Consuming probiotics can be beneficial for most people, but probiotics for women may hold a special importance.
Women are two to six times more likely to experience irritable bowel syndrome than men, with inflammatory bowel disease being diagnosed at a rate of 2:1 in women compared with men. With this in mind, it may be more pressing for women to worry about their gut health and do everything they can to keep their internal microbiome diverse and functioning well.
As well as the gut microbiome we all have, women have a vaginal microbiome, which also requires a delicate balance to remain healthy and functioning properly. Some probiotics are specifically designed to support vaginal health and fertility, as well as general immunity and gut health.
Read on to find out everything you know about probiotics, and their particular importance for women. And if you're more interested to know how probiotics can affect men's health, read about the six benefits of probiotics for men. Plus, if you're looking for extra dietary support, check out our guide to the best protein powder for women, to help you build lean muscle and maintain a healthy weight.
What are probiotics and why do we need them?
Probiotics are live microorganisms that we can consume as supplements, or as part of our diets in fermented foods such as kimchi, or probiotic yogurt.
They boost the populations of beneficial microorganisms that are already living in our bodies in the gastrointestinal tract, on the skin and even in the vaginal lining.
“Probiotics are a combination of live beneficial bacteria, or yeast, that are native to our gut microbiome,” explains Cristy Dean, dietician and gut health specialist at Fettle and Bloom (opens in new tab). “They are made up of good bacteria that keep us healthy and well, and can help to maintain the balance of bacteria which can get out of sync due to ill health and disease.”
Probiotics can support proper immune function. One 2019 study (opens in new tab) showed that a healthy gut microbiome can reduce gut wall permeability, which in turn prevents bad microorganisms from traveling through the gut wall into the bloodstream.
Dean adds that probiotics can be powerful allies in the prevention of infection, and supporting those with disease. “There is a growing body of evidence that suggests we can treat or even prevent some illnesses by taking certain strains of probiotics. Potential benefits have been seen in diarrhea, irritable bowel syndrome, infection by Clostridium difficile, inflammatory bowel disease and vaginal infections to name a few.”
The benefits of probiotics for women
So what particular benefits can women gain from taking probiotics?
Vaginal health and fertility
Studies (opens in new tab) have shown that some strains of Lactobacilli, a particular type of probiotic found in most probiotic foods, can be beneficial in treating and preventing vaginal infections. Bacterial vaginosis can be particularly problematic as it can cause pelvic inflammatory diseases and pregnancy complications. A healthy vaginal biome is an important factor for a successful pregnancy and infant health, as studies (opens in new tab) suggest a baby’s very first gastrointestinal microbes are ‘seeded’ to them as they are pushed through the birth canal.
Dean encourages the use of oral probiotics for vaginal health. “Probiotics are particularly good for vaginal health as they keep the balance of the vaginal microbiome which can be susceptible to yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis and urogenital infections,” she says. “There are specific strains that have been researched and used in this area with great beneficial effects.”
Urinary tract infections are far more common in women than men, due to the proximity between the vaginal opening and the anus, which increases the chances of cross-contaminating the vagina with E-Coli bacteria from the rectum. Studies (opens in new tab) have shown that taking a probiotic suppository can effectively clear infections and rebalance the vaginal microbiome. This may be particularly useful after a course of antibiotics, as these can often lead to imbalance in our body’s microbial makeup.
Overall gut health
Women statistically (opens in new tab) experience more gastrointestinal issues than men, so promoting good gut health may be of particular concern. Taking probiotics may help to reduce symptoms of digestive conditions.
“Fermented foods such as yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut can benefit the microbiome by enhancing its function and reducing the abundance of disease causing bacteria in the intestines, along with promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria Lactobacilli,” says Dean. “It is worth noting, however, that the effects of probiotics and fermented foods are transient – so if you stop consuming them, the benefit will go away.”
Women often see an increase in mood-related issues during their monthly cycle, pregnancy or menopause, due to the change in hormonal activity experienced at this time. Studies (opens in new tab) have shown that a healthy gut microbiome can support good mental health, while an imbalanced microbiome can cause mood issues. This is generally because our gut bacteria can mimic the hormones released by our own bodies and also communicate with our brains through the vagus nerve, making them integral in the monitoring of mood. This connection is called the gut-brain axis.
Sleep quality and duration can be impacted by many factors, including menopause. Research (opens in new tab) indicates that microorganisms that thrive when the body is sleep deprived can also cause disruptions to our circadian rhythms. A diverse gut microbiome can prevent overgrowth of these sleep-impacting microorganisms by creating effective competition.
Due to the impact of the body’s microbiome on the immune system, poor gut health has the power to cause skin irritation, according to 2019 research (opens in new tab). The skin is the body’s first immune barrier against the world and works together with our mucous membranes and gut wall to prevent bad microorganisms from penetrating into our bodies. Probiotics can help to support an overall healthy flora of microorganisms throughout the body, and good diversity in these populations can prevent microorganisms that cause skin irritation or conditions from overgrowth.
What are good types of probiotics for women?
Probiotics rich in lactobacilli variants can promote good gut and vaginal health. Lactobacilli can make the vaginal environment too acidic for other microorganisms to get a foothold, which makes them particularly beneficial when taken by women for the prevention of bacterial vaginosis and other infections. These benefits for vaginal health can still be seen when probiotics are taken orally, due to the benefits to overall immune health and overall balancing effect probiotics have on our microbiome.