Many women struggle with chronic vaginal infections, and unfortunately there is little information out there about the lifestyle factors that contribute, and what steps we can take to proactively nurture our health. Even though there has been much talk lately about the intestinal microbiome and its impact on health, we have yet to discuss its relationship to the vaginal microbiome and how that determines our susceptibility to infection.
Before we start, I want to point out the difference between two common kinds of vaginal infections that are often confused with one another: yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. As their names suggest, one is caused by a yeast overgrowth (candida albicans) and the other is caused by a bacterial overgrowth. The symptoms are slightly different. Yeast infections often involve itching, burning and pain, and may be accompanied by a thick, white discharge that can resemble cottage cheese. Bacterial vaginosis may also involve itching and burning, but it is more commonly associated with a thin greyish white discharge and a strong, unpleasant odour.
In both cases, the common factor is an imbalance in the natural flora that resides in our bodies. The vaginal canal is home to billions of friendly bacteria, mostly from the lactobacillus family. These bacteria maintain a healthy, acidic environment, keep the vaginal tissue healthy and fight off infection. When the pH level of a woman’s vagina is altered, or when her levels of friendly bacteria drop, this can leave her susceptible to infection.
Luckily, there are many proactive steps we can take to strengthen our bodies and prevent infection before it occurs.
1. Get to Know Your Body
As women go through their monthly cycles, their hormone levels fluctuate causing their vaginal secretions to change slightly in texture and odour. This is perfectly normal, however most of us aren’t familiar with what our personal cycle looks like. I encourage all my clients to become more intimate with themselves and get to know the natural processes of their bodies. If you keep a menstrual diary, I encourage you to make a note every couple of days on how you notice your vaginal secretions changing. Once you develop a comfort with this process, you will be quick to notice when something is off. A slight change in scent may indicate the beginnings of an imbalance, which may be easily reversible if caught early. Some of the below suggestions can be used in that process.
2 Eliminate Refined Sugar
This is the single most powerful step anyone can take in nurturing their friendly bacteria, because refined sugar feeds bad bacteria. Eating a diet high in sugar is like constantly feeding the enemy army while starving your own defences: it perpetuate imbalance.
For anyone struggling with chronic infections, I recommend trying a whole-foods based sugar elimination diet such as the Whole 30 or the 21 Day Sugar Detox. Both of these programs are based on a paleo diet approach, which advocates eating whole, local, organic foods as close to their natural state as possible. This entails eliminating highly processed foods that come from factories and are full of added sugars and inflammatory ingredients.
As the above programs suggest, it might also be a good idea to temporarily eliminate grains and grain products to see if the body becomes any more resilient. Grains, especially refined grain products such as bread, cereal and pasta are converted into sugars when we consume them and can easily contribute to bacterial imbalance.
If you’re trying to create optimal internal balance, its best to focus your diet on fresh vegetables, some fruits, wild-caught fish, pasture raised meat and poultry, and wild game. Probiotic foods are also essential, which we’ll cover in detail in the following section.
3. Eat More Probiotics
Probiotics come from foods that have been fermented and contain the beneficial bacteria that we are trying to populate our bodies with. Even though these little guys are going into your intestinal tract, there is a direct relationship between the health of your gut and your vagina. Bacteria are able to travel in our bodies, so ensuring that your intestinal tract is optimally balanced will help strengthen your vaginal health too.
When people hear the word ‘probiotic’, they automatically think of yogurt, but not all yogurt is made the same. I personally tend to stay away from commercial probiotic yogurts sold in big chain grocery stores since they are usually full of sugar and artificial ingredients. Some better options include local, organic kefir, raw unpasteurized sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha tea. All these products are easily found at a good health food store. Probiotics are also available in supplement form and can be consumed orally on a daily basis. There are special probiotics that can be inserted vaginally in the case of an infection.
4. Don’t Put Chemicals in Your Vagina
This may seem like straight forward advice, but there are so many products available out there that are supposedly meant for internal use, yet they wreak havoc on our natural microbiome.
One of the most important things to avoid are commercial lubricants, which are full of chemical ingredients as well as glycerin, which is a sugar. As we recall from earlier, sugar feeds bad bacteria, so using any kind glycerin based lube is bound to cause problems. There are many natural lubricants on the market today that are water, silicone or aloe-vera based and even contain some botanical herbs that are beneficial for your skin.
Another practice to avoid is douching with commercial douches and using any sort of vaginal perfumes. Vaginas have a self cleaning mechanism; you do not need to go in there and clean it yourself. Using harsh chemicals internally alters your natural pH, and creates an environment where bad bacteria can flourish. Healthy vaginas have a natural scent which is not unpleasant and should not be covered up. If you notice a change in your scent that you feel is out of the ordinary, then it’s best to follow the above guidelines along with the optional use of an internal probiotic capsule to help bring your body back into proper balance.
Our bodies are intelligent, self-healing wonders that strive for balance when given the right tools to create it. Vaginal infections are a symptom of bacterial imbalance both within the intestinal tract and the vagina. The best way to support our health is through consuming a healthy, whole-foods, low-sugar diet, eating lots of probiotic foods, and avoiding any chemicals that offset our pH balance.