These days, probiotics are as buzzy as ever thanks to their ever-expanding list of superpowers—it seems like almost everyone can benefit from them in some way. This is especially true when it comes to probiotics for women.
Probiotics help support a healthy microbiome (or the delicate balance of bacteria and other microorganisms in the body), which plays a major role in many important functions, from skin to mental health to immunity. And for women in particular, keeping this balance of bacteria happy is also important in vaginal health, managing digestion issues that tend to affect women more often than men, and more.
Here's what you should know about probiotics for women.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are microorganisms (like "good" bacteria and yeast) that help support various aspects of overall health. The gut is already home to trillions of microorganisms (more than 500 different species), and using probiotics can help keep this "ecosystem" in check.
These healthy bacteria colonize in the gut, leaving minimal roomful for harmful pathogens to take over (like "bad" bacteria and yeast, as well as parasites). And allowing these "good" microorganisms to keep control has been found to have some significant health benefits—and research is still uncovering more.
While these live bacteria can be found in fermented foods (like sauerkraut, miso, pickled vegetables, and kimchi) and cultured foods and drinks (like yogurt, kefir, and kombucha), they can also be found freeze-dried in supplement form.
Why women should take probiotics.
A healthy microbiome supports overall health in endless ways, but unfortunately, there are many things that can disrupt the peace within this little ecosystem.
Things like chronic stress (which many multitasking women are familiar with) can throw the microbiome out of whack, and overdoing it on sugar and processed foods also has an effect. Bacterial infections, parasites, and yeast (not the good kind) can also wreak havoc. And as you might guess, taking antibiotics is also a culprit. They do more than just wipe out "bad" bacteria—they disrupt the "good" bacteria in the microbiome as well (taking just one course of antibiotics can mess with your gut flora for up to 12 months afterward).
When your microbiome isn't in good shape, it can lead to issues like allergies, autoimmune diseases, skin conditions (like acne and eczema), hormonal imbalances, mental health issues, weight gain, GI problems, and more.
The good news: If any of the above sounds familiar, taking a probiotic supplement may help get things back on track.
The benefits of probiotics for adults.
Studies have found that probiotic supplements have the power to influence health in pretty profound ways, in men and women.
Because so much of the body's bacteria colonizes in the gut, it comes as no surprise that probiotics can help prevent and manage many digestive issues. According to a review on the many benefits of probiotics, taking probiotics has been shown to help prevent bowel diseases (like ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease) and reduce traveler's diarrhea. Probiotics can also help manage irritable bowel syndrome and weight and improve bloating related to functional bowel disorders (including IBS). One type of bacteria in particular—called Bifidobacterium lactis—can decrease inflammation and promote weight loss at the same time.
The benefits of probiotics go far beyond the gut, too. There's growing interest in what's called the gut-brain axis (the communication between the gut and the brain), and probiotics may help modulate these signaling pathways. Studies suggest that through gut-brain axis mechanisms, probiotics may help with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, as well as chronic fatigue and stress responses.
Probiotics can also play a role in skin health—they may help improve skin barrier function, help treat eczema, and aid in healing wounds and scars. They also may help prevent and treat oral diseases and infections.
Other benefits of probiotics for women.
Probiotics also have many benefits for women's health issues in particular. Studies have shown that orally taking certain probiotic strains can help cure and prevent bacterial vaginosis (or BV) by restoring the vaginal microbiome, preventing the "bad" bacteria that causes BV from taking over.
Probiotics may also help prevent urinary tract infections (which affect women far more often than men) by keeping the vaginal microbiome balanced, too. According to a review on how probiotics can help prevent urogenital infections (like UTIs, BV, and yeast vaginitis), research has found an association between lactobacilli (one common probiotic strain) presence in the vagina and women who have never had a UTI.
So should probiotics be part of your routine if you're looking to prevent or create UTIs and BV? According to Amy Shah, M.D., an integrative medicine doctor and mindbodygreen Collective member, "It's a mixed bag. Some studies encourage its use like in the case of yeast infection. But in a new study in Cell, the researchers found that if you gave volunteers probiotics during and after antibiotic therapy, it actually blocked the normal microbiome and gene expression profile to returning to normal for months. So now I encourage probiotic natural foods like kimchi, coconut kefir, etc., and not probiotic pills during this time."
Studies have also found that probiotics and weight loss are connected, specifically in women. In one study, researchers found that overweight women who underwent a weight loss diet for 12 weeks while taking a certain strain of probiotics lost more weight than a group of overweight women who did the same weight loss diet for 12 weeks without taking a probiotic supplement. The women who took the probiotic also continued to lose weight during the 12-week maintenance period afterward, while the other group's weight remained stable. (Men were also involved in the study, but researchers didn't see the same weight differences between the two groups).
Research has suggested a few different reasons probiotics can aid in weight loss. In the above study, researchers found that the hormone leptin (which suppresses appetite) was higher in the group who took the probiotic. These researchers also suggested that probiotics may change the permeability of the intestinal wall, allowing fewer pro-inflammatory particles to get into the bloodstream (which can lead to glucose intolerance, type 2 diabetes, and eventually obesity).
The best strains of probiotics for women's health issues.
Not all probiotics work as well as the next for all health issues. There are three main strains found in probiotics—Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Saccharomyces boulardii—and different species within these strains have been studied for different applications.
So the best probiotics for women's health issues vary. Research has found that Lactobacillus acidophilus can be effective in restoring the vaginal microbiome, which can help prevent bacterial vaginosis. Studies also suggest that Bifidobacterium infantis can play a role in treatment for irritable bowel syndrome (which, again, affects more women than men). And one strain found to aid in weight loss in women was Lactobacillus gasseri.
How to choose a probiotic for women.
Because different strains have been studied for different applications, choosing a probiotic supplement with multiple strains can help you make sure you're checking all the boxes. (After all, your gut bacteria is diverse, so a diverse probiotic is a better bet than one that contains just one strain.)
While the list of ingredients found on the back of a probiotic supplement can seem confusing or overwhelming, a diverse probiotic will likely contain Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium bacteria (and various species within each of those strains, like Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium infantis). You may also see Thermophiles, Saccharomyces boulardii, and more.
The quality and quantity of a probiotic supplement should also be involved in your decision. Quality-wise, to make sure a probiotic contains what it says it does—and that those live bacteria actually make it from production to your intestines without dying off—look for professional brands recommended by health care professionals or brands that undergo third-party testing.
And when it comes to quantity, look for a product in the billions of CFUs (or colony-forming units). Probiotics often range from 5 to 100 billion, and you should start on the lower end and increase as they're tolerated (it's also worth noting that the more gut damage has been done, the more CFUs you might need).
If you're taking a probiotic for general health, try starting with 30 to 50 billion CFUs (ideally at least 15 billion each of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains), one to two times a day on an empty stomach. And if you're looking for a probiotic to address specific women's health issues, consider talking to a functional medicine doctor or health care professional. They may be able to point you in the direction of which probiotic for women is best for you.
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