Let’s talk about your vaginal microbiome and yeast infections. Sexy, right? Not! Okay, so it’s probably not high on the list of topics that you want to think about. Which is exactly why we’re here. We don’t talk about it much. There’s a lot of media coverage on your body’s stomach and oral microbiomes. You’re probably also familiar with the concept of the gut-brain connection. What’s happening inside your vagina, though, is a different story. That’s not something usually broadcast on the 10 o’clock news.
The vaginal microbiota is a bigger deal than we realize. It helps maintain your vaginal health and protects you from infections, STDs, and other diseases. That’s why we think it’s important to call it out. So, if you don’t have any idea what your microbiome is or your knowledge about this sensitive little ecosystem is limited, read on! We’re breaking it down and giving you all the intel you need. Here are five things every woman should know.
1. What Exactly is the Vaginal Microbiome?
The vaginal microbiome is pretty complicated. It’s easy to get bogged down in a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo, so we asked our Medical Advisor, Dr. Shyama Mathews to help us out with a simple explanation. “The vaginal microbiome is the environment created by the organisms we carry in our vagina,” said Dr. Mathews. “They are meant to be there, in a particular balance, which helps maintain healthy pH and moisture. When the environment shifts, like with a change in pH, or when the organism levels are disrupted by something like an overgrowth, unpleasant symptoms such as vaginal dryness, discharge, odor, and irritation can occur.” Why is this all a big deal? Because staying healthy means maintaining the right balance of good and bad bacteria. Easy enough? Well… not always.
2. Imbalances of Good and Bad Bacteria Can be a Nuisance
As Dr. Mathews mentioned, you can get infections when there’s an imbalance of good and bad bacteria. You can get rid of some of them quickly and easily with treatment; some are a bit more stubborn. Examples are yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. Research has also indicated that imbalances also make the microbiome more conducive to Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs) such as Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Pelvic Inflammatory Disease, and HIV. It can also lead to preterm birth in pregnant women. Don’t freak out, though. In addition to using condoms, you can do things to protect yourself. We’ll get back to that in a minute.
3. The Balance of Good Versus Bad Bacteria Fluctuates
We know that a properly balanced vagina has about 85 percent good bacteria and 15 percent bad. The good bacteria is lactobacillus. It keeps out lactic acid and maintains a low acidic pH. The low pH prevents viruses, bacteria, and yeast from growing. So, all we have to do is maintain the 85:15 balance, and we’re good. But, here’s the catch. The balance naturally fluctuates due to factors we can’t control, such as our genetic makeup, body chemistry, and hormones. On top of that, we unintentionally do stuff that we don’t even realize can upset the balance.
4. Know Your Triggers
It’s probably not breaking news to you that a round of antibiotics can send you running to the drugstore for a box of Monistat. When the medication kills off the bad bacteria that are making you sick, it also kills off the good bacteria, allowing for an overgrowth of yeast. This one may be a surprise to you, though. Leggings and yoga pants can be harmful to your health. Yup, it’s true. Yeast loves warm, moist, dark areas. Make sure you change your clothes after a good sweat session. Stress, junk food nights, your partner’s chemistry, and soap can also be triggers.
There are also some obvious ones that may not be so obvious. After all, who would think that products designed to go into your vagina can cause an imbalance? Douching and feminine moisturizers are big no-gos. They have been proven to upset the balance of flora and are known to cause bacterial vaginosis. (01) You also have to choose your lubricant carefully. Lubricants containing glucose can cause yeast infections. It’s best to stick with lubricants containing thoughtful ingredients. Vaseline and oils aren’t a good idea either. They are only designed to be used externally. Petroleum-based products tend to dry out the surfaces they touch and could make sensitive vaginal skin more prone to infections.
5. The Power of Probiotics
If you’re a take-charge kind of woman, there’s good news. Researchers have been busy studying the effectiveness of supplementing lactobacillus and lactoferrin, a protein found in milk. (02) They have also been testing vaginal suppositories versus oral supplements. Reviews on effectiveness have been mixed. While some studies give thumbs up, others aren’t convinced.
If you’re constantly dealing with yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or even UTIs, you can safely experiment a bit on your own by adding some foods to your diet. Foods including yogurt, kombucha, and miso are probiotics that help maintain or improve the good bacteria in your body. Pickles and sauerkraut are also two thumbs up. The fermented foods are prebiotics that feed good bacteria. If the idea of eating yogurt or pickles makes you say “ewww,” it’s time to ask your gyno about probiotic supplements. One study shows that lactobacillius strains not only treat infections but can also help prevent them. (03) The market is flooded with options, so be sure to check with your doctor, so you know that the one you buy is proven to work for your particular need.
So, your vagina can be a little temperamental when it comes to maintaining the proper pH balance. Now you have a better idea of what can knock it out of whack and what to do if things go haywire. Thankfully, researchers are continuing to study various probiotic strains and delivery mechanisms. Be sure to stay up to date on the news and check with your doctor if you’re having problems.