Minding your Female Flora: The Importance of the Vaginal Microbiome

Minding your Female Flora: The Importance of the Vaginal Microbiome

By now, you've probably heard a thing or two about your gut microbiome, but what you may not know is that your vagina also has its own unique ecosystem of microbes. While many of us enter the world of the vaginal microbiome through some less than ideal microbial strains, you'll be happy to know that when in balance, most vaginal microbes are created by people who live in harmony with your body The "good guys" put on makeup and keep your vagina healthy.


If there's one thing we've learned about a healthy microbiome over the years, it's that balance is key. So, you may not be thinking too much about your vaginal flora right now, but we're here to introduce you to this important ecosystem and share ways you can help keep it (and your vagina) healthy! 

Meet the Lactobacilli Family:

Have you ever wondered - what is the normal vaginal flora? Well, let us introduce you to the Lactobacillus family.

This family of friendly, beneficial bacteria makes the vagina their home and is mainly composed of species such as L.crispatus and L.gasseri.[3] While certain types of microbes are common to most women, the exact combination of microbes is unique to you and influenced by your age, ethnicity, and lifestyle choices.[2] [1]

Lactobacilli play an important role in regulating vaginal health. They are known for their ability to produce a substance called lactic acid, which, as the name suggests, helps maintain an acidic pH balance in the vagina. While the words acidic and vaginal can create a strong sense of discomfort, a slightly acidic vaginal environment is actually a good thing and keeps vagina-unfriendly bacteria at bay.[1]

This friendship is definitely a give and take. While good bacteria fend off bad bacteria, your body rewards them by providing food to support their growth, and this food (called glycogen) is produced by your own vaginal secretions.[2]

Under the right environmental conditions, this symbiotic relationship helps maintain a healthy vagina by preventing pathogen overgrowth and maintaining healthy vaginal function. However, like many things in women, conditions change frequently, which can affect the microbial balance.

Happy Hormones Make for a Happy (Vaginal) Home:

Female hormonal balance plays an important role in determining the environment of the vaginal canal. The eb and flow of female hormones is driven by natural changes in puberty, menstruation, pregnancy, breastfeeding, menopause and everything in between. Each of these life stages can alter the local environment of the vagina, thereby altering the composition of the microbes that grow within it.[1][2][3]

For example, during ovulation, high estrogen production supports acidic pH and lactic acid bacteria growth. In contrast, menstruation increases pH and available food sources, leading to opportunistic bacterial overgrowth. These changes explain the increase in dysbiosis that may have occurred during this period.[3]

 

Why your Vaginal Flora Matter

The health of the vaginal microbiome is not only a problem in the South, but has profound implications for overall reproductive health related to the placenta, breast, and fetal microbiota.

For example, studies have shown that the mother's microbiome can directly influence the composition of the infant's microbiome, which in turn affects future health outcomes.[3] 

 

How to be a Good Host:

Ultimately, the provider of the resources needed to support a healthy vaginal microbiome is...you. Lifestyle factors that may affect vaginal "survival" include hygiene practices, sexual health, climate, clothing, smoking, alcohol and sugar intake, birth control methods, drug use, and more.[2]

Feminine hygiene products, in particular, can have a major impact on the balance of vaginal flora. The instinctual desire to keep the vagina "clean" has led to a huge market for feminine hygiene products, including lotions, wipes and creams.[4]  The problem is, your vagina is akin to a "self-cleaning oven" due to the infection-fighting power of your vaginal flora. Using feminine hygiene products, such as soap, may actually have the opposite effect of cleaning you want.  Using soap can alter the pH of the vagina, disrupt the important balance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria, and cause symptoms associated with vaginal dysbiosis that are responsible for the "unclean" feeling.[4]

Generally speaking, what keeps you healthy will also keep your vaginal microbiome healthy. By applying the classic rules of a "healthy and balanced diet and lifestyle," you can help support a balanced vaginal flora, keep your "self-cleaning oven" working properly and keep your vagina healthy!

Can probiotics help?

In most women, high levels of lactobacillus are considered a marker of a healthy vaginal microbiome.[4]  Probiotics can help replenish these beneficial bacterial strains when needed, helping to support a healthy vaginal flora and, of course, a healthy vagina. 

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Always read labels. Please follow the instructions for use. If symptoms persist, consult your health professional. Supplements should not replace a balanced diet. 

[1] Nunn KL, Forney LJ. Focus: microbiome: unraveling the dynamics of the human vaginal microbiome. The Yale journal of biology and medicine. 2016 Sep;89(3):331.

[2] Gupta S, Kakkar V, Bhushan I. Crosstalk between vaginal microbiome and female health: a review. Microbial pathogenesis. 2019 Nov 1;136:103696.

[3] Nader‐Macías ME, De Gregorio PR, Silva JA. Probiotic lactobacilli in formulas and hygiene products for the health of the urogenital tract. Pharmacology Research & Perspectives. 2021 Oct;9(5):e00787.

[4] Wissel E, Dunn A, Dunlop A. A Narrative Review on Factors Shaping the Vaginal Microbiome: Role of Health Behaviors, Clinical Treatments, and Social Factors. Authorea Preprints. 2020 Oct 5.


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