Live Bacteria Cultures Supplements – A Role in Women’s Health?
By Dr Duane Mellor RD PhD
Before taking a look at the potential benefits of good bacteria supplements with respect to women’s health, it is worth thinking about what is meant by women’s health. There is a huge global business in focusing products on women linked to improvements in health. Some of these may improve physical or mental wellbeing. However, many focus on aesthetics and weight loss which may not be healthy at all. In this piece, we will focus on how individuals can improve their health and how they feel and not on a physical ideal or Instagram image. So, we will take a look at health issues that are unique to women and how the microflora, bacteria that live on us and in us can influence that. To do that objectively, we need to be open about what the research shows and how that may influence the marketing of products and regulations of any claims that can be made.
There are many messages and claims with respect to many supplements, foods and products which suggest that they can massively improve a woman’s health. This is in part linked to the higher level of interest in nutrition and in health both within society, many marketeers consider that women are more likely to be consumers of these types of health products. However, despite this, there is often very limited specific research which considers the different life stages and health needs of women. One reason for this lack of research is that many studies demand as few variables to change as possible. During a normal healthy menstrual cycle oestrogens and progesterone vary, this can make standardising research measures hard and can lead to the research not being done. However, it can be these changes in hormone levels which can result in symptoms such as bloating and cramping which may impact health and wellbeing itself. So, more research is clearly needed to better support the women’s health, and until that time use of supplements such as good live bacteria can be made on individual symptoms and experiences with choices based on types and count of bacteria and whether they are able to get to the place they should do.
Many people when they hear about the microbiome, think about friendly bacteria supplements in relation to digestive health and the bacteria found in the colon. However, this is only one of many different and diverse microbiomes found across the body. The question is how it can be altered, and even optimised by lifestyle choices and hormonal changes linked to the menstrual cycle. The skin, mouth, eyes and vagina all have variable and distinct microflora of bacteria which can influence health. So, although the bacteria in our intestines and colon have been the focus, perhaps more attention needs to be paid to the microscopic organism living elsewhere on/in our bodies.
As with the microbiome found in the colon and our digestive health, some of the basic principles of staying active and eating healthily are the essential foundations on which further interventions. As there is little point in trying to alter the bacteria in our bodies, if the environment is not right, so the need to include physical activity, rest and a good diet is important along with providing the bacteria with the right food, as in prebiotics (Plant Fibre). The good news is that many prebiotics are the healthy fibres we find in vegetables, pulses such as lentils and beans and wholegrains. This means that a healthy diet based on minimally processed plant based foods tends to help all round. That does not mean you need to avoid meat and dairy products (unless you have an allergy or cultural reasons) as women tend to have a higher requirement of iron and calcium as menstruation and pregnancy can led to lower levels of these respectively.
There are many studies which have considered the effects of good bacteria supplements on vaginal bacteria flora. While many of the older studies have focused on the use of vaginal friendly bacteria supplements, some more recent trials have investigated oral good bacteria supplements as a potential alternative. A review that synthesised all the data from the clinical trials, suggested that there could be some benefits from Good bacteria supplements in terms of improving vaginal microflora. It was clear that claims could not be made for benefit due to regulatory requirements in the US and Europe. It was clear that there was low risk from supplements, and potential harm. A number of the studies helped to show a change in the type of bacteria, to be a healthier balance of lactobacilli. The duration of any change in microflora was only seen for the duration of the supplementation. More research is needed to investigate the effect of oral probiotic supplements on microbiome outside of the gut.
With respect to overall health, it is known that the incidence of gastrointestinal disturbances are higher in women, with irritable bowel syndrome being up to three times more common in women than men. There is some evidence from animal models that suggest oestrogens can influence gut and vaginal microbiomes. So, can a good bacteria supplement help, the answer is likely to be individual, research has shown some promise, but the benefits can depend on your symptoms. It is also important that if you have an ongoing bowel issue, seek medical advice to rule out any potentially serious causes.
So, are good bacteria supplements beneficial for improving health of women? Although evidence is not definitive, however the use of quality oral supplements are low risk, so some reviews have suggested that there could be potential benefits, including beyond gut health. More work needs to be done, and as with any health change, a supplement on its own can only be a part of any answer. But, some may feel benefits form this in combination with eating a wide and varied diet including a range vegetables and sources of fibre along with regular physical activity can help improve overall health needs to be the basis of any attempts to improve your health.
Due to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) rulings regarding the use of the terminology “probiotics”, herein probiotics are referred to as live cultures, good bacteria supplements, friendly bacteria supplements.’