Flora, fauna, and your vagina: understanding your vaginal microbiome
Have you got the guts?
We already know how important good gut health – and how to maintain it – seems to be everywhere these days. And no, it’s not just because of the astronomical rise in the popularity of kombucha. Or, if you’re anything like my mother, being responsible for a South Florida Whole Foods to run out of kefir. 🤷♀️
But researchers, like the US-based gastroenterologist, Dr. Liz Cruz, are starting to uncover how the gut plays a role in vaginal health. Your gut flora is made up of billions of bacteria – some good, some bad – that coexist and play a crucial role in a series of functions, like immune system functioning, digestion, skin health, and yes, even your overall vaginal health.
Simply put, “Your health begins with the gut. It affects every part of you.” This can include your vagina. So, what can you do to maintain a healthy vagina?
The mysterious microbiome
Your vaginal flora, otherwise known as your vaginal microbiome, is still pretty mysterious, and researchers are only just beginning to understand how these trillions of microbes impact our overall health and wellbeing. But ultimately, a healthy, balanced vaginal microbiome is extremely important for your intimate – and overall – well being.
Your vaginal flora affects everything from your ability to fight off infections to your likelihood of getting pregnant and even developing certain gynae cancers. It’s also been linked to a lower risk of contracting STDs and pelvic inflammatory disease, and a lower risk of experiencing a miscarriage and preterm birth. So yeah, this microbiome is a pretty big deal.
Like the gut, your vagina is composed of millions of bacteria. “In health, the gut is rich in bacterial diversity, with thousands of species living in a harmonious state,” says Dr. Harrier Protheroe, a GP registrar with a particular interest in women’s health.
While gut bacteria and vagina bacteria will have microbes that would overlap, the complete flora makeup is different. “The vagina is more selective,” says Dr. Protheroe, “with high proportions of friendly Lactobacillus species observed in healthy vaginas and lower rates of bacterial diversity.”
A healthy vagina is full of lactobacilli, which is this “good” bacteria needed to keep infections like thrush and bacterial vaginosis far from your lady bits. They’re basically the “bodyguard” of your vaginal microbiome, and this is done primarily by producing lactic acid and lowering the vaginal pH to acidic levels.
Here’s a fun fact: The pH balance of a healthy vagina is around 4.5, which is around the same as tomatoes, beer, and wine! (Woohoo!).
The symbiosis of bowels and ‘bajingo’
Like the gut, sometimes your vaginal microbiome can get a bit topsy-turvy. There are a number of biological and external factors that can throw your microbes out of whack – anything from unprotected sex, your period, to high-sugar diets, medications, and improper intimate hygiene.
As well as sharing lactobacilli, our gut (plus bowels) and vagina can communicate in a few different ways. Due to close proximity allowing transposition of gut bacteria, the gut and vagina communicate directly. There’s also the ‘gut-vagina-axis’, whereby a healthy guy can reduce whole-body inflammation and help to promote overall vaginal health – which is why maintaining balance and preventing overgrowth of bacteria is especially important.
When things get a bit unbalanced, pathogens start to take over – this can start a vicious cycle that encourages bad bacteria to colonize. This ‘bad bacteria’ growth can lead to:
Negative intergenerational consequences
Bacterial vaginosis (BV)
Yeast infections, otherwise known as thrush
Frequent Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
Changes for a healthy vaginal microbiome
Add probiotics into your diet
In case you needed another reason to stock up on greek yogurt and kombucha, eating or drinking probiotics that bring up lactobacillus are good for both vaginal and gut floras. Ultimately, they’re healthy bacterias that evolve with us.
Douching has long been thought of as a pH-imbalancing no-no, but overwashing in any way can take its toll on your vagina’s health. Your parts are self-cleaning. They don’t need perfume, very sudsy soap, or anything else on it.
Discover what works best for you
It’s all about that biohacking, baby. Just like with ‘hacking’ for overall health, vaginal wellbeing is all about finding what works best for you. Being able to understand (and track) what’s happening in your body over time is invaluable. The pelvic exam is better than just acting as a single test but works well for women trying to self-experiment. Does it help if I eat more yogurt? Would it help if I only have sex at certain times?
Of course, if you have any doubts or concerns, share them, and seek medical advice if necessary. We’ve said it once, we’ll say it again, but vaginas are mysterious (and complex!), so beginning to understand their intricacies from a professional will help.