When you think about your gut health, what comes to mind? Chances are, you think about things like eating a balanced diet, getting enough exercise, and taking supplements. But what about your vaginal health? Supporting your vaginal microbiome is just as important as supporting other areas of your health.
While caring for your vaginal microbiome is similar to caring for your gut, there are some important factors to consider. These include understanding your body's natural processes and pH levels. However, it also includes understanding the different types of supplements you can take to help keep bacteria balanced.
From probiotics to switching up your diet, here's everything you need to know about caring for your vaginal health.
The vaginal microbiome is the collection of all the microbes (bacteria, fungi, etc.) that live in the vagina. A healthy vaginal microbiome is key to maintaining vaginal health and preventing infections.
Similar to gut health, the goal is to ensure your levels of good bacteria concentration are balanced. After all, balance is important for reproductive and sexual health. What kinds of bacteria are we talking about here?
The most common type of bacteria is Lactobacillus, which helps to keep the vagina acidic and prevents other harmful bacteria from growing. If you’ve ever taken a probiotic then you’ve likely seen the name Lactobacillus before (or even the other popular bacteria Bifidobacterium).
We’ll get into probiotics and their function in vaginal health in a bit. First, let’s explore the function of Lactobacillus in your body.
Lactobacillus is a family of bacteria. You can find quite a few different types of this bacteria in a healthy human vagina.
Overall, these types of lactobacilli help prevent the invasion of harmful bacteria. They do this by producing lactic acid via a fermentation process. This helps keep the pH level of the vagina acidic.
Ideally, your pH levels should be between 3.8 and 4.5 to maintain optimal vaginal health.
Why so acidic? This acidic environment is hostile to many harmful bacteria. When your pH levels are higher, your vaginal microbiome is more conducive to bacterial imbalances.
Other helpful functions of Lactobacillus that benefit your vaginal microbiome include the bacteria’s ability to:
All in all, learning about bacteria such as Lactobacillus is an important part of immune health and immune function.
If you’re not sure how to monitor your pH levels, then we suggest measuring them with at-home kits. You can usually purchase these from your local pharmacy or health store.
It's important to understand the role of bacteria and yeast as part of your overall vaginal and sexual health. However, you don't need to always be on guard. Your vagina is actually working around the clock to clean and protect itself.
This is because the vaginal canal is lined with mucus-producing cells that release discharge to cleanse the vaginal area and prevent infection. This is why you likely see vaginal discharge during different parts of your cycle.
Likewise, some studies suggest that hormones such as estrogen may also play a role in maintaining the pH levels of the vagina.
Therefore, the composition of vaginal microbiota can change depending on where you’re at in your gynecological lifecycle (for example, if you’ve been through menopause or not).
While it might be unsightly and somewhat uncomfortable, vaginal discharge can be normal if it’s odorless and has a clear or white color. However, certain types of discharge can be a sign of pH imbalance symptoms.
What can you expect normally throughout your cycle?
The amount of vaginal discharge may increase as you ovulate. At this time in your cycle, the vaginal discharge is usually clear, stretchy, and similar in consistency to egg whites.
After you ovulate, the vaginal discharge typically becomes thicker and white or cream-colored. This vaginal discharge is called leukorrhea and is caused by the hormone progesterone during the luteal phase.
If you experience vaginal discharge that is foul-smelling, itchy, or accompanied by other symptoms like pain, redness, or burning, then it may be a sign of infection and you should see a doctor.
The vaginal microbiome is a delicate ecosystem of good bacteria that helps to keep the vagina healthy. However, this balance can be easily disrupted.
Common factors that can negatively affect the vaginal microbiome include douching, using perfumed soaps or powders, wearing tight-fitting clothing, and using antibiotics frequently. However, your lifestyle does play into your vaginal health as well.
Diets high in sugar intake can contribute to a shift in your vaginal microbiome and promote more yeast growth.
Synthetically fragranced products such as vaginal sprays, soaps and detergents, and douches may disrupt the microbiome and flora by removing beneficial bacteria. When this happens it can lead to an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria.
Spermicidal gels or lubricants can also disrupt your natural vaginal microbiome depending on the ingredients in the products. This also goes for foreign products that are introduced into your vagina. If you’re not careful, they can damage the tissue and lead to discomfort.
While this doesn’t mean you should stop using lubricants or other gels, it simply means that you should be mindful of the ingredients in the products you’re using.
Sexual activity can also briefly affect your vaginal microbiome health, particularly if you’re having sex with males.
This is because semen has a neutral to alkaline pH and results in significant buffering of vaginal secretions. Seminal fluid also contains enzymes that inactivate hydrogen peroxide. Likewise, bacteria from someone’s mouth can be introduced to the vaginal area as well.
Again, while this doesn’t mean you need to swear off sex entirely (it’s healthy), it’s just something to consider as you care for your vaginal and reproductive health.
Excess moisture in the area can also create an environment conducive to more bacteria growth.
This often occurs when you swim and keep a wet bathing suit on. It can also occur when you sweat excessively and stay in your workout clothes. You might also notice issues if you wear clothing or underwear that isn’t breathable. Instead, opt for cotton!
Antibiotics can also lead to a disruption in your healthy microbiome. This is because antibiotics are designed to kill bacteria, but they don't discriminate between good and bad bacteria. This means that they can kill off the healthy bacteria in your vagina along with the bad bacteria. In order to maintain a healthy vaginal microbiome, it's important to only use antibiotics when absolutely necessary. When you do need to take them, be sure to take probiotics as well to help replenish the good bacteria in your vagina.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that are similar to the good bacteria that already live in your body. When taken as supplements, probiotics can help to restore the balance of bacteria in your body, including in the vagina.
Probiotics are available in many different strains, and each strain has unique properties. While there is no definitive answer to which probiotic strain is best for vaginal health, some strains may be more effective than others.
Lactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus acidophilus, for example, are two probiotic strains that have been shown to be effective in restoring vaginal flora.
Likewise, you should look for a probiotic with at least 8 to 20 million colony-forming units (CFU) to really harness the benefits of the bacteria.
The most common side effects are mild and include gas, bloating, and nausea. Some people may also experience additional symptoms if close attention isn’t paid to the additional ingredients in some formulations. Some probiotics may have added ingredients that people can be sensitive to so it is very important to look at the ingredient label thoroughly.. If you experience any side effects when taking probiotics, consider switching to a different strain or potency. Always talk to your doctor about your supplement plans.
It’s important to take probiotics carefully in order to get the best results. Start with a small dose and gradually increase it over time. It’s also helpful to take them with food. Be sure you take them consistently for at least a few weeks to see results. Always follow the instructions on the bottle. Some require refrigeration to keep the bacteria alive while others only require you to keep them out of direct sunlight. Consider Probiotic-Rich Food You don’t have to get your good bacteria from supplements like probiotics. While that’s an easy way to consume the daily recommended value, you can also get them from probiotic-rich foods. Yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut are perhaps three of the most popular. The Verdict: Are pH Balance Supplements Effective? So, are pH balance supplements such as probiotics effective? Yes! However, are they necessary to maintain optimal vaginal health? While they can be incredibly helpful in promoting vaginal microbiome balance, they're not required. Eating healthy, exercising, hydrating, and incorporating probiotic-rich foods into your diet can all help you naturally maintain a good pH balance as well. If you’re interested in incorporating vitamins and supplements into your everyday health routine, however, it’s important to ensure you’re using the right supplements. Take our quiz to find out how you can best support your body and its needs.