By now many of us are familiar with probiotics and how taking them can benefit our digestive health. But did you know that probiotics can also be used to maintain vaginal health as well?
A healthy vagina is home to more than 50 different strains of bacteria. Most of these bacteria are lactobacilli, which can help to keep the vagina healthy by supporting a healthy pH (which for the vagina is slightly acidic) and fending off vaginal imbalance.
However, certain lifestyle factors can disrupt the delicate balance of probiotics in the vagina, including:
- Diet: a diet high in sugar and low in fibre and prebiotics, including colourful fruits and veggies, can contribute to lower microbial diversity
- Stress has been shown to lower immune function, which can contribute to an overgrowth of unfriendly bacteria, increasing the risk of urinary tract infections
- Antibiotic and Antifungal use: although there are times when antibiotics and antifungals are necessary, it is important to know that while they remove unfriendly bacteria, they also wipe out the friendly bacteria needed to keep the vagina healthy
- STI exposure: when the pH of the vagina changes, it can be easier for sexually transmitted infections to take hold
Additionally, a woman’s vaginal microbiome can become altered as a result of unprotected sex, hormonal changes, menstruation, or due to hygiene habits.
Symptoms of Vaginal Imbalance
While there can be many symptoms or some that even go unnoticed, here are some of the more common signs of a vaginal imbalance:
More discharge than normal; a strong smell; itching; irritation or swelling around the vagina; pain during sex; and/or a burning sensation when urinating; or just feeling “off” down there. Whatever the symptoms, it is important to take note and talk to your healthcare provider when you feel something is not right.
Types of Vaginal Imbalance
There are many types of vaginal imbalances; here are the most common types of vaginal imbalance and tips for treating them.
Bacterial Vaginosis (BV)
This is the most common type of vaginal imbalance, making up almost 50% of cases of clinical vaginal discharge. BV is characterized by higher numbers of more bacteria in the vagina. This causes the pH of the vagina to elevate past 4.5 and reduces the amount of lactobacilli. Although the cause of BV isn’t known, a few factors put women at risk, such as a new sexual partner, douching with harsh cleansers, or simply by having less lactobacilli in the vagina to begin with. Having BV can increase the chances of contracting trichomoniasis, a common sexually transmitted infection.
It is estimated that 75% of women will experience a yeast infection in their lifetime. A healthy vaginal microbiome can help to keep yeasts like candida albicans, which cause yeast infections in check. However, when the vaginal microbiome is altered, candida albicans can grow out of control, leading to the uncomfortable symptoms of a yeast infection.
Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)
UTIs are caused when unfriendly bacteria enter the urethra. Although a urinary tract infection is not always caused by the same bacteria that cause vaginal infections, having healthy vaginal microflora could help to prevent a urinary tract infection.
When to Use a Vaginal Probiotic
Vaginal probiotics can help to bring the vaginal microbiome back into balance either following or in conjunction with treatment for BV, yeast infection, or UTI. Let’s look at some recent trials that used a double-blind (neither the researcher nor participants know which group they’re in), placebo-controlled (the group that receives a pill with no medicinal ingredients) approach.
- Conventional treatments for BV almost always include antibiotics; however, even with antibiotic treatment, the risk of recurrence is around 50% within a year. Beyond that, there are concerns about resistant bacteria following antibiotic use. A study conducted in 2006 compared the results of one week of oral metronidazole (the antibiotic used to treat BV) plus 30 days of oral probiotics versus the same dose of metronidazole plus a placebo (a pill not containing probiotics). At the end of the month, the rate of recurrence of BV was 12% in the probiotic group versus 60% in the placebo group. Another study looked at vaginal probiotics vs placebo and found the rate of recurrence to be 16% with the vaginal probiotic paired with conventional treatment vs 45% with conventional treatment and placebo.
- Conventional treatments for yeast infections include anti-fungal medication. One study compared the effectiveness of the antifungal medication (fluconazole) with oral probiotics containing L. Rhamnosus and L. Gasseri in treating recurring yeast infections. After 12 months, the cure rate for women using the combination of antifungal and probiotic treatments was 89% compared to 70% when using anti-fungal treatments alone.
- Following UTI, it is estimated that one-third of women will develop recurrent UTIs. One study looked at a vaginal probiotic supplement for treatment of recurring UTIs. Participants were treated with conventional treatments for acute UTI, then either received a vaginal formulated probiotic or placebo once daily for five days and then once weekly for 10 weeks. At the end of the study, recurrent UTIs occurred in 15% of women receiving the vaginal probiotic and 27% of the placebo group.
Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with BV, a yeast infection, or a UTI, taking a vaginal formulated probiotic can help to restore or keep the delicate balance of the vaginal microbiome and help improve discomfort. However, it is important to check in with your healthcare provider if you are experiencing symptoms of BV, yeast infection, or UTI before starting a probiotic.
Probiotic Strains for Vaginal Health
A 2020 review published in the journal Microorganisms outlined specific lactobacillus strains that have been shown to provide benefits for vaginal infections, they include: L. acidophilus, L. rhamnosus, L. gasseri, L. crispatus, L. jensenii, L. Reuteri and L. vaginalis.
Other lifestyle changes that could help include:
- Wear loose-fitting cotton underwear
- Clean the genital region with mild, unscented soap
- Eat a diet high in plant foods, avoiding sugar and alcohol whenever possible
- Stay hydrated
- Exercise regularly but take care to reduce sweat around the vagina
- Use antibiotics only when necessary
- Maintain a healthy body weight
The vaginal microbiome plays an amazing role in your health. Incredibly, the vaginal microbiome is responsible for giving babies their first dose of probiotics when they come through the birth canal. Oral probiotics formulated for vaginal health help keep your delicate pH levels in check so you can feel healthy, comfortable and fresh.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is intended for educational and informational purposes only and should not be considered as a substitute for medical advice. Please consult your practitioner prior to taking herbs or nutritional supplements.