It is well-established that the human body's microbiome ― the bacteria in the gut ― dramatically affects health and disease. However, the role of the gut in women's health outcomes is largely unknown. Mayo Clinic and Wellesley College researchers focused on how the interactions of steroids on gut and vaginal microbiomes influence women's health outcomes in a review published in Trends in Endocrinology & Metabolism.
"We can characterize each phase of a woman's life by distinct hormonal states that drive the overall makeup between the gut and vaginal microbiomes," says Marina Walther-Antonio, Ph.D., a researcher in Mayo Clinic's Department of Surgery who has a joint appointment in Mayo Clinic's Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology. "These host-microbiome interactions underlie disease pathology in disorders affecting women across their lifetime, including bacterial vaginosis, gestational diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome, anxiety, depression and obesity."
Role of gut, vaginal microbiota
Researchers looked at how sex steroids change gut and vaginal microbiota ― that is, those microorganisms that inhabit the body, including bacteria, viruses, archaea, protozoa and fungi. Researchers went on to link the composition and function of these microbiota. The sudden surge in sex steroid levels during puberty is associated with lower diversity of vaginal microbiota. This lower diversity suggests that the increase in steroid hormones at puberty creates a new environment, shaping the adult female gut and vaginal microbiomes.
"This new adult female hormonal setting establishes a balance between the interaction of sex steroids and the vaginal and gut microbiota, profoundly impacting women's health across all life stages," says Dr. Walther-Antonio. "Gut microbiota control circulating estrogens in the estrobolome (bacteria dedicated to maintaining estrogen balance), and in turn, these circulating estrogens help shape the vaginal microbiota, driving reproductive tract health."
The researchers noted that gut and vaginal microbiomes appear to have critical overlapping functions. The gut and vaginal microbiome are connected in a wide range of disorders and disease states affecting women across their life span, including polycystic ovary syndrome, unexplained infertility, obesity and endometrial cancer, explains Dr. Walther-Antonio.
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