Probiotics and Women
Probiotics: A Woman’s Best Friend
-by Sherrill Sellman, ND
One of the secrets to optimal health is cultivating a great relationship with bacteria. While many people will be reaching for their favourite antibacterial soap with just the thought of bacteria, there are, in fact, certain species of bacteria that we literally cannot live without.
In fact, our digestive tract is home to a thriving population of life-promoting gut bacteria that take up residence within us from the moment of birth. These microflora are so critical to our survival, that without their presence, every aspect of our health would suffer.
Welcome to Our Inner World
Our digestive tract, all 30 feet of it, is one of the most complex and immensely important organs of the body. The healthy functioning of our digestive system is profoundly dependent on the one hundred trillion microorganisms that dwell there, outnumbering the ten trillion cells that make up our body by ten to one!
While it is commonly believed that intestinal functions are relegated to the absorption and assimilation of food, a healthy digestive tract is intimately connected to our overall wellbeing.
Medical science has only recently discovered that it plays a fundamental role in our immunity, emotional health, and even our hormonal balance. Our digestive system also has another name. It is called the “enteric nervous system”. It is also referred to as our ''second brain''. Endowed with its own local nervous system, it contains as many neurons as is found in the spinal cord.
The gut actually does have a mind of its own!
Just like the larger brain in the head, this system is capable of sending and receiving impulses, records experiences, and it also responds to emotions. Its nerve cells are bathed and influenced by the same neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, that are found in our brain. Our gut and brain are continuously influencing and affecting each other.
How the Gut’s “Second Brain” Influences Mood and Well-Being
In order to have a healthy functioning digestive tract, we must have a healthy and robust gut flora population.
More than 99 percent of microbes living in our intestinal tract are a very diverse group of bacteria, numbering between 500 to 1,000 different species. Collectively, they add about three pounds to our overall weight. The rest are yeast or parasites.
To keep things in order, a healthy gut population needs to be composed of about 85 percent beneficial microflora.
The vast majority of our gut bacteria takes up residence in our small and large intestines. The bacterial population of the large intestines, which is more hospitable to microbes, outnumbers that of the small intestines by about 100,000 to 1.
We might liken our gut flora to a large, thriving, and diverse community of microbe species, living harmoniously in their particular neighbourhood. Each colony contributes their unique functions to the benefit of the whole.
Microbes are a natural part of the human nutrition system.
Our microflora are little factories that convert plant and animal products into usable nutrition. Humans require many nutrients that can only be manufactured by these industrious microorganisms.
For instance, trillions of cells of bacteria manufacture the following vital nutrients: B vitamins, (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, biotin, pantothenic acid, pyridoxone, cobalamine), Folic Acid, and vitamin K.
Friendly bacteria are also hard at work allowing for the efficient absorption of essential minerals including calcium, copper, iron, and magnesium.
Beneficial bacteria play another major role; they are responsible for insuring a strong immune system. An impressive 70% of our immune cells line the intestinal wall. Probiotics are the beneficial bacteria that compete with harmful ones.
However, this equilibrium between beneficial and harmful is a delicate balance. Many of our 21st century habits are disrupting influences wreaking havoc on our friendly bacteria. A junk food diet, pharmaceutical drugs, (such as antibiotics, steroids, and birth control pills), environmental chemicals, and psychological or mental stress all impact our gut flora. Specific beneficial strains can be killed or crowded out, allowing their neighbourhoods to be overtaken by harmful bacteria or yeast, such as Candida Albicans.
Friendly microbes help prevent disease in several ways. They deprive invaders of nutrients and secrete acids that less friendly microbes can’t tolerate. They also reinforce the mucosal barrier of the intestines, which blocks dangerous pathogens, toxins, and allergens.
Some bacteria stimulate the immune system by increasing T-cell counts, while others produce natural antibiotic and antifungal substances. It is now coming to light that the trillions of probiotics, which populate our inner ecology, are our best friends – providing beneficial, nutritional, and therapeutic functions necessary for overall human health and vitality.
Probiotics – A gift to Women’s Health
When it comes to ensuring woman’s health, probiotics are indispensable allies for wellbeing. Beneficial microbes metabolize and recycle hormones, including Oestrogen, thyroid hormones, and phytoestrogens. This facilitates proper hormonal balance, which can help offset symptoms of menopause and perimenopause, and may protect bone and breast health as well. They also detoxify drugs and harmful compounds, as well as have anti-tumour and anti-cancer effects.
Pregnancy and Birth – Getting the Gut Right from the Start
We are born sterile. It is only when a baby takes a trip down the birth canal, can the newborn be properly colonized with the various species of gut flora that are found in her mother’s vaginal tract.
Breast-feeding is the next stop for the delivery of gut flora. The baby’s intestines colonize with bacteria shortly after birth, through contact with the environment and from the breast milk. As a child grows, the bacterial population can diversify to contain many hundreds of different species. This is how an infant’s digestive and immune systems are established.
Caesarean-delivered babies have their initial exposure of bacteria from environmental microbes in the air, other infants, and the nursing staff. As a result, the gut flora in infants born by caesarean delivery can be disturbed for up to 6 months after the birth.
Breast-feeding helps to colonize the intestinal tract along with additional supplementation with strains of baby bifidobacteria in order to protect against pathogens. It’s been observed that infants who develop allergies have intestinal bacteria that are distinctly different from those of non-allergic infants, suggesting that the type of intestinal microflora is an important factor in forming allergic conditions. Therefore, it is critical to replenish the beneficial flora through mother’s milk, fermented foods and probiotic supplements.
Hormone Balance vs. Oestrogen Dominance
Probiotics play a major role in helping to maintain hormonal balance in women of all ages, from the menstruating years all the way through to the post-menopausal years.
The greatest challenge to hormonal health is maintaining an optimal balance between Oestrogen and progesterone, and if that balance is thrown out of kilter from an excess of Oestrogen, hormone havoc ensues.
Oestrogen dominance symptoms include weight gain, PMS, endometriosis, ovarian cysts, fibroids, hot flashes, migraines, autoimmune diseases, and an increased risk of breast cancer.
Intestinal bacteria react with chemical compounds, (i.e., hormones), in the intestines. One of the functions of healthy gut flora is to make sure that the break down products of Oestrogen metabolism are tightly bound so they can be safely excreted from the body.
One of the ways in which the body eliminates excess Oestrogen, as well as fat-soluble toxins like pesticides and solvents, is by binding the toxin to a molecule called glucuronic acid. This complex is then excreted in the bile. However, the bond between the toxin and its escort can be broken by the enzyme glucuronidase which is produced by certain bacteria. Excess glucuronidase activity means more of the toxins are liberated and reabsorbed. A high glucuronidase activity in the gut is associated with an increased cancer risk; particularly the risk of Oestrogen dependent breast cancer.
Taking probiotic supplements increases the proportion of the beneficial gut flora, lactobacillus and bifidobacteria to the beta-glucuronidase producing bacteria.. For overall hormonal balance, and in order to reduce the level of reabsorbed, unbound (free) Oestrogen, it is critical to supplement the diet with the friendly bacteria. Therefore, supplementing with probiotics becomes an essential strategy for not only reducing Oestrogen excess but also for reducing the amount of dangerous chemicals in the body as well.
Probiotics and Female Health – Vaginitis, Yeast Infections, and Urinary Tract Infection.
Many women are unaware that their vaginal health depends directly on a flourishing probiotic population, which exists in the vaginal tract. The problems of Candida albicans, (also known as a yeast infection), urogenital tract infections, (UTIs), bacterial vaginosis, and vaginitis, are that they are all indicators that there has been a major disturbance of the gut flora. This results in an over-production of more toxic pathogens and a weakened immune system.
For instance, few women realize that the bacteria that cause bladder infections can travel from the gut to the vagina and then into the bladder. Beneficial bacteria take the same route.
The use of probiotic supplements have been proven to reduce bladder infections. It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of women have unhealthy vaginal flora, (that make up their vaginal bacteria), at any given time — although they may not exhibit any overt symptoms. Probiotics have been proven to reduce infections by increasing the good flora and restoring the requisite balance.
Normally Candida albicans is a harmless yeast which lives in the gastrointestinal tract—which is well populated by healthy gut flora and a healthy immune system. Unfortunately, when this internal ecology is disrupted, Candida can quickly multiply out of control, especially in the colon. Antibiotics, birth control pills, and environmental chemicals are major causes for disrupting this inner world.
Probiotic treatment restores the balance of vaginal microflora. It plays a major role to help heal vaginitis, bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, bladder infections, and urinary tract infections. It is also interesting to note that women who do not have adequate vaginal probiotics double their risk of getting HIV and herpes simplex infection. Moreover, they quadruple their risk of getting gonococcal infections and Chlamydia.
More Support for Women’s Health
Probiotics play a key role in the prevention of osteoporosis. Bone loss is one unfortunate result of a lack of friendly microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract.
Vitamin K, a vital building block to healthy bones, is a byproduct of lactobacilli, a friendly gut flora.
Probiotics are responsible for producing lactic acid, which greatly increases the body’s ability to absorb minerals such as calcium. Studies with rats whose ovaries are removed, (in order to stop Oestrogen and induce osteoporosis), have shown that the rats fed with probiotics maintain their bone mass better.
Recent studies indicate that healthy bacteria have a direct impact on mood and behaviour by influencing the production of brain chemicals, including Serotonin and GABA. Friendly bacteria, specifically Bifidobacteria, help prevent bad bacteria from altering the inner ecology the intestines.
People suffering with mood disorders may be affected by an overgrowth of Candida albicans, which is often a cause of anxiety and depression. The presence of abundant Lactobacilli bacteria can help contribute to a more relaxed state of mind. During fermentation, lactobacilli release Tryptophan, which produces the calming neurotransmitter Serotonin.
An imbalanced digestive tract may contribute to weight gain and obesity. Taking friendly flora is an important step to improving digestion, thus promoting the normal metabolism of calories and fat.
Aging does not only affect the way we look, but it also affects the microflora living in our gut. Since our body is a host to both good and bad bacteria, the process of aging tilts that balance towards a decline of beneficial bacteria. As a result, the immune system is compromised, digestion and absorption are impaired, etc. It is therefore essential to replenish the friendly intestinal bacteria to support healthy aging.
A Guide to Choosing an Effective Probiotic
It goes without saying that an effective probiotic should be an essential part of any health program. However, the world of probiotic supplements is confusing, to say the least. So, what are the most reliable guidelines for choosing a proven probiotic?
First of all, it should guarantee the highest number of live microbes. In the world of probiotics, the microbial contents are described as “Colon Forming Units” (CFU’s), meaning the number of microbes – bacteria or yeasts – that are capable of dividing and forming colonies. CFU’s should be in the billions; the more severe the health problem, the greater the CFU’s required. Ideally we want at least 10 billion CFU/dose.
Our probiotic supplement should also be composed of multiple strains of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria in a formulation that assures live delivery into the intestinal tract.
In addition, a good probiotic includes a prebiotic in order to help the flora survive the acidic environment of the upper GI tract.
One important component to remember is that a probiotic touting a large mixture of probiotic strains that are consumed simultaneously may be self-defeating since these strains may actually compete with each other.
A Woman’s Friend for Life
Incorporating an effective probiotic supplement into one’s daily program is really an essential part of every woman’s health strategy. Not only will probiotics help to maintain hormonal balance, but they also insure a strong immune system, efficient digestion, mood balance, vibrant energy, and strong bones.
The word probiotic is a compound of a Latin and Greek word meaning, “favourable to life.” There is no doubt that the regular use of effective probiotic supplementation is, indeed, favourable to every aspect of a woman’s health throughout her entire life. Dr. Sherrill Sellman, a naturopathic doctor, women’s health expert, best-selling author and international lecturer and can be visited at www.whatwomenmustknow.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Researchers in Finland have discovered that giving probiotics to pregnant and lactating mothers increased the immunoprotective potential of breast milk and protected the infants against atopic eczema during the first 2 years of life. nes Probiotics increase the efficiency of phytoOestrogens by rendering them bioavailable and by expediting conversions. Since “PhytoOestrogens are effective in preventing and treating osteoporosis”(1), probiotics can also be effective. Evidence exists that probiotics are effective for bone support, both alone, as well as in conjunction with phytoOestrogens. A 6-wk study with 50 birds was conducted to investigate the effects of a dietary supplemental probiotic on parameters associated with the tibia. At the end of the sudy, thickness of the medial and lateral wall of the tibia, tibiotarsal index, percentage ash, and potassium content were all significantly improved by the probiotic (1). Since substances “that can modulate the intestinal microflora could affect the bioavailability of isoflavones”, pre-biotics such as frustooligosaccharides (FOS) also possess the ability to be effective; in fact, they have “effectively improved tibial microarchitectural properties by enhancing tra-becular number and lowering tra-becular separation compared with ovariectomized (rat) controls”. The FOS, (which attracts probiotics to the intestinal milieu), exerted this influence on bone alone, even when given without the iso-flavones/phytoOestrogens. However, in terms of microarchitecture, the combination of the phytoOestrogens and FOS had a greater effect in reversing the loss of certain microarchitectural parameters of bone such as tibial trabecular number, separation, and thickness (2). 1. Mutus R, et al. Poult Sci. 2006 Sep;85(9):1621-5. 2. Devareddy L, et al. Menopause. 2006 Jul-Aug;13(4):692-9.