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Probiotics: Importance to Women - by Brad Douglass, PhD.

You have probably heard the term “probiotic” bandied about by yogurt marketers for years now.  You may have even heard claims that probiotics can strengthen the immune system and help combat allergies.  When asked, most people express a belief that probiotics are somehow important to the health of the stomach, intestines or the digestive track in general.  But what are probiotics and what do they do for our bodies?  Not many people know.  As a result, when it is revealed that two types of probiotics, used in combination and taken by mouth, have been shown in clinical studies to beneficially impact many aspects of vaginal and urinary tract health, most people look at you incredulously—especially women.  Is this true?!  Yes, but before we get the skinny on the benefits of certain probiotics for feminine health, let’s find out what a probiotic is and how it works.  

What is a Probiotic: Bad Bacteria vs. Good Bacteria 

Probiotic is a fancy term of Latin origin that means “for life.”  Clarifies everything, right?  Ok maybe not, but at least there is a reason for that.  The reason is that probiotics are live, active bacteria—good bacteria!  You see, the term probiotic was coined in a way to avoid association with the word “bacteria” since we have been conditioned to think bacteria are bad.  This all makes sense if you just considered running off to find your anti-bacterial soap a sentence ago.  However as we have all come to understand the difference between bad fats (like saturated and trans fats) and good fats (polyunsaturated, omega-3’s, etc.), it is high time we recognize the difference between good bacteria and bad bacteria. 

Bacteria live all over our bodies, inside and out.  In fact, there are more bacteria amongst our bodies than actual human cells!  This may sound alarming at first, but we have good bacteria to thank for many important bodily functions like training our immune systems and producing vitamins (biotin and vitamin K).  Mothers even pass beneficial bacteria, shown to alleviate diarrhea, to their newborns via breast milk.  Of course there are also harmful bacteria like Helicobacter pylori, the cause of stomach ulcers, or other bacterial species that like to make our bodies their home and can make us sick.  But we don’t necessarily have to just accept the bad with the good.  Here’s why.  Beneficial bacteria and harmful bacteria compete with each other to survive. And that’s where probiotics come in.

How Probiotics Work 

Probiotics are like reinforcements for the good team.  With the help of probiotics, good bacteria can displace bad bacteria through a variety of means that are just beginning to be understood.  This idea is becoming more accepted now, but when a Nobel laureate Russian scientist originally proposed such a thing almost a century ago it was greeted with little fanfare and much skepticism.  Researchers are beginning to understand that beneficial bacteria have numerous tricks in their arsenal like regulating pH balance, producing hydrogen peroxide and secreting anti-proliferation signals that inhibit bad bacteria AND make the environment more conducive for good bacteria to thrive.  And since our bodies have formed a symbiotic relationship with these beneficial bacteria over time, an environment better suited for their survival translates into improved health for us.         

What’s Special About Probiotics for Women 

Some of you may be thinking “great, I see now how probiotics can be helpful for the digestive tract but what makes that special for women.”  Well you will notice that “digestive tract” never appeared in the previous paragraph; there is a reason for that.  It turns out that the vagina is another environmental battleground for good and bad bacteria.  Here again good bacteria confer a number of benefits integral to health.  Yet when they are supplanted by other bacteria undesirable things can occur.   

When certain types of bacteria colonize the vagina they can produce enzymes and give-off amine byproducts.  This in turn can lead to an increased pH, an often fishy odor and in some cases discharge.  These are some of the clinical symptoms used to diagnose bacterial vaginosis.  In other cases, it seems that these bad bacteria can change the vaginal environment in a less noticeable way making it more hospitable to yeast species of the genus Candida—the cause of yeast infections.  There is also some evidence to suggest that a vaginal environment gone awry with harmful bacteria can result in a number of things, like increase inflammation, that makes a woman more susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases and pre-term labor.  Finally, it appears that bad bacteria can weaken the defenses that good bacteria create to keep the urinary tract and bladder sterile.  This can make a woman more susceptible to urinary tract infections. 

The good news is that through 20 years of research by Dr. Gregor Reid and Dr. Andrew Bruce, two specific probiotic strains have been shown to bolster beneficial bacteria in the vagina.   This complementary pair assists in restoring vaginal and urinary tract health through an improved microflora balance.  Even more importantly, the combination of these two strains has been shown in clinical studies to reduce the incidence of unhealthy urogenital conditions from occurring in the first place.  The two strains are Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 & Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14.   

There are an estimated 1 billion worldwide cases of urogenital infections annually, which include bacterial vaginosis, yeast vaginosis and urinary tract infections.  We can be doing more to prevent these conditions and their downstream consequences of increased risk of preterm labor and sexually transmitted diseases. 

Importance of Prevention 

As the old proverb goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Nowhere is this more apparent than with feminine probiotics.   Here are three reasons why you should think prevention is a great idea in this case:  

  1. Although often not showing symptoms, 78% of U.S. women have suboptimal vaginal health and 1/3 of all U.S. women test positive for bacterial vaginosis.  As a result, many women may be at an increased risk for urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and preterm labor without knowing it.   

  2. Even when showing symptoms, bacterial vaginosis and yeast vaginosis can be difficult to diagnose accurately using methods commonly available in doctors’ offices. Because of this and the sensitive nature of these issues, many women attempt to self-medicate using over-the-counter yeast treatments.  Often times the result is frustration and failure as anti-yeast treatments do nothing for an underlying problem, which usually is due to unchecked colonization of harmful bacteria.  In fact, only 34% of those believing they had a yeast infection actually tested positive for yeast vaginosis.   

  3. When bacterial vaginosis does arise AND it is correctly diagnosed, conventional treatment using antibiotics is only successful in 40% of cases.  In addition, your doctor may not be aware that this success rate was increased to greater than 80% when using a GR-1/RC-14 probiotic along with standard antibiotic therapy. 

What does all this mean for women?  These undesirable conditions are disconcerting and difficult to cure when they are recognized or have hidden risks when they are not.  But a measure of prevention is available in a once-daily, oral supplement.  Like multivitamins for general health or vitamin C to boost immunity, GR-1/RC-14 feminine health probiotics are for your preventive assurance—it’s like a vitamin for your vagina.  


**Remember: Additional strains may prove helpful in the future but currently the described effects have only been documented for the combination of Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 & Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14.   

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All information on the P.U.R.E. H.O.P.E. Web site is provided with the understanding that the P.U.R.E. H.O.P.E. does not engage in the practice of medicine.  The members of P.U.R.E. H.O.P.E. cannot and do not give medical advice.  No information on this Web site should be considered medical advice.  Only your personal physician can do this for you.

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