Did you know that our bodies are home to billions of bacteria? You may have heard of the gut flora and its vital role in digestion and general health. However, the human body has numerous different floras, including inside the vagina.
Your vaginal flora
The vaginal flora is made up of both good bacteria and bad, which is why balance is important. Lactobacilli, the dominant good bacteria, are the unsung heroes that live in your vagina.
Lactobacilli produce lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide. Together, these two major components are responsible for the acidic environment and pH of the vagina, keeping the bad bacteria at bay.
When things go off the rails
The delicate balance of the vaginal flora can be affected by many things. Hormonal fluctuations, menstruation, stress, age, sexual activity, medications, vitamin D deficiency, and hygiene practices like douching are just some examples of factors that can complicate this balance.
Once the vaginal environment has been weakened, it creates an opportunity for various infections affecting the vagina and urinary tract. Maintenance of healthy vaginal flora is paramount for the prevention of these infections. Let’s take a closer look at some infections caused by vaginal flora imbalance and how they can be prevented.
When the good bacteria found in the vaginal flora is thrown out of balance, the vaginal pH can easily increase to above 4.5, becoming alkaline. A healthy vaginal pH should range between 3.5-4.5. You can test your vaginal pH using test strips, similar to what is used to test the pH of urine. A high vaginal pH creates an ideal environment for harmful bacteria such as Gardnerella vaginalis to multiply, leading to bacterial vaginosis (BV). Symptoms include itching, burning, and increased discharge with a strong fishy odour. If these symptoms sound familiar, it’s best to check-in with your healthcare practitioner.
Bacterial vaginosis is very common and once diagnosed, it can be easily treated with a round of antibiotics that are administered orally or vaginally. However, unless the vaginal flora can be strengthened and restored, there is a high rate of recurrence with BV. The vaginal flora can be strengthened through diet, supplementation, and small tweaks to the hygienic products you use.
Candida overgrowth, or a yeast infection, is the most common vaginal infection. It’s experienced by an estimated 75% of women at some point in their lives. Often, the causes behind yeast infections are antibiotic use and lowered immunity.
Symptoms of a yeast infection include an increase in vaginal discharge, burning, itchiness, and inflammation. These symptoms sound similar to bacterial vaginosis but with one difference–with Candida, there will be no strong fishy odour. That is a tell-tale sign of BV and not Candida. Yeast infections are commonly treated with over-the-counter anti-fungal treatments.
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
The vaginal and urethral openings are located very close together. Because of this, the flora from the vagina also offers protection to the urethra. Lactobacilli have been found to adhere strongly to the cells surrounding the urethra, preventing harmful bacteria from entering.
If left untreated, UTIs can become more serious by progressing to the bladder. These common infections can be easily and quickly cleared up with antibiotics.
Can you have too much of a good thing? Unfortunately, yes. Cytolytic vaginosis is an overgrowth of lactobacilli and a clear reminder of the importance of balance. This condition is often misdiagnosed as a yeast infection.
The symptoms are similar: itching, burning, and increased discharge. If things are made worse by anti-fungal treatments and increase during menstruation, cytolytic vaginosis could be to blame. As with all vaginal infections, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Once diagnosed with cytolytic vaginosis, treatment will likely involve a vaginal application of sodium bicarbonate or baking soda. Baking soda alkalizes the vagina and discourages the growth of lactobacilli bacteria. This is usually the opposite of what the vagina wants so don’t try to DIY this! Talk to your practitioner to discuss a course of action.
Strengthening your vaginal flora
Eating foods that support your gut health will support your vaginal health–it’s all connected! A great place to start is by including more fresh fruits and vegetables into your diet and drinking plenty of water. With the right diet, supplementation, and hygienic practices, even in times of stress and lowered immunity, you can have a strong foundation of protection.
Prebiotics & probiotics
Prebiotics and probiotics are found in certain foods and supplements. They can help increase the strength and number of good bacteria in your vaginal flora.
Prebiotics include indigestible fibres such as inulin or fructooligosaccharides, which can be found in many fruits and vegetables. As these fibres move through the intestinal tract, they act as food for the probiotic bacteria, which keeps the good bacteria fueled as they defend our body against harmful pathogens.
Prebiotic foods include:
- Jerusalem artichokes
Probiotics, on the other hand, include live bacteria and can help populate your existing flora. Once ingested, they will have the most benefit to your gut flora, but the strength of that bacteria will translate to the rest of your body, including the vagina.
Probiotic foods include:
When dietary sources aren’t enough on their own, taking a daily probiotic is a simple way to directly boost your body’s population of beneficial bacteria. Choosing a high potency, multistrain probiotic that contains lactobacilli bacteria will benefit the vaginal flora by deterring the overgrowth of undesirable bacteria. On the other hand, if you’re looking to restore your flora after a round of antibiotics, an extra-strength probiotic formula will help balance your good bacteria once again. Taking a probiotic supplement that’s specifically designed for supporting your vaginal flora, like our Women’s Everyday Probiotic can also help you maintain your vaginal health.
Any product that is used to wash the genital area should be used with caution. A lot of intimate care products tend to upset the vaginal pH, affecting the natural flora. Douches are especially damaging because they strip the protective flora and create an inflammatory environment in the vagina. When washing the vagina, it is recommended to use only water, avoiding anything anti-microbial or scented.
When it comes to your vaginal flora, balance is key. Whether you experience recurring infections or not, it’s worth it to consider the health of your vaginal flora. Incorporating supportive foods, supplementation, and personal care practices can build a strong defence against future imbalances and infections. You won’t regret it!
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified health professional regarding any questions about your medical condition. Do not disregard professional medical advice or wait to seek advice or treatment because of something you have read here.
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