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 taking probiotic supplements can help keep this "ecosystem" in check.*
These healthy bacteria colonize in the gut, leaving less room for harmful pathogens to take over (like "bad" bacteria and "bad" yeast, as well as parasites).* And allowing more of the "good" microorganisms to move in has been found to have some significant health benefits.*
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 consider taking a probiotic.
A healthy microbiome supports overall health in many ways, but unfortunately, there are many things that can disrupt the peace within this little ecosystem.
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 a negative effect. Bacterial infections, parasites, and yeast (not the good kind) can wreak havoc if you have them.
And as you might guess, antibiotics use is another culprit. Although sometimes necessary, 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 or longer afterward).
While everyone is susceptible to an imbalanced gut, there are reasons women, in particular, should be thinking about it. Women report higher level of stress than men, are more likely to be prescribed antibiotics, and are more like to have gastrointestinal issues. On top of all that, the vagina is home to its own delicate microbiome that needs to be cared for.
The benefits of probiotics for women.
When your microbiome isn't in good shape, it can lead to issues like GI distress, allergies, autoimmune issues, skin conditions (like acne and eczema), hormonal imbalances, weight gain, frequent vaginal infections, and more.
If any of these symptoms sound familiar, you may want to consider taking a probiotic supplement.*
They're good for your gut.*
Studies suggest that the GI systems of women could be more sluggish than those of men, increasing the risk for digestive issues. Taking a probiotic supplement can promote a healthy gut microbiome and support digestion.*
"Think of probiotics as your little helpers that restore order and help maintain harmony in your gut ecosystem," says gut health expert Vincent Pedre MD "They outnumber and antagonize unwelcome pathogens, including unfavorable bacteria, yeast, and parasites."
Probiotics can also help manage digestive issues like bloating. And, according to a large review, taking probiotics can reduce traveler's diarrhea. *
They support the vaginal microbiome.*
Infections like bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections can occur when bad bacteria inside the vagina outnumber the good. "Like the microbiome in our digestive system, sinuses, and skin, the vaginal micro biome is the first line of defense against infections," explains family functional medicine doctor Elizabeth Boham MD, MS, RD.
Certain probiotic strains can support the vaginal micro biome, keeping the "bad" bacteria that cause these infections at bay.* According to a review on the influence of probiotics on 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.
While vaginal probiotics (probiotics designed to be inserted directly into the vagina) are available, studies have shown that oral probiotic supplements can also support the vaginal microbiome.
They can help with weight management.*
Studies have also found that probiotics and weight management 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 probiotic supplements 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.* Interestingly, the researchers did not see the same weight changes in men.
One of the potential ways probiotics can aid in weight management is by affecting the hormone leptin (which suppresses appetite), leptin levels were higher in the group who took the probiotic.*
They have skin benefits (for you and your baby).*
The gut and vagina aren't the only homes of microbiomes in the body. The skin is also home to trillions of bacteria. The nutritional support of probiotics could help manage problems like eczema, acne, allergic inflammation, and hypersensitivity, as well as promote wound healing and help fight skin damage.*
It may be especially important for women with eczema and allergies to take probiotics during pregnancy, based on WHO recommendation, since it reduces the chance of passing the condition to their child*.
How to choose a probiotic for women.
Because different strains have been studied for different applications, choosing a probiotic supplement that is targeted to your specific needs is important.
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 lactis).
However, "different strains can be tied to different benefits, " functional dietitian Krista King, M.S., RDN, LDN, stresses, so it's important to look for targeted strains that are well-researched for the issues you are hoping to address.
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 that undergo third-party testing.
And when it comes to quantity, look for a product in the billions of CFU's (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 in the appropriate setting).
If you're taking a probiotic for general health, try starting with 20 to 50 billion CFUs (ideally containing both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium strains), one to two times a day on an empty stomach. And if you're looking for a probiotic to address your issues, consider talking to an integrative or 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.
If you are pregnant, breastfeeding, or taking medications, consult with your doctor before starting a supplement routine. It is always optimal to consult with a health care provider when considering what supplements are right for you.