Needless to say, the findings are exciting the medical world and wellness fanatics alike as it points to the potential to provide an understanding of – and cure – to a multitude of health concerns. Doctors are starting to prescribe foods that feed the good bacteria of your microbiome, while advising against foods that support the harmful bacteria. Wellness companies are honing in on supplements to support a healthy and diverse microbiome. Gene sequencing companies like Atlas Biomed are offering gut microbiome mapping, in addition to ancestry tests and DNA analysis, so consumers can check on their levels of bacteria, and then make lifestyle changes to correct any imbalances.
You may have heard a lot of chat recently about the microbiome but in case you missed the memo, the microbiome is the combined genetic material of the unique microorganisms in your body, including the bazillions of bacteria in your gut, as well as viruses, fungi and other single-celled organisms. Ok, so it may sound nasty, but your microbiome is key to overall health, effecting everything from your ability to fight off infections, to your risk of cancer, to obesity and diabetes. In fact, your microbiome even effects your mental health.
And while we’re getting familiar with our gut and skin microbiome, we’re far less acquainted with our vaginal microbiome. Yes, you read that correctly – the vagina’s microbiome is just as important as any other, effecting everything from discharge to pregnancy. So, by way of introduction, we’ve called upon Dr Clare Morrison, GP and medical advisor at Medexpress, to help us understand what’s going on down there.
How do I know if my vagina’s microbiome is healthy?
According to Dr Morrison, an imbalanced vaginal microbiome means that unhealthy microorganisms, such as thrush, bacterial vaginosis, Bacteroides, E coli, and Staphylococcus, proliferate in the vagina. “This can lead to vaginal discharge, irritation, itching, soreness, and vaginal odour.”
In fact, an unhealthy microbiome can also have more serious effects. “Some can even cause pregnant women to go into preterm labour. If concerned, tests are available from your GP or local Sexual Health Service.”
How does food effect the vagina?
We know that what we eat has a huge effect on the bacteria in our gut, with sugary foods feeding the unfriendly bacteria and prebiotic-rich foods like kimchi, kefir and yogurt, helping to restore the prevalence of good bacteria, able to boost digestion, reduce inflammation and calm anxiety. But is the same true of the vaginal microbiome?
“It may seem strange to think that what you eat could affect the bacteria in your vagina, but studies show that it has an affect,” says Dr Morrison.
“For example,’ bioactive’ yoghurts and yoghurt drinks contain bacteria called ‘Lactobacillus’. These microorganisms are extremely important for vaginal health. When we eat foods containing Lactobacillus, some manage to survive passage through the digestive system, and find their way to the vagina.”
Please note: you have to eat the yogurt. Please do not put yogurt on your vagina.
What’s the best way to wash my vagina without upsetting the microbiome?
Over the past few years, there has been an influx of personal care products claiming to be specifically formulated to adhere to the unique needs of the vulvar and vagina. But according to the experts, you may want to think twice before opting for anything fancy.
“The vagina has an acidic pH of 3.8 to 4.5. However, personal hygiene products tend to make the vaginal environment more alkaline. In addition, excessive washing and douching will wash away healthy bacteria such as Lactobacillus, making it more likely that harmful microorganisms will take over instead” says Dr Morrison. “The best way to wash your vagina is simply to use warm water and gentle unscented soap.”
From where we’re sitting, it seems that personal care products aimed at the upkeep and management of the vagina are yet another exploitation of women’s insecurities. Thank u, next.
What about sex?
Did you know that sperm is alkaline? No, nor did we, until Dr Morrison explained; “Sex affects the vagina’s pH, particularly if no condom is used. Semen is slightly alkaline, with a pH of 7.2 to 8.0. This is because sperm function best under these conditions.”
While an alkaline environment is great for sperm to get on, it can create problems. “The effect is to make the vagina less acidic, which in turn can increase the number of unhealthy bacteria, at the expanse of the healthy ones.” Try asking your partner to pull out if it’s becoming an issue, or else, use a condom. “If you use a condom there will be less of an effect,” explains Dr Morrison. Ah, another great reason to use condoms.