Probiotics: Do You Need Them in Midlife?
Probiotic supplements have become very popular in the last several years to boost gut health, but probiotics have been consumed for centuries in food form and are daily diet mainstays for many cultures. With more and more probiotic products appearing on the shelves of our local grocery and drug stores, many women wonder about the benefits of probiotics, especially during midlife. Let’s dig into the potential benefits and considerations for midlife health and menopause.
What Are Probiotics?
Probiotics are good bacteria for your digestive system, known as your gut microflora, that can help you maintain a healthy gut during midlife. We now know that a happy gut is the foundation for overall health.
Why is having the right balance of good bacteria in your gut so important for overall health? Research shows that a healthy gut supports digestion, immunity, healthier skin, and even a lower risk for certain chronic diseases. In fact, a disrupted, unbalanced gut microflora has been associated with a number of diseases, such as certain cancers, neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and depression.
The most common probiotic groups are Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium, which have many different species and strains. If you’ve ever looked for a probiotic at the store, you’ve probably noticed that there are a number of different types and combinations available, designed to provide different health benefits - sometimes even to different parts of your body.
In addition to being sold as supplements, you can also find probiotics in fermented foods like tempeh, sourdough bread, kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, and yogurt that contains live and active cultures. Some fermented foods actually have more probiotics than supplements. For example, kefir has been consumed and associated with health benefits for 100s of years; originally by communities in the Caucasian mountains. Kefir is a slightly sour yogurt-like fermented drink, traditionally made using cow's milk or goat's milk, and contains up to 61 strains of bacteria and yeast, making it a probiotic powerhouse. You get a double benefit from kefir’s high calcium and Vitamin K2 bone health-boosting properties. If you’re lactose intolerant, kefir is generally well tolerated, at least compared to regular milk. Kefir can also be made with soy milk and coconut milk. To make your own kefir at home, check out this recipe.
It’s not just fermented foods that help with gut health. For example, a recent study looked at the microbiome of apples. Yes, apples have a microbiome too. The researchers found that the average apple contains about 100 million bacteria. These bacteria combine with the microbes that are in our guts already to help with digestion, metabolism, and maintaining our immune system. The research on the impact different foods have on gut health is still in the early stages, but it’s safe to assume that eating more fruits and vegetables, preferably organic and fresh, is good for our overall health.
Note that probiotics are different from prebiotics, which are fibers that act as food for the healthy bacteria living in your gut.
Probiotic Benefits During Menopause
Many women experience similar symptoms of menopause, such as a decreased quality of sleep, changes in digestive and bowel habits, and even changes in skin health. Menopause is also a time in which your risk for various conditions increases, such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and osteoporosis.
These changes are largely a result of the dramatic reduction in your hormone levels that naturally occur during menopause, specifically estrogen and progesterone.
Do probiotics have benefits specifically during menopause? Some women think so, and while more research is needed on the efficacy and targeted use of probiotics during menopause, there is some evidence of potential benefits as we age.
Probiotics may be helpful during menopause for the following reasons:
They may reduce inflammation throughout the body, which can increase your risk for disease
They may alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety
They may improve your immunity, helping you to fight off colds and illnesses
They may support a healthy vaginal microflora, helping you fight off postmenopausal vaginal infections
They may help prevent urinary tract infections
They may help reduce menopausal symptoms like night sweats and hot flashes when combined with other supplements
They may help prevent constipation
Note that probiotics may not show benefits for everyone. The good news is that there is no evidence to suggest that taking probiotics as a generally healthy person, and using them in the recommended dosages and applications, is dangerous. Some side effects may include bloating and gas, allergy symptoms, allergic reactions, and small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
Should You Take Probiotics?
Although there is mixed evidence about the effectiveness of probiotics, and there can be a vast difference in efficacy and testing done among strains and brands, you may find them to be helpful for your individual needs during menopause. That being said, probiotics are typically the most helpful - and safe - for healthy people who do not have a compromised immune system.
Probiotics come in a variety of forms, such as powders, capsules, tablets, and even beverages. They’re easy to add to your diet and often require refrigeration for the proper storage and preservation of the live cultures. Typical doses for adults are five billion to 10 billion colony-forming units per day, but this can vary.
Whatever type of probiotic you decide to try, it’s a good idea to look for supplements that have been third-party tested for safety and quality by an independent laboratory, which you should be able to tell from looking at the product label. The product should also have a clear sell-by date listed on it. Alternatively, adding fermented foods to your diet can be an even more nutritious way to boost your probiotic intake on a regular basis and they contain many other health-boosting vitamins, nutrients, and fiber.
As with any change in routine or diet, be sure to discuss the addition of probiotics to your diet during menopause with your healthcare provider to make sure it’s appropriate for you.
For more information about probiotics, gut health, and dietary supplements during menopause, join the community over at Lisa Health.
Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD, is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and speaker who helps families transition to plant-based lifestyles. She can be found at laurenpanoff.com or on Instagram @chronicplanet.