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Investigating the link between probiotics and the health of female astronauts

Two Western University researchers are making the case for the use of probiotics for female astronauts to avoid serious health complications on long space missions.

Gregor Reid, PhD, professor, and Camilla Urbaniak, PhD Candidate, at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, are investigating the role of the microbes in the health of female astronauts. Microbes in the human body are known to influence health and disease, from digestive and urinary health to managing anxiety.

NASA has plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars in the 2030s. A round-trip mission to Mars is expected to last two to three years. During the long-term mission, the human microbiome will be exposed to microgravity, sterilized food, stress and radiation. According to NASA, female astronauts have a lower threshold for exposure to space radiation than male astronauts, limiting how much time they can spend in space.

Reid and Urbaniak believe that probiotics could play a role in maintaining health and mitigating some of the health risks associated with space travel. “Humans are basically microbial,” said Reid. “Microbes are part of us and microgravity may change them in ways we don’t fully understand yet. We need to do long-term studies in space and manipulate microbes to our advantage.”

Key concerns during space flights include rapid bone loss and a compromised immune system. Current research on male astronauts has also demonstrated a decrease in beneficial gut, nasal and oral microorganisms during short and long-term missions, and an increase in pathogens, such as staphylococcus aureus and E. coli. Similar research on female astronauts has not been conducted.

Health challenges faced by females are unique and may be more pronounced in space. Challenges include urinary tract infections (UTIs), osteoporosis, breast cancer and compromised vaginal health.

Female astronauts have a higher prevalence of UTIs during spaceflight than their male counterparts. While antibiotics are used to treat UTIs in normal gravity, their efficacy may be weakened in microgravity leading to failure in controlling severe and recurrent infections. Specific probiotics have been shown to prevent UTIs in women on Earth.

Certain strains of probiotics may also be beneficial in increasing bone density and preventing osteoporosis, and treating inflammatory or stress-induced gastrointestinal discomfort.

Female astronauts have a 20 per cent higher risk of cancer development, primarily breast and ovarian cancers. Reid suggests that existing studies which show a connection between probiotics and breast cancer may be an avenue for investigation, making it safer for women to participate in long space missions.

As NASA resumes space travel and the commercial flight industry develops, specific consideration and research into the overall health of women in space is needed.

“It’s important to look at the health of women,” said Urbaniak. “We know that drugs interact differently in males and females. The impact of probiotics are also different between males and females, and it’s time we focused our research on female astronauts.”

Reid is one of the world’s foremost experts on probiotics and a key member of Western Heads East. Urbaniak will begin a postdoctoral fellowship with NASA in California this summer.