Probiotics Support Women’s Digestive Health

4 min read  |  January 19, 2024  | 
Disponible en Español |

Living with persistent bloating, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea or constipation after eating certain foods can affect your daily life and leave you feeling embarrassed and isolated. If you’re searching for a solution to your gastrointestinal symptoms, you may be wondering if probiotics can help.

These live bacterial microorganisms can aid in digestion and help maintain a healthy ratio of gut flora, which is a major part of your body’s microbiome of good and bad bacteria.

“We are made up of more bacteria than human cells,” says Morgan Allyn Sendzischew Shane, M.D., MSCTI, a gastroenterologist with the University of Miami Health System’s Comprehensive Women’s Health Alliance. To feel our best, “we need a balance of the good and bad bacteria in our gut. Despite our best efforts, sometimes that bacterial balance can be off kilter.”

To get your daily dose of probiotics, skip the pharmacy.

Probiotics are available in pill form, capsules, gummies, powders and drinkable shots. Some are refrigerated to maintain their stability, and other probiotic supplements are shelf-stable.

“But, we don’t recommend probiotic supplements,” Dr. Shane says.

“There’s actually no great data to support them, and there’s good data against them. Especially for patients with constipation, probiotics have been shown to lead to brain fog and bloating.” In addition, the U.S. National Institutes of Health warn that some probiotic products may contain microorganisms other than those listed on the label, including contaminants that can pose serious health risks.

Aren’t probiotics good for you?

More research is needed to understand just how effective probiotics are for GI disease prevention and gut healing. But, studies show that probiotics may help:

  • prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhea (caused by the serious bacterial infection Clostridium difficile)
  • maintain ulcerative colitis remission (in combination with conventional treatments)
  • relieve constipation
  • reduce some irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, including abdominal pain

There are many strains of probiotic bacteria, and some are more effective than others in relieving certain GI symptoms. These differences are also being studied.

Good bacteria thrive in the refrigerator.

“Instead of supplements, we recommend foods that are naturally rich with probiotics,” Dr. Shane says. “This includes basically anything that is naturally fermented. Your body knows what to do with it. It allows these bacteria to set up shop and get to work.”

Food sources of probiotics include:

  • unsweetened Greek yogurt
  • kefir (a yogurt-like smoothie)
  • sauerkraut (cabbage)
  • tempeh (Indonesian soy product, similar to tofu)
  • kimchi (a tangy, often spicy Korean blend of cabbage and other veggies)
  • pickles (not the kind made with vinegar)
  • brine-cured olives (without sodium benzoate)
  • kombucha (slightly carbonated beverage, may contain fruit)
  • traditional buttermilk (not the cultured kind)
  • natto (Japanese soybean product)
  • cheeses containing live/active cultures (cheddar, mozzarella, gouda, cottage cheese)
  • apple cider vinegar

If you don’t typically eat many of these foods, gradually increase the amount and variety of them in your diet. Sudden and dramatic dietary changes — even healthy ones — can temporarily increase gas, bloating and unwanted changes to bowel habits.

Your GI track naturally changes as you age, and the introduction of probiotics may or may not help you manage new symptoms.

“Every year, you need to reestablish what’s normal for you. Just because something you ate or took worked (or didn’t work) for you 20 years ago, doesn’t mean that it’s going to continuously provide you with the same results,” says Dr. Shane.

If you experience unwanted GI changes, bring them to the attention of your gastroenterologist. “We’ll help you determine whether a particular diet, medication, therapy, or other intervention will help you get to the bottom (pun intended!) of whatever’s happening with you,” she says.

The gastroenterology department at UHealth’s Comprehensive Women’s Health Alliance provides specialized care for women’s digestive health at all ages. Call 855-3-4-WOMEN (96636) or request an appointment online.

Dana Kantrowitz is a contributing writer for UHealth’s news service.

Tags: fermented foods, good bacteria, gut health, microbiome, probiotics, women's health

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