Probiotics are live microorganisms that, when administered in adequate amounts, confer a health benefit on the host. The most common use of probiotics is to improve gut health by restoring the balance of bacteria in the intestine. Probiotics can also be used to improve other aspects of health, such as vaginal health and oral health.
As per the National Library of Medicine, the vaginal microbiome is composed of at least 51 genera (and likely more) of bacteria. Lactobacillus species are most commonly found in the vagina and contribute to the maintenance of normal acidity through lactic acid production. A healthy lactobacilli population reduces the likelihood that other bacterial species, yeast, or parasites will grow out of control.
Different Probiotics for Women:
Women are more likely to develop urinary tract infections (UTIs) than men; one reason is that the urethra (the tube that carries urine from the bladder through the body to outside the body) is shorter in women than in men. This means it is easier for bacteria to travel up to the bladder and cause an infection. For this reason, using a probiotic can be helpful by restoring the balance between good and bad bacteria in the vagina/lower urinary tract.
Taking certain antibiotics kills not just bad bacteria but also beneficial bacteria, allowing bad bacteria to grow out of control. The use of probiotics may reduce the incidence of yeast infections, other infections, and fecal incontinence in people taking antibiotics.
Benefits of Probiotics for Women:
Probiotics offer several benefits to vaginal health:
- They help balance healthy bacteria.
- They can inhibit or kill bad bacteria.
- They produce natural antimicrobial factors (ex. bacteriocins).
- They improve the body’s immune response (immunomodulation).
Probiotic supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), so it is important to choose a high-quality product that meets all standards set forth by an independent organization such as the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF).
Effect of Probiotics for Women:
Vaginal flora changes during pregnancy and lactation. During pregnancy, there is a reduction in “Lactobacillus” species increasing pathogenic bacteria. This may be due to hormonal changes. The vaginal microbiota returns to its normal state post-partum if breastfeeding occurs. If not, bacterial vaginosis (BV) develops, which increases the risk of preterm birth and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). These findings suggest that probiotics could help restore the vaginal flora by preventing the overgrowth of pathogens during pregnancy or lactation, thus reducing miscarriage/preterm birth/STIs.
Probiotics may help with urinary tract infections (UTIs). UTIs are more common in women than men and tend to recur. It is thought that this occurs due to the short urethra in women. Since probiotics can inhibit or kill bad bacteria (and good bacteria also helps with immune function), taking a probiotic supplement daily during antibiotic therapy may reduce the risk of recurrent UTIs.
IBS affects approximately 10% of Americans and shows no gender preference. Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, and frequent loose stools/constipation. A recent study found that 80% of patients with IBS tested positive for “Cronobacter” sakazakii, a pathogen linked to severe diarrhea and fatal infections in infants. The risk of Cronobacter infection is increased when using antibiotics to kill the pathogen “Escherichia coli”. This suggests that taking a probiotic with antibiotic therapy could reduce this risk by enhancing immune function. A multi-strain probiotic was given to patients with IBS who had positive Cronobacter sakazakii cultures for 4 weeks, and results showed it significantly improved abdominal pain/discomfort, bloating, stool frequency/consistency.
Probiotics are often recommended as a supportive treatment for acute infectious diarrhea, including rotavirus diarrhea in children, traveler’s diarrhea, and other viral or bacterial causes. More recently they have been found helpful in treating constipation (over 50% of Americans suffer from chronic constipation).
Studies have shown that oral supplementation with probiotics (either as a food additive or taken as a supplement) can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol, protect against certain cancers (breast, colon), decrease the risk of developing kidney stones and allergies in children. Larger studies are needed to determine if these benefits can be achieved in healthy individuals who eat a balanced diet and maintain a healthy weight. Probiotics may also help combat fatigue, increase energy and improve mood by improving vitamin and mineral absorption (B vitamins especially).
There has not been an official guideline on how much of each type of probiotic should be consumed for optimal health; however, guidelines do recommend using yogurt preparations containing “Lactobacillus acidophilus” and “Bifidobacterium bifidum” (most probiotic yogurts will contain these). It is important to note that taking too many probiotics can cause negative health effects. One of the most common problems with high quantities of probiotics, especially in women who are pregnant or breastfeeding, is yeast infections; therefore it is very important not to take excessively high doses of any one strain of probiotic. High intakes have also been linked to bloating in some cases, so it’s important to start slowly when beginning a new regimen.