Probiotics are the “friendly” bacteria that reside in us all. They provide many health benefits for both men and women of all ages. More women than ever before are taking probiotic supplements, and for good reason. To begin with, they assist better digestion and help with various other processes within the body. Another role of probiotics is that they help with the absorption of key nutrients, such as iron,  they also go some way to support the immune system .
At the time of writing there are around 400 known types of bacteria in the human digestive tract. The most common are Lactobacillus and Bifido or Bifidobacterium. We welcome this bacterium because it's on our side. It helps us to break down food and fight off harmful invaders, namely the bad bacteria. Yes, we've all got some of those in us too .
When it comes to probiotics for women, there are two anatomical areas to consider:
- The gastrointestinal tract (GI tract or GIT)
- The urogenital system
Because of the close proximity of a woman's vagina to her anus, she is more prone to infections than her male counterpart. This basically means the bacteria which causes infection (pathogenic bacteria) can accidentally cross over from the GI tract to the urogenital tract. When this happens, dysbacteriosis (microbial imbalance) can follow. The vaginal flora of a healthy organ contains different strains of bacteria to that of the gut flora. For this reason, different types of probiotics address the two separate regions.
The Urogenital Tract
Probiotics inhabit a woman's urogenital tract and help to keep everything in good healthy working order. These probiotics exert pretty much the same beneficial effects as they do in the human gastrointestinal tract. When balance is intact, these probiotics help to keep pathogenic bacteria and yeasts at bay. When things are out of balance, pathogenic bacteria and yeasts are able to overgrow and cause all kinds of health problems.
There are numerous strains of the friendly bacteria lactobacillus but they're not all the same. Some are especially effectual at both preventing and treating female intimate health issues. The three most common conditions are:
- Bacterial vaginosis
The specific strains of bacterium include Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1® and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14®. Both of these have undergone clinical trials and showed great results. They managed to survive transit through the human gut, and then go on to successfully colonize the vagina and bladder areas. Once settled in, they were able to exert their beneficial effects. “OptiBac Probiotics for Women” is one brand that contains these two strains of live cultures.
Prevention Is Better than Cure
The microorganisms can transfer from the anus to the vagina with relative ease. This can, and often does, cause health problems. This is because they get to spread via the urethra to the bladder to the urogenital tract. In many cases, it is pathogens in the intestines that actually cause most of the urogenital infections above. The idea is that probiotic supplements have a positive and lasting effect on the flora of a woman's urogenital tracts. This is perhaps the best way to prevent and/or treat UTIs and various vaginal infections. Prevention is always better than cure, so anyone who hasn't got any problems might want to make sure it stays that way by taking probiotics.
Some women become quite prone to vaginal dysbiosis. This is often because of fluctuating hormone levels during the menstrual cycle. Dysbiosis of the vagina is a break in the normal microflora of the vaginal region. In most cases the symptoms are minor. However, sometimes things can take a nasty turn for the worse and lead to more serious problems. It's just a sad fact that some women are more prone to vaginal or urogenital tract infections than others. If this is you, consider taking probiotic supplements as a preventative measure. You will want to look at those which contain the Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1® and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14® strains. According to trials, these are what tend to be the most effective at supporting health in the female intimate areas overall.
Probiotics and Early Motherhood
There are two periods to consider here. One is during pregnancy and the other is just after. There are all kinds of health implications and symptoms that can occur during these crucial times in a woman's life. Let's start by looking at pregnancy first. This is a time when anything can go. As far as bowel health is concerned, women can suffer with constipation, temporary diarrhea, or both. The good news is that probiotic supplements can help in both cases.
Constipation: Probiotics, bifidobacterium in particular, softens stools. Needless to say, this helps to increase bowel movement frequency, and make “going” a lot easier for the expectant mum-to-be .
Temporary diarrhea: Sometimes, pregnant women may also suffer with temporary diarrhea. Probiotics can come to the rescue here too. In this case, they help to slowdown the passage of food through the digestive tract. Obviously this helps to regulate better digestion. The reason for this is because the slower food moves through the system, the more chance there is for better nutrient absorption. During pregnancy, there is nothing more important for a woman than keeping her body well-nourished.
Source of Probiotics
Getting probiotics naturally through food should always be a first option when possible. The problem we have here is that not all people enjoy the foods that provide them with probiotics. Furthermore, pregnant women can be particularly finicky when it comes to eating. In some cases, being pregnant will even hamper the woman's appetite or even her ability to eat certain foods. In such cases, probiotic supplements are the way to go, but always consult with your doctor in the first instance.
Here are a few of the more popular pickled or fermented probiotic-rich foods:
- Sauerkraut (a German dish of chopped pickled cabbage)
- Kimchi (a Korean dish of spicy pickled cabbage)
- Miso soup (a traditional Japanese soup)
- Pickles (a relish of veggies or fruit preserved in vinegar or brine)
- Kampuchea (lightly effervescent sweetened black or green tea drinks)
Probiotics While Pregnant or Breastfeeding
You will come across plenty of talk on this topic, and from both camps. Some people argue that a woman should not take in probiotics while pregnant or while breast feeding. There isn't really any hard evidence to suggest it's unsafe. But the problem is that there's no hard evidence to say it's perfectly safe either, even though it's assumed safe. It's the “not knowing” 100 percent that causes the debate.
Scientists and doctors generally agree that taking probiotics while pregnant or breastfeeding is safe in the case of healthy individuals. This is because probiotics stay in the digestive tract, where they're intended, and do not enter the bloodstream. What this means is that they cannot reach the developing fetus or a breastfed baby. 
Probiotics do improve digestion and availability of nutrients. These are both things that are important to mother and child.
Newborns and Probiotics
There has been research into newborns and antibiotics. One study found that infants that take some form of probiotic soon after birth got to enjoy better overall health. They also had stronger immune systems compared to those who took no probiotics. 
Not all probiotic supplements are the same and nor are the women who take them. Remember too that vaginal flora needs different strains to those taken for gut health. Because of this, it's important to be specific when looking at your options. This means you have to identify your personal requirements, and choose a product that best suits your current condition and/or symptoms. It's common knowledge that women are more likely to suffer from gastrointestinal disorders than men. Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is more prevalent in women, irrespective of the menstrual phase. This is according to a Rome II-based survey .