When you think of the term “beneficial bacteria”, your first thoughts might be about their important role in digestive health. And while that’s true, they also do so much more. These tiny allies that reside throughout our bodies, known collectively as the microbiome, or probiotic bacteria, provide benefits for virtually every system in the body. Read on for a quick tour of some of the macro benefits of the microbiome.
Probiotics supports digestive function
The bacteria that reside in your intestinal tract not only help you digest food, but they also produce essential nutrients like vitamin K, biotin, and folate, as well as short-chain fatty acids, which are the preferred energy source of the cells that line the intestinal tract. And they help keep you regular by shortening transit time through the colon. They do this by maintaining a healthy environment in the gut and supporting the gut lining, which controls peristalsis.
Probiotics help promote a stronger immune system
The majority of the body’s immune system is centered around the digestive tract, and the microbiome plays an important role in promoting optimal immune function. One way it does this is by outcompeting pathogens and preventing them from causing infections. Additionally, by maintaining the health of the intestinal lining, beneficial bacteria help ensure that it provides a strong barrier against any wayward pathogens that may come along.
Beneficial bacteria also inhibit inflammation, particularly the chronic, low-grade type of inflammation that can impair health in numerous ways, such as increasing the risk of developing an autoimmune condition. This is particularly important for women, as we are twice as likely as men to develop autoimmune conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and others.
Breast cancer prevention
Probiotics have been shown to directly inhibit the growth of cancer cells and promote their death, prevent blood supply to tumors, and enhance anti-cancer immune activity. A healthy, well-balanced microbiome can also prevent excess accumulation of estrogen, which is the greatest contributing factor to breast cancer risk. Many probiotic bacteria are able to breakdown estrogen and influence its levels in the body in various ways. These have been dubbed the “estrobolome”.
In women with breast cancer, certain patterns of dysbiosis have been noted that promote inflammation, leading to the development and metastasis of cancer cells. Dysbiosis from high-fat diets has been found to raise estrogen levels by promoting reabsorption of estrogen back into the circulation. By contrast, high-fiber diets seem to promote a microbial balance that favors elimination of estrogen.
Probiotics help to maintain a healthy weight
A healthy microbiome helps you achieve and maintain your ideal weight. Through the gut–brain axis, probiotic bacteria are able to communicate with the brain via the vagus nerve, a large nerve that carries information to and from the digestive tract, and also through the stress-response system between the brain and body known as the HPA axis. A healthy microbiome promotes insulin sensitivity in the part of the brain that controls appetite, resulting in better appetite control. Certain probiotic species also increase levels of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin.
In one study, probiotic supplementation improved the weight loss effects of a low-calorie diet in a group of obese women compared to calorie restriction alone. Those participants who received the probiotic supplement reported less hunger and less emotional eating. Over 12 weeks, the low-calorie plus probiotic group lost an average of 14.8 pounds—twice as much as the group that received a placebo.
Boost your mood with probiotics
Probiotic bacteria produce some of the same brain chemicals that our bodies produce, including the calming neurotransmitters GABA and serotonin and the activating neurotransmitters dopamine and norepinephrine. When the microbiome is imbalanced, it can cause detrimental effects on mood states via the gut–brain axis. In women, alterations in the microbiome from low-fiber diets are associated with increased levels of perceived stress, depression, and anxiety. One study found that when postmenopausal women consumed probiotics for six weeks, they reported lower anxiety and perceived stress levels.
Probiotic bacteria supports vaginal health
The vagina contains its own distinct microbiome, and its delicate balance of beneficial bacteria can be easily upset by hormonal fluctuations during the reproductive years, during menopause, through sexual activity, from the use of antibiotics, and from various health conditions and lifestyle factors. Vaginal infections often arise when bacteria or yeast overgrow and are a common occurrence for many women at various times throughout life. Supporting the vagina’s normal, healthy microbiome through the use of probiotic supplementation has been shown to be an effective way to speed the healing of vaginal infections, improve the symptoms of vaginal infections, such as discharge, pain, and odor, and prevent them from recurring.
Though we’re only beginning to understand the intricate ways the microbiome influences health and is influenced by our state of health, its clear that nurturing the microbiome with a balanced diet and supplementation can provide substantial health benefits.
FemmePharma has been helping women navigate menopause for over two decades. No matter where you are in your journey, you deserve to have knowledgeable, intimate healthcare partners to help you feel your best. Explore our other articles, podcast episodes with women’s health experts, and products to ease your transition into menopause.