If you’re on a quest to improve your gut health, you’ve probably already considered the health benefits of probiotic supplements. Probiotics — the good microbes found in and on your body — are concentrated most highly in the gut. They live throughout your entire system, likely outnumbering human cells, so you can imagine how critical it is for us to maintain a proper balance (1).
For women specifically, probiotics not only contribute to digestive health, but can aid in a host of other female-specific concerns, such as urinary tract infections (UTIs), yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, and even fertility.
We know we can contribute to the diversity of our microbiome through foods containing live cultures (such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, raw sauerkraut, and kimchi, to name a few), but to really focus on women’s health issues, it’s a good idea to consider a probiotic supplement (2).
We’ll explore the role and health benefits of probiotics in addition to uncovering the best probiotics for women and what to look for when choosing a dietary supplement.
Health Benefits of Probiotics: a Quick Overview
You are not alone in your body. Rather, you share it with anywhere between 10 and 100 trillion microorganisms, which make up what scientists call the human microbiome. Your microbiome includes microscopic organisms like bacteria, viruses, and yeast, all of which mostly concentrate in the intestinal tract. They do, however, reach to every corner of your body, interacting with your cells in ways that are still unclear to researchers worldwide (3).
What we do know is that diversity within the microbiome indicates (or leads to; it’s still unclear) a healthy gut, a stronger immune system, and improved overall health and wellness. Eating foods that feed the good bacteria and yeasts in the gut contribute to a healthy balance between good and harmful bacteria and can prevent infection and disease. These foods are sometimes referred to as prebiotics, and include high-fiber foods in addition to alliums (garlic, onions, leeks), asparagus, and apples, to name just a few (4).
In addition to eating pre- and probiotic foods, it can be helpful or necessary to add a supplement to your regimen. It’s especially helpful if you’re experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms or digestive issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or if you’ve recently taken a round of antibiotics, which often kill the good bacteria along with the bad.
Probiotic supplements have been shown to improve digestive health, heal the gut lining, boost immunity, and boost female reproductive and vaginal health, although more research still needs to be done (5).
As a consumer, it’s important to be aware of certain pitfalls (such as a lack of FDA oversight in the supplement industry) and the criteria your supplement should meet before you make a purchase.
What’s in the Bottle?
If you’ve ever purchased a daily probiotic supplement before, you know that many on the market require refrigeration. We can’t always be sure how the product was shipped to your local pharmacy or health food store, so it’s important to ask questions before you purchase. Make sure you’re buying from a store that values quality and ensures proper shipping of sensitive products. This will give you a better chance of actually getting what the bottle says you’re getting.
Bacterial Diversity and Potency
It’s also important to read the label. The best probiotic supplements on the market contain multiple strains of bacteria, list the full names of each one (such as lactobacillus acidophilus), and indicate a clear count of CFUs (colony forming units).
CFUs tell you how potent your supplement is. Effective probiotics list CFUs in the billions, not millions. Be wary of supplements that list microbes in milligrams, as that’s an imprecise measurement for your purposes. Another important ingredient in your bottle is prebiotic content.
One last thing to look for on the label is the Other Ingredients section. You want to make sure that your probiotic is free from artificial colors, preservatives, and fillers. It’s fine if the brand you prefer includes helpful herbs, vitamins, or other ingredients that serve a purpose in their formula, but you want to make sure that they’ve steered clear of the junk.
In addition to offering a diverse and potent collection of microbes, high quality probiotic companies usually include prebiotics in their blend so that the bacteria in their capsules have something to eat. This improves shelf life and ensures that they’ll still be alive and vibrant by the time they reach your kitchen counter. You might see prebiotics listed on the label as inulin, FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), GOS (galactooligosaccharides), acacia gum, psyllum, or chicory root (6).
Probiotic Strains for Women’s Health
Of the thousands of strains of bacteria found in the human microbiome, the two largest categories of bacteria are Bifidobacterium and Lactobacillus. These two categories contain a number of strains of bacteria, each with its own attributes and health effects.
Although research on individual bacterial strains and health outcomes associated with them is still in its infancy, there is compelling research on a number of strains within each category. There are also generalized claims associated with the two larger categories.
Bifidobacteria are generally used in protocols to treat constipation, H. pylori infection, IBS, airway infections, infant and traveler’s diarrhea, and ulcerative colitis (7).
Lactobacilli are included in protocols to treat antibiotic-associated diarrhea, hay fever, eczema, acne, bacterial vaginosis, chemotherapy-associated diarrhea, constipation, H. pylori infection, high cholesterol, colic in babies, rheumatoid arthritis, traveler’s diarrhea, mouth sores, and ulcerative colitis (8).
One of the more common strains of Lactobacillus found in the vagina is Lactobacillus acidophilus. Naturally occurring in yogurt, researchers found that daily consumption of 8 ounces of yogurt worked to prevent recurrence of yeast infections in otherwise healthy women (9). Two studies following acne patients revealed that L. acidophilus combined with either L. bulgaricus or B. bifidum resulted in statistically significant improvements on the skin (10).
Lactobacillus Rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus Fermentum RC-14
L. rhamnosus GR-1 and L. fermentum RC-14 were both used in a clinical trial that included both healthy women and women with bacterial vaginosis. The results showed that a daily treatment was correlated with healthy vaginal flora numbers in addition to converting bacterial infection into healthy numbers for seven out of 11 subjects in the study (11).
L. reuteri along with L. acidophilus and other Lactobacillus strains all contribute to healthy vaginal microbiota. In addition to helping restore vaginal flora balance in post-menopausal women, L. reuteri also plays an instrumental role in turning down inflammation in the body, especially in the gut, which can have a positive impact on immune health (12).
Shopping for the Best Women’s Probiotic Supplement
The lack of FDA oversight in the supplement business means that you as a consumer need to do a little bit more work to find reputable companies that stand behind their products. Every bottle of supplements you’ll purchase contains the same warning that “these statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration,” so finding brands you can trust is paramount.
Some of the most reputable brands are only available through healthcare professionals, such as Pure Encapsulations or Designs for Health. But there are certainly high-quality brands that have formulas specifically geared toward women’s health available at health food stores and online marketplaces like The Vitamin Shoppe.
Our favorites are Renew Life and Garden of Life. Renew Life offers a high potency line called Ultimate Flora Probiotics, which offers women-specific varieties along with critical care option for those recovering from antibiotic use. Garden of Life has a line of doctor-formulated products, backed by a well-regarded doctor named David Perlmutter, again, offering a formulation specifically for women.
While these two aren’t the only great choices available on the market, they’re two of the best based on the guidelines we’ve set forth in this post. Ultimately, you and your healthcare professional should work together to decide which supplements will be most beneficial to you on your journey to health and well-being.
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