How to keep your vagina healthy
Vaginal health is not a very big topic in the wellness industry, not like digestive or hormonal health. However, whether it is itchiness, abnormal discharge, or just general discomfort, when things are not right ‘down there’ you know about it. If you have a vagina, the likelihood is that you will experience some kind of vaginal problem at some point in your life.
The vaginal microbiome
Most of us know about the gut microbiome and its importance for health, but many of us don’t pay attention to the vaginal microbiome (VBM). Yes, that's correct - the vagina has its very own ecosystem! When this becomes disrupted, we can experience many different issues. If the VMB is imbalanced, it can become the ideal breeding ground for infections such as bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections, such as thrush.
The three most common vaginal issues are:
- yeast infections (a fungal infection)
- trichomoniasis (a type of STI caused by a parasite)
- bacterial vaginosis (an imbalance of bacteria in the vagina)
Vaginal dryness is also very common, especially in menopause.
While these issues can present some similar symptoms, their causes are completely different.
If you suffer from this, you know how difficult this can be to get rid of and how uncomfortable the reality of living with a yeast infection is. However, it is possible to live without it and, yes, you can get rid of it.
What is a yeast infection?
Vaginal yeast infections are an overgrowth of candida (a type of fungus found in your vagina and gut) in your nether region. Normally, it is balanced with other microorganisms, however, sometimes an imbalance in gut bacteria will allow it to grow, says Dr. Jolene Brighten (Naturopathic Physician and author of 'Beyond the Pill'.)
Common symptoms of a yeast infection are:
- ‘cottage cheese’ like discharge.
Periods, menopause, sex, pregnancy, and hormonal birth control can all shift the ecosystem of the vagina, making you more susceptible to yeast overgrowth. Most yeast infections resolve by themselves but, in cases where they are recurring, it’s a good idea to visit the doctor to find out the cause and perhaps investigate why you are more susceptible to infection in the first place. In many cases, having a resilient and strong immune system helps to fight off a candida infection.
There are many over-the-counter remedies available to treat yeast infections, however, they usually just treat the symptoms and can have side effects of their own. There is more research now about the vaginal microbiome so this is a good place to start. Studies have shown that ‘good’ bacteria can inhibit yeast growth and bio-film (surface-growing microorganisms) production. Your gut microbiome is shared with your vaginal microbiome, which is why dietary practices that support your gut also support your vagina. Coconut oil and tea tree oil are two home remedies that can help with the symptoms but may not be enough to resolve an infection.
Yeast infections: Foods to eat (and avoid!)
- Increase garlic and onions, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
- Reduce the amount of cold and raw foods, alcohol, soy foods, and refined sugary foods (eg: biscuits, pastries, sweets, etc) that you consume.
Bacterial vaginosis (or BV) mostly affects women in their reproductive years, between 15-44. It's caused by an overgrowth of the normal bacteria in the vagina. In women with BV, the healthy bacteria (called lactobacillus) becomes scarce and other bacteria take over, leading to the woman’s pH rising. The pH of a woman’s vagina should be acidic, and this is due to the lactobacillus producing lactic acid which keeps everything in balance.
Symptoms of bacterial vaginosis include:
- unusual vaginal discharge, (thin, white or grey/green in colour)
- fishy odour, more noticeable during a period or intercourse
- vaginal itching
- painful urination.
If you have these symptoms, get it checked with a doctor to get the correct diagnosis, as it could be another type of infection. They will then prescribe medications to get rid of the BV and, for some, this is the only way to resolve it. Often, you will be prescribed antibiotics for BV, which disrupt the VMB, so it’s a good idea to take a probiotic during the course of your medication.
If you want to try something more natural, then Vitamin C suppositories show great results. Research has found that Vitamin C is effective in both reducing the recurrence of BV in women and managing it. Even though BV could go away on its own, untreated BV can leave you more vulnerable to:
- increased risk of miscarriage
- pelvic infection
- increased risk of contracting STIs, due to the disruption of the vaginal flora.
Diets that are low in Vitamins such as A, C, and E and iron are associated with vaginal dysbiosis (the term given to imbalanced bacteria), so you want to be focusing on foods high in these nutrients:
- Vitamin A - red meat, eggs, butter, cheese
- Vitamin C - fresh fruit, peppers, berries
- Vitamin E - wholegrains, almonds, butternut squash
If you have never heard of this, it’s because you’ve probably never had it and, if you did, you’d know. However, to make things more complicated, some people never experience symptoms.
Trichomoniasis (or trich) is one of the most common sexually transmitted infections in the world. While some women experience no symptoms, these are some common signs you might have trich:
- Frothy vaginal discharge
- Foul vaginal odour
- Itchy inner thighs
- Pain having sex
- Pelvic pain
- Pain during urination.
If you experience any of these issues, see a doctor to get a diagnosis.
Trich is caused by a tiny parasite called Trichomonas Vaginalis (TV), which infects the vagina and the urethra in both men and women. While it's easy to treat with antibiotics, left untreated, it can lead to problems later on in life, such as the increased risk of pre-term delivery, and low birth weight. Some studies also suggest that trichomoniasis is related to the risk of cervical cancer, PID (pelvic inflammatory disease), and infertility.
If you are wanting a more natural remedy for trich, or are resistant to some antibiotics, the following may help:
- Pomegranate juice - one clinical study found women experienced a complete cure for their trichomoniasis, which is likely due to the anti-parasitic effect of the cranberry extract found in the drink.
Other natural remedies can be things such as:
- Ginger extract
- Nigella sativa oil (black seed oil)
These foods all have anti-parasitic and anti-inflammatory properties.
How to keep your vagina happy
Here are some suggestions on how you can support your vaginal health and prevent issues, keeping her happy and healthy!
- Don't use intimate washes. Your vagina cleans itself, so a gentle wash with water only is fine.
- Use plain, cotton underwear. Any manmade fabric, ( eg: polyester or nylon) has no place there, as these fabrics are not breathable and can cause infection.
- Use natural, non-toxic (nonbleached) pads and tampons. Not only can your vagina absorb these toxins, but the toxins themselves can also disrupt vaginal flora. There are many brands out there now that also make reusable pads, helping the environment!
- Eating probiotic foods, such as fermented dairy (eg: yogurt), and taking a good probiotic daily is excellent for your vaginal microbiome.
In many cases, the best defence against many common vaginal infections is maintaining a healthy vaginal pH and strong vaginal microbiota. Supporting your immune system and your gut by eating fresh fruits and vegetables daily, getting good sleep, and exposure to daylight is always going to help.
If you need further help or advice on how you can support your vaginal microbiome, contact me via my profile below.