Nearly every week, we encounter new health trends. Among all the fad diets and quick fixes, it can be a challenge to filter out legitimate advice. In the last 20 years, probiotics have steadily gained popularity. As more strains of probiotics are researched and become available, their benefits become more evident.
Moreover, different strains of probiotics can target specific needs, like the different physiologies among sexes and genders. This article will answer the most common questions about probiotics and dig into the details on probiotics specifically targeted toward men and women.
How Probiotics Support Health
Your body is a host to a diverse ecosystem of microbes. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses make up your body’s microbiome, and they live throughout your organ systems, including your mouth, nose, lungs, skin, and gut. The gut’s microbiome has particularly captured the interest of scientists in the last decade because of its role in health and wellness. Scientists have long understood that there is a connection between the gut and the brain (ever been told to listen to your gut?), but the gut’s microbiome adds more dimension to the picture.
The synergistic relationship between the nervous system and your gut’s microbiome is called the gut-brain axis (GBA). This refers to the relationship between the central nervous system (brain), the enteric nervous system (the gut), and the microbes that live inside our bodies (microbiota). By way of the GBA, the brain and gut microbiota communicate with each other.
The Gut-Brain Axis
The gut-brain axis is one of the mechanisms that explains why our minds and bodies are so intertwined. Through the lining of the stomach and intestines, nerves connect our emotional and cognitive centers of the brain to the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. Additionally, the ratio of healthy to toxic microbes in our gut plays a role. A balanced microbiome can support both digestion and stress levels, along with other medical conditions. For example, people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often experience issues with their digestion and imbalances in their gut microbiomes.
This is where probiotics come in. Different probiotics contain different arrays of beneficial bacteria that enhance and support your gut’s microbiome. Depending on your needs, different probiotic supplements may be the best fit for you.
Benefits of Probiotics: Q&A
Before we get into the differences in probiotics for men, women, and gender-nonconforming people, we have to acknowledge the ways that probiotics enhance most adult diets. To review these general benefits, we’ll answer some of the most common questions of any prospective probiotic user.
What Are the Benefits of Taking Probiotics?
The wide-ranging benefits of probiotics speak to the universal importance of a healthy gut microbiome. Below is a list of the common reasons people take probiotics. Later, we’ll go into more detail about some of these.
- Improve digestive health
- Increase consistency of bowel movements
- Improve metabolic function and manage body weight
- Support mental health
- Benefit immune health
Any and all of these health issues can be tied to gut dysbiosis. Dysbiosis is a fancy word for an unbalanced microbiome, meaning the ratio of beneficial to harmful microorganisms is out of balance.
Do Probiotics Help You Poop?
This is often one of the first questions about probiotics, so we’ll tackle it first. To keep it short and sweet: yes, probiotics can help you poop! Probiotics are often used to treat diarrhea, which is a common symptom of prescribed antibiotics. A review published in Antibiotics found that probiotic use cut rates of antibiotic-associated diarrhea in half. On the other end of the spectrum, a meta-analysis concluded that probiotics may help with constipation. In fact, probiotic users experienced an increase in weekly bowel movements and softer stools on average, though more extensive trials are needed.
What Is the Most Powerful Probiotic?
This is a bit subjective – there isn’t a singular, all-powerful probiotic. A probiotic supplement’s impact depends partly on the user’s preexisting gut microbiome and partly on what benefits they hope to get. In general, many microbial species are used in probiotic supplements. Additionally, different probiotic products contain different proportions of these strains.
However, some probiotic species and strains are better studied than others. For example, Saccharomyces boulardii is one of the most popular species used in concert with antibiotics. On the other hand, if you have digestive issues like gas and bloating, look for a supplement that includes Bifidobacterium or Lactobacillus species.
Can Probiotics Help You Lose Weight?
With the prevalence of obesity in the United States, finding a healthy way to manage body weight is a common question in the health and wellness space. Probiotics could be a part of that picture. Analyses of intestinal microbes have indicated that people who are obese have a different microbiome than people in a healthier weight range. In fact, there are specific types of gut bacteria that affect body fat. Additionally, studies show that rebalancing the gut’s microbiome with probiotic supplements may aid in weight and body fat loss. But more clinical trials with more diverse test subjects are needed before we can reach more concrete conclusions.
Best Probiotics for Women & Men
While there’s some crossover in the types of bacteria that most commonly live in the gut, every individual has their own unique ecosystem. There are so many factors that influence a person’s microbiome, ranging from diet to age to birthing method. Our gut microbiome is just as unique as our fingerprint. Since everyone’s microbiome is slightly different, finding the probiotic that is the closest match to your needs can be a challenge. This review can help provide some clarity on probiotics targeted specifically toward men or women.
Despite the specific differences between each person’s microbiome, there are commonalities in gut health based on biological factors like sex. We’ve included some examples of the different issues men and women face. Because of these differences in gut health, different strains of probiotics may have distinct advantages for male and female bodies.
Anatomical & Physiological Differences
Biologically, men have shorter colons than women. Additionally, their intestines don’t compete with reproductive organs for space in the abdomen, leading to a faster average digestion time. Unfortunately for women and people with uteruses, they experience GI issues, including bloating, constipation, and IBS, more often than men due both to fluctuating hormones and higher stress levels. Moreover, the vagina harbors a unique microbiome that is quite different from elsewhere in the body. About 75% of people with vaginas experience yeast infections in the course of their lives due to an imbalance of beneficial vaginal microbes.
Best Probiotic Supplements for Women
Probiotics supplements can support overall and vaginal health in a variety of ways. Women taking probiotics can reap the benefits of both improved digestion and reproductive health. If you’ve noticed health aisles stocked with probiotics targeted at women, it’s not just for show. More common issues with the GI tract and the presence of vaginal microbes highlight the importance of nurturing a healthy microbiome throughout the body.
Compared to men, digestion in those who are biologically female happens a bit more slowly. This could be chalked up to basic anatomy: their colons are, on average, 10 centimeters longer than men’s, despite their smaller stature. Additionally, the female reproductive system is internal, so the (already longer) digestive tract has to share the space with the uterus and ovaries.
But there seems to be more to it. In fact, the gut-brain axis comes into play here. The vagus nerve (the nerve that controls the function of many internal organs) seems to influence how long food stays in the GI tract. In biological men, the vagus nerve more quickly sends signals to release food from the stomach. For women, on the other hand, the nerve takes longer to send these signals, resulting in longer digestion time that increases the risk for digestive issues. As a result, they more commonly experience discomfort from bloating and are more likely to develop a GI tract disorder like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Many studies document the benefits of probiotics to general gut health, in addition to specific studies that connect probiotics to IBS relief.
Along with their gut, biological females also have to consider their vaginal microbiome. Yeast infection and bacterial vaginosis both occur when the ratio of beneficial bacteria is askew. Normally, the vaginal microbiome acts as a barrier against pathogens. When the bad microbes outnumber the good, the results can be harmful, not to mention, uncomfortable.
Just as probiotic supplements support the gut’s microbiome, they also benefit the vaginal microbiome.
Which one to take? Researchers have observed that women who have rarely or never experienced vaginal infections have higher numbers of Lactobacilli bacteria in the vaginal microbiome. Reviews on vaginal probiotics reflect the benefits of Lactobacillus rhamnosus SD5675 and Lactobacillus acidophilus LMG S-29159 specifically in promoting vaginal health.
Probiotics & Skin Care
While skincare isn’t exclusive to women, women tend to value more specialization in their skin care routine (due, in part, to marketing messages and societal ideals of beauty). Regardless, skin health is an important part of holistic health, and skin diseases and afflictions can be both physically and mentally irritating. It probably won’t surprise you that your body’s microbiome also affects your skin. Studies seem to show that taking probiotics orally or applying them to your skin can improve the symptoms of certain skin diseases, including acne, psoriasis, and eczema. They may even support healthy wound healing and lessen skin damage from the sun. When looking for topical probiotics to support skin health, look for supplements that include Bifidobacterium, Streptococcus, and Lactobacillus. Topical products that contain prebiotic compounds can be helpful in encouraging the growth of beneficial skin microbes, and may be safer than adding species to your skin that have not been well studied.
Best Probiotic Supplements for Men
In addition to the general health impacts of probiotics, men might seek out a specific strain to target a specific health goal. Commonly, people identifying as male take probiotics to improve their mood, sexual health, and testosterone levels. Men might also choose to take probiotic supplements to improve nutrient absorption and build muscle mass. When choosing the best probiotic for you, consider which strains of probiotics best support your health goals.
Mood & Sleep
Regardless of gender, people can take advantage of the gut-brain axis to use probiotics to sleep more soundly and feel less anxious. Some strains of probiotics can boost the levels of tryptophan, an essential amino acid and precursor to serotonin. Often associated with feelings of contentment after a Thanksgiving feast, tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin. Therefore, boosting levels of tryptophan causes serotonin levels to rise. Called the “happy neurotransmitter,” serotonin affects mood, sleep, and erectile function. Boosting levels of serotonin can generally improve your quality of life.
Many biological males start experiencing a decline in testosterone after the age of 30. While this is a normal experience as men age (similar to menopause in women), lower testosterone levels do have a negative impact on libido, fertility, and sperm production.
Interestingly, certain probiotics may positively affect testosterone levels. Research has indicated that male mice consuming Lactobacillus reuteri had higher testosterone levels than mice that didn’t have access to the probiotic. A small randomized controlled trial with human men showed a similar result. Infertile men who incorporated both prebiotics and probiotics into their diet experienced an increase in testosterone levels. In addition to sexual health and libido, testosterone levels also affect lean muscle mass and bone density.
Muscle Mass & Athletic Endurance
If you’re trying to bulk up, adding probiotics to your diet could be beneficial. Studies suggest that the probiotic bacterium Bacillus coagulans may aid protein absorption. Specifically, taking a B. coagulans alongside a slow-digested protein like casein was seen to increase casein absorption. Refueling with protein after a workout is key to building muscle, and probiotics may make recovery more efficient.
In addition, a variety of studies suggest using probiotics may be helpful in endurance sport performance in both men and women. Small placebo-controlled trials suggest that probiotics can help with runners’ endurance in hot conditions (Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium and Streptococcus), swimmers’ aerobic performance, (probiotic yogurt) and endurance of triathletes (L. plantarum PS128).
In addition to boosting serotonin and testosterone levels, probiotics also appear to influence prostate health. In one study, patients with chronic bacterial prostatitis were given the probiotic strain Escherichia coli Nissle 1917 (EcN) alongside an antibiotic. The combination of supplements slowed the progression of prostatitis, leading researchers to the preliminary theory that probiotics support prostate gland health.
While there are no good studies yet on the ability of probiotics to help with ED, it’s worth noting that a number of them show a strong correlation between poor gut health and sexual dysfunction. A large study men’s health study showed that men with IBS were nearly 3x more likely to have ED than men without IBS. In addition, in a smaller study of men with Crohn’s disease, 94% also had ED. Probiotics may be worth adding to your routine to maintain your gut health and your sexual potency.
How to Choose the Best Probiotic Supplements
Choosing probiotics can be a bit tricky for a few reasons. First, there are a lot of options, so you may feel overwhelmed by the paradox of choice. Second, because everyone has a unique gut microbiome, a probiotic product that works for your friend might not work for you. Third, many probiotics must be alive to work properly - that means they have to be formulated, shipped and stored in ways that maintain their potency.
What to look for
- Specific strains listed on the label. You should see species and strain identifiers for each probiotic strain in the product you’re considering (example: L. plantarum PS128). Each strain (e.g., PS128) of a particular species (L. plantarum) typically has unique characteristics.
- Peer-reviewed science in humans. Use PubMed or Google Scholar to investigate the science behind the probiotic strains or the specific product formulation you’re interested in. Placebo-controlled trials with more than a few dozen participants may be more trustworthy.
- Quantity is key. Probiotics are measured in colony-forming units (CFU) per dose. Look for products that contain similar CFUs to those used in clinical studies to know you’re receiving a relevant dose.
- Diversity can help. Picking a probiotic supplement with a greater diversity of strains can increase the chance that one of them will be the one your specific system needs. However, this doesn’t mean that a single-strain probiotic is an inferior product.
- Watch out for additives. Some probiotic supplements contain binders like lactose or cornstarch. If you’re sensitive to a particular ingredient, make sure to check the label.
- Check the date. In general, the efficacy of probiotics decreases over time. Before buying a bottle, check the manufacturing date to ensure you’ll get the full effect.
- Store it right. Many probiotics require cold, dry conditions to maintain potency over time. Check the label to see if yours should be refrigerated. And make sure to keep it in its original bottle to maintain dryness.
Should Healthy People Take Probiotics?
Probiotics are an important part of every diet, and even people without chronic physical or mental health challenges can benefit from probiotics. But probiotics don’t have to come from supplements. For example, many fermented foods contain “live cultures”. Adding foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, and kefir into your meal planning might provide enough beneficial gut bacteria to keep the gut microbiome balanced.
Remember to Eat Prebiotic Foods Too!
Everyone, regardless of their health status, should try to eat prebiotic foods. Prebiotic foods provide nutrients to probiotic microbes. Generally high in complex carbohydrates, they take longer to digest than their simpler counterparts. Because they stay in your digestive tract for a longer amount of time, they are available for the microbes to snack on. Essentially, prebiotic foods keep your microbiome nourished, much like fertilizer in a garden. Some popular prebiotic foods include bananas (on the greener side), honey, and oats.
What Conditions Do Probiotics Support?
As mentioned in the above sections, some probiotic strains specifically target conditions for either men or women. Women might use probiotics to support general digestive health and support recovery from yeast infections. Men may find a specific supplement useful for supporting male hormone balance and improving sexual health.
But the benefits of probiotics don’t stop there. Supplementing with probiotics can also support health regardless of gender. Specifically, probiotics can support immune health, mental health, and neurological health.
Probiotics can inhibit the growth of bad bacteria; furthermore, probiotics can boost immune health. The following list highlights some of the ways probiotics can boost immune health.
- Prevent pathogen entry. Probiotics likely strengthen the barrier function of the intestinal lining, preventing damage from pathogens.
- Boost antibody production. Some probiotics may be able to increase the production of the body’s natural antibodies and other immune cells.
- Support respiratory health. Research indicates that taking certain Lactobacillus supplements reduces the occurrence and intensity of respiratory infections in children.
Now that you’re familiar with the gut-brain axis, you see how microbiome health can be connected to our physical and mental health. Because of that connection, taking probiotics can potentially support better mental health.
In both human and animal studies, adding Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium species seemed to improve symptoms of mental health disorders. A review of relevant studies found general improvement in symptoms connected to anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and memory loss.
With rates of mental illness on the rise, increasing access to mental health treatment is critical. A fortunate benefit of probiotics, either in the form of food or supplements, is their accessibility. While kimchi alone can’t stop a panic attack, these studies highlight the critical ties between what we put in our bodies and our physical and mental health.
In a similar way that probiotics can affect the GBA to lessen the severity of mental illness, they may also benefit people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In general, people with ASD experience more gastrointestinal issues than their neurotypical peers. This led researchers to investigate the microbiome in ASD patients, discovering higher rates of dysbiosis (imbalance of beneficial bacteria). There are even specific probiotic products designed for neurological health in ASD, like L. plantarum PS128.
Can Probiotic Supplements Be Harmful?
Probiotic supplements and medical probiotics (a type of medical food) are classified as "generally recognized as safe", and they aren’t regulated by the FDA. Those with compromised immune systems should consult a health care provider before using a probiotic to avoid infection.
It’s always a good idea to do a bit of research into the company that makes the probiotic, as well as the science behind the strains in it. The best probiotic strains show specific health benefits in clinical trials and peer-reviewed studies, and a very low incidence of adverse effects.
You might experience side effects when you first start taking a probiotic supplement. In most cases, this is completely normal. Symptoms like bloating, changing bowel movements, and even skin rashes might show up as your system adjusts to a new microbe into your microbiome. If these symptoms last longer than a couple of weeks, though, that could be a sign the supplement isn’t agreeing with your body. Consult with your health care provider immediately if you believe you’re experiencing unhealthy side effects or an allergic reaction to a supplement.
If you are looking for probiotic support, consider trying Neuralli, the first gut-brain medical probiotic for neurological conditions like ASD and PD. It contains L. plantarum PS128 which is backed by 12 clinical studies and counting, showing health benefits related to dopamine and serotonin. Order your first bottle here.