards beneficial strains. One should avoid the use of antibiotics unless it becomes life threatening. The human immune system has developed many ways to survive an infection and should be trusted, nourished, and given time. Our species would not have survived if our immune system were not the best defence we have against deleterious infections. If the use of antibiotics becomes absolutely necessary, proceed with caution. The longer the duration of antibiotic treatment, the more likely a candida albicans infection can occur."

Read the full-text at Probiotics And Antibiotics: A Brief Overview. The Internet Journal of Nutrition and Wellness 2005. Volume 2 Number 1 by SS Biradar, ST Bahagvati, Baburao Shegunshi.

However, the jury is still out on the wisdom of co-administration of pro- with anti-biotics in some conditions such as paediatric antibiotic-associated diarrhoea (AAD) because see: Johnston BC, Supina AL, Ospina M, Vohra S. Probiotics for the prevention of pediatric antibiotic-associated diarrhea. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2007, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD004827. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004827.pub2.


To prolong the longevity of your pro-biotics, try eating foods rich in fibre and oligosaccharides, which help the good bacteria flourish. (Another reason for eating foods rich in fibre!)

For example, inulin (please don’t confuse this with Insulin) is one such substance which occurs in jerusalem artichokes, chicory root, onion, wild yam and garlic.

Inulin can also be purchased as a nutritional supplement fairly cheaply...(though we think it's always better to get things from real food and there are plenty of good sources). Inulin is not digested so it won't make you fat...and is ok for seems to help with calcium-absorption...AND it provides food for the intestinal flora...!

But most sources of indigestible fibre help, including oats.

Your appendix

Apparently, the appendix is now also known for its action in supplying the "needed flora or bacteria” for the gut, at least in animals. So it is arguable that those with appendices intact may be in a stronger position to resist bacteria than those who have had their appendices removed.

What do Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine offer?

Most antibiotics are ‘bitter’ and ‘cold’ in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and have an effect on your body which, according to TCM, causes ‘cold’ and ‘damp’ though, confusingly, they can also cause Blood Heat, as mentioned above.

That means that they cool the infection and encourage your body to provide additional moisture. You might think that would be a good thing, if you are suffering from an inflammation, fever, dryness, swelling and so on.

But these symptoms are occurring in your lymph nodes, in your joints, on your skin, and are carried around by your blood.

Only some of them are actually in the gastro-intestinal tract (GIT) which starts in your mouth and ends in your anus. But your GIT is precisely where you place the antibiotics you are taking (unless your doctor is injecting the antibiotic straight into your veins). It is reckoned that about 70% of your immune function (the cells that provide your immunity) lie along your GIT.

So those antibiotics, whilst they may be killing of the ‘baddies’ when absorbed into your blood, are also killing off your friends as they progress down your throat and through your digestion. And their action in Chinese Medicine reduces your digestion’s ability to keep you warm (ie Spleen deficiency).

They also introduce moisture, in the form of fluids ('damp') in which ‘bad’ bacteria and fungi grow faster than your ‘good friends’ there, most or all of which are by now dead anyway from the antibiotic you’ve been taking.

This ‘cold damp’ effect means that you don’t digest food so well.

Instead of drying out, your stools emerge as diarrhoea, which also cools you down. You may find that instead of ‘cooking’ your food in the correct kind of warmth in your stomach and intestines, you get extra gas, cramping and bloating.

That can reduce your appetite and even make you nauseous. In killing the good bacteria and fungi, the ‘bad’ ones no longer held in check can flourish and run amok, irritating the intestinal lining and causing bloody diarrhoea.

(Incidentally, this combination of cold and damp and ‘bad’ bacteria lowers your immunity against your next cold or cough, making you more susceptible to the ‘bad’ ones growing back.)

So if you are taking your probiotic yogurt but still finding you have bloating, diarrhoea and so on, consider visiting a practitioner of Chinese acupuncture or Chinese herbs. Yogurt is deemed a ‘cold’ food in TCM, so doing something that counteracts this will help you recover your health faster.

(Incidentally, being a ‘cold’ food, yogurt is used in Indian food to counteract the heating effects of the spices. You find it as ‘raitha’, in curds, and in ‘lassi’, a traditional Indian drink with various recipes. Next time you visit an Indian restaurant, ask for a lassi to take with your meal, especially if you find that Indian food gives you offensive-smelling diarrhoea, or makes you very hot. Sip the lassi throughout your meal.)

Acupuncture and Chinese Herbs

There are excellent acupuncture treatments, some including a warming herb process call moxibustion, that can speedily recover your GIT’s natural function.

There are also herbal formulae, tested over hundreds of years on millions of people, which, adapted to your Western physiology, can quickly get you back on your feet, and smiling again.

What are these formulae called, we hear you ask, and where can you get them? The answer is that each basic formula contains herbs that work together for a better effect than they would individually. But the basic formulae are designed to be adapted to your particular metabolism by the addition of other herbs. For a proper prescription, visit someone who knows about this, such as an acupuncturist or herbalist trained in TCM.

(An analogy to the basic formula might be a diesel engine block, which, given different bores, strokes, carburettors and fuel mixtures, can be used in all sorts of different situations. The same engine block can be adapted to be used in a boat, in a fork-lift truck, in a car and to provide electric power, for instance. In each case the requirement for power output, for speed, for acceleration and so on would be different, so the basic building material would be adapted. So it is with a basic herbal formula in TCM.)


Whilst taking antibiotics you should also take warm food, hot stews, soups, and AVOID cold foods, iced foods, chilled or iced drinks, and ice cream.

The exception to this is at the start when, and only if, you are feeling hot, dry, parched and feverish. Here you may actually want and benefit from cool liquids and foods, but as you continue to take your antibiotic, assuming it is working of course, these hot symptoms will leave you. It is at this point that you become susceptible to cold and should alter your diet towards warming foods and drinks.

We also recommend you add a little ginger to your drinks, soups and stews. Ginger is a herb that in TCM warms your digestion and combats cold - in other words it warms Yang, specifically Stomach Yang. So you might find that taking ginger at the same time as antibiotics improves your digestion and maintains your energy.

How to take ginger? Best is to buy a root of ginger. Wash any dirt off but don’t peel it. Cut off a few very thin round slices, up to 2 cm diameter and no more than 1mm thickness. (Keep the rest of the root refrigerated.) Put this slice into a mug. Pour on boiling water, allow it to steep for five minutes, and then sip the mixture over the next hour.

(What? You don’t like it? Who said anything about liking it? Get used to the idea that it’s doing you good, instead! Have you never heard of brussel sprouts, forced on you with your Christmas turkey, to make sure you still eat the pudding afterwards?!)

You can cut up the remaining ginger slices into slithers and add them to soups and stews, stir-fries and other dishes.

You might even learn to like it.


The aim, in TCM, is to maintain a healthy metabolism and immune system. If you eat too much ‘poor’ or ‘cold’ food, or foods that have a cold effect on you, your digestion will suffer, you won’t absorb nutrients into your blood, you’ll get tired and you’ll become less resistant to disease.

In addition, lacking the right ingredients for health, your attitudes will alter, you may become depressed, your concentration will go and your memory too. If you are a child, you’ll be harder to cope with. Good food makes an enormous difference to everyone.

When you are taking antibiotics, make sure that you compensate for their ill-effects by taking foods or substances that maintain a healthy digestion. We suggest pro-biotics, possibly pre-biotics, and ginger, as being precautions that you can take yourself.

You may find acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine really helpful. Indeed, both of these can often treat diseases for which antibiotics have been prescribed.

And when your course of antibiotics is complete, continue taking pro-biotics, eat more natural foods lightly cooked, and come for some acupuncture to put you back on your feet and get you fighting fit again!

Further pages to read

Even further stuff to read!

If you've enjoyed this page, you'll probably enjoy the books Jonathan has written. They all contain the same brand of common sense and occasional humour, and they aren't too long.

Above all, they are useful.

Following this page, read Yuck! Phlegm!.

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Jonathan Clogstoun-Willmott Books

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Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine

Published 1986 and, amazingly, still selling. Western Astrology and Chinese Medicine was apparently used back then by at least one acupuncture college to help students understand Chinese medicine! See Reviews.

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