Your gut and your reproductive system seem like they’re on opposite ends of the health spectrum, but they may be more closely linked than you think. They have complex and substantial effects on each other that can affect your overall health. Learn more about the relationship between birth control and gut health below.
Understanding Gut Microflora
Along with all the food you’ve eaten, the beverages you’ve recently drunk, and stomach acids, your gut is filled with trillions of bacteria. These are classified into about 1,000 different species and 5,000 different strains of those species. Collectively, these bacteria are known as your gut flora or microflora. Everyone’s microbiome is unique and can fluctuate based on genetics, age, diet, medication, and environmental factors.
These gut bacteria play diverse roles in your overall health. They can protect you against intestinal infections and support metabolism and the breakdown of food. Your gut bacteria are even responsible for synthesizing a form of vitamin K known as menaquinone. The possibilities seem endless, and experts continue to research how gut flora influences other body systems. The impact of your gut bacteria is so significant that many researchers consider the intestinal microbiome a human organ all its own. The microbiome has its own pathology and physiology, and any alterations made to it can have significant effects on a person’s overarching health, enough so that “microbiomology” is a new and growing medical field.
A Look at Dysbiosis
A blend of bacteria that are generally labeled as “good” or “bad” comprise your gut flora. The health of your gut flora and your entire body depend on the interactions between these two groups of bacteria. Some health professionals even theorize that you need both to maintain health. This gentle balance is what keeps things in sync, but various factors can contribute to imbalances which tip the scales toward the bad bacteria. This is known as dysbiosis, which can contribute to a whole host of health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, celiac disease, and other autoimmune conditions.
Gut Bacteria and PCOS
PCOS, or polycystic ovary syndrome, is a metabolic and endocrine disorder that commonly affects women of reproductive age. The symptoms of the disease include:
- Irregular, infrequent, or prolonged menstrual periods
- Elevated levels of androgens (male hormones), which may result in acne, facial and body hair, or baldness
- Ovaries that develop a small collection of fluid, known as follicles, that prevent the regular release of eggs or otherwise function improperly
If left untreated, polycystic ovary syndrome can increase the risk of ovarian and endometrium cancers.
While the exact cause of PCOS is still unknown, research has shown an association between dysbiosis of gut microbiota (DOGMA) and PCOS. In one study involving 33 participants with PCOS and 15 control patients, patients with PCOS showed significantly lower levels of ghrelin, serotonin, and peptide YY. Tests on fecal samples from the participants showed increased co-abundance groups in the PCOS participants, including bacteria belonging to Streptococcus, Bacteroides, Escherichia, and Shigella. This suggests that dysbiosis is associated with PCOS phenotypes in women.
Studies also show that disturbances in the balance of gut bacteria can account for all three main components associated with PCOS (irregular menstrual cycles, hyperandrogenism, the development of ovarian cysts).
Birth Control and Gut Health
Hormonal birth control can be an essential form of medication for many women, but studies show that it may interfere with gut bacteria. Studies have found that oral estrogen intake may modify intestinal permeability, which can contribute to leaky gut syndrome and inflammatory bowel diseases. Research also suggests that exogenous hormone use can support the development of inflammatory bowel diseases mediated by Th1 and Th2 cells (T helper cells).
The human vagina is also home to a smaller but still complex community of bacteria designed to protect against infections and maintain general immunities. In a study, 331 women attending the University of Washington who had just begun using various forms of contraception, including oral contraceptives, diaphragm-spermicide, and cervical cap, were evaluated. Vaginal flora was measured using the Nugent criteria, and results found that spermicidal methods of contraception could alter vaginal microflora, potentially predisposing women to genitourinary infections. Oral contraceptive methods, however, showed no changes to vaginal microflora.
Maintaining Gut Bacteria Balance
Keeping your gut bacteria balanced isn’t just good for your genital and reproductive health. It can affect all aspects of your life, including your immunities and your mood. Here are some simple ways to feed your good bacteria and maintain a balanced microbiome.
Probiotic-rich foods contain active bacteria cultures that can add to your existing gut flora. Yogurt tends to be the most common of these probiotic-rich foods. The most basic bacteria strains in yogurt are Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, though manufactures will commonly add other strains, including Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidobacterium. If you do go the route of commercially-made yogurt, make sure that the label specifically says that it uses live and active cultures. With some yogurt manufacturers, the bacteria have been killed either through pasteurization or in the processing.
Other good probiotic-rich foods include:
Unlike probiotics, prebiotics are designed to feed the good bacteria in your gut, allowing them to grow and thrive. Prebiotics are typically high in fiber, which is an indigestible type of carbohydrate. The good bacteria feed on this fiber, producing nutrients that are beneficial to your colon. Bovine colostrum can act as a prebiotic while also offering a variety of other potential health benefits. Other common prebiotics include:
- Spinach and other green, leafy vegetables
Avoid Sugars and Processed Foods
Studies have found that diets high in sugar and processed foods can negatively impact gut bacteria. Monosaccharides, which are the simplest of carbohydrates, are digested easily and absorbed without any assistance from our gut flora, which in theory leaves your bacteria hungry. Without anything to feed on, the gut bacteria turn to the mucus lining the intestines. This inevitably leads to inflammation and may potentially result in intestinal hyperpermeability, or leaky gut syndrome.
While studies are ongoing on the effects of the gut flora, we still understand that your gut bacteria play an integral role in your overall health. Take care of your gut, and it will reward you.