Probiotics have been getting a lot of buzz in health-conscious circles over the past few years, and it might be tempting to disregard these supplements as a temporary health fad. But the science behind the benefits of taking a daily probiotic is sound, and women in particular stand to reap a myriad of health benefits from the addition of probiotics to their routine. Whatever your particular stage in life, probiotics can help combat a number of issues that are unique to women, from helping alleviate chronic yeast infections to preventing postmenopausal osteoporosis. Here are three reasons (among many!) that women of all ages should consider a probiotic regimen:
Do Women Need Probiotics More Than Men Do?
1. Lower incidence of chronic yeast infections.
Most women have experienced a yeast infection at least once in their life and know the unpleasant symptoms all too well: unbearable itchiness, an uncomfortable burning sensation, and thick discharge. Some women are unlucky enough to face recurring and chronic yeast infections that can have a serious impact on their quality of life—and the cause comes down to the bacteria in their vaginal canal.
Like the gut, a woman's vagina has its own microbiome of good and bad bacteria. One type of good bacteria in particular, known as lactobacillus, plays a key role in regulating the pH levels and the amount of yeast in the vagina. Once the amount of this good bacteria gets out of balance, however, the conditions for a yeast infection become favorable. The good bacteria populations in the vagina can be affected by a wide range of everyday medications and situations, from the usual antibiotic use to increased estrogen levels triggered by pregnancy or birth control to poorly managed diabetes. However, the solution is potentially very simple: a daily probiotic supplement.
A number of studies have been conducted to investigate the effects of daily probiotic usage in helping to control recurring yeast infections, and the results are promising. Compared to typical chronic yeast infection treatment using antibiotics—which can ultimately lead to ongoing disruptions in vaginal microbiotic balance and increased recurrence of infection—probiotics are believed to help with both current yeast infections and future occurrences. In other words, probiotics can help you get to the cause of your chronic yeast infections rather than just treating the symptoms.
2. Effective in combating osteoporosis.
Menopause can bring with it a host of unpleasant symptoms and side effects: night sweats and hot flashes combined with chills, frequent mood swings and insomnia, slowing metabolism, and increased weight gain. Of all the changes that come with menopause, however, one in particular has potentially serious health repercussions. The average woman will experience an up to 20 percent drop in bone density in the five years following the onset of menopause; in turn, this loss of bone density greatly increases the chances of developing osteoporosis, which can contribute to serious and debilitating injuries such as broken hips.
However, studies have found evidence that probiotic supplements can slow this loss of bone density following menopause and thus reduce a woman's risk of developing osteoporosis. Testing on mice, researchers from Emory University and Georgia State discovered that the loss of estrogen during menopause increases the permeability of the gut. This reduced barrier allows gut bacteria to trigger an immune system response that leads to a break down in bone density. In the study, mice who were given probiotics had significantly reduced bone loss—a promising result for any women facing menopause.
3. Preventing group B strep during pregnancy.
All pregnant women are tested for group B streptococcus, a strain of bacteria that is found in the vagina or rectum of about a quarter of all otherwise healthy women. This test is part of routine pregnancy screenings for one key reason; babies born to mothers colonized with group B strep are at risk of developing critical illnesses like meningitis and pneumonia in their first weeks of life. Traditional treatment is simple: a round of IV antibiotics during labor. Of course, just because the treatment is straightforward doesn't mean it's without side effects. Like all antibiotics, those administered during labor can wreak havoc on the gut microbiome balance of both mother and baby.
Exciting new research, however, suggests that group B strep overgrowth may be able to be prevented with the use of a probiotic supplement. One study found that pregnant participants who took a probiotic supplement once a day had a lower incidence of group B strep than those in the control group—while China Medical University researchers discovered that daily probiotic usage during pregnancy even has the potential to reverse a positive group B strep test.
4. Boosts beneficial bacteria during breastfeeding.
It's well-known that breastfeeding offers a multitude of benefits for infants, and one key role that breastmilk plays is in developing a baby's own microbiome. As in adults, a baby's healthy microbiome helps improve immune system function—particularly important because infants are facing exposure to a host of bad bacteria for the first time. The good bacteria needed to establish a well-balanced gut can come from several places, but studies have shown that breastfeeding in particular can account for as much as 30 percent of a baby's gut bacteria.
In turn, breastfeeding supports infant gut microbiome development in several ways, including providing necessary nutrients for one particularly important strain of good bacteria in infants: Bifidobacterium longum infantis. Extensive scientific research has shown that B. infantis has anti-inflammatory properties and can help seal an infant's developing gut, preventing microbes from entering the bloodstream via the digestive tract and stopping a number of serious health issues. Of course, a breastfeeding mother's milk must have the right balance of nutrients in order to properly nurture her baby's gut microbiome, and studies have demonstrated that taking a probiotic supplement helps maximize the positive digestive and immune system effects of breastmilk.