Menstrual Hygiene Day SALE! Grab 30% off until 04.06.24

An (un)Healthy Vagina: How You Can Promote Vaginal Health through Nutrition and Lifestyle 

May 2, 2024 . dija

Written by Daan Borrel

Welcome to the wonderful world of the vagina, where a self-contained environment of bacteria, yeasts and fungi protects you. Most people know very little about vaginal health, while a deficiency of certain bacteria in the vagina increase the risk of bladder infections, fungal infections, premature births, infertility and STIs. Currently, scientists worldwide are studying the intricacies of vaginal health and its maintenance. In this place, we will teach you everything you need to know about this in the next six months. 

Today in part three: does your lifestyle (food, drinks, or sex) affect your vaginal microbiome?  

A vagina with its own ecosystem – How cool is that? That’s what I initially thought when I began researching vaginal health. It’s mind-blowing to think that the vaginal microbiome is so self-sufficient – that you don’t have to do much to maintain it. Despite being influenced by hormones and menstrual blood; it has this incredible ability to constantly repair and adapt itself. 

Meanwhile, I’ve come to realize that vaginal health isn’t entirely separate from the rest of your body – nor from the rest of your life. As an individual, you do have some influence over your vaginal microbiome – up to a point, that is. You may have heard about the gut microbiome: what you eat can greatly affect the bacteria that grow there, which in turn can impact your mood since the gut is connected to the brain. However, what you eat and drink has much less of an influence on the vaginal microbiome. This is because the vagina itself produces glycogen, which is then converted into lactic acid by the lactic acid bacteria. In contrast, the intestines rely on getting glycogen from food. 

Nonetheless, there are still some actions you can take on your own to support vaginal health (stay tuned for more insights on factors beyond your control in a future blog). 

As mentioned in the previous blog, hormones play a significant role in shaping the composition of bacteria in the vagina, which in turn affects susceptibility to various health issues. Your hormone balance is primarily influenced by factors such as your age, menstrual cycle, and DNA. In this blog, I’ll focus mainly on everyday, practical factors that can impact your microbiome.  

For example, let’s talk about the menstrual cycle, which isn’t ‘natural’ for most fertile individuals once they start using hormonal contraceptives. These contraceptives impact your hormonal balance, which can then affect your microbiome. According to the Isala website, using the combined pill (containing estrogen and progesterone) typically reduces the presence of bacteria like Gardnerella and Prevotella while increasing the abundance of lactic acid bacteria. On the other hand, a hormonal coil (containing only progesterone) usually leads to higher levels of Garnerella. 

In principle, these changes in the vaginal microbiome don’t necessarily mean your vagina is unhealthy right away. Similarly, other signs like unusual odors, discharge, itching, or redness don’t always indicate an ‘unhealthy’ vagina immediately. Essentially, the body – and the vagina – have a way of regulating themselves. The healthy bacteria work to combat the unhealthy ones, and voilà; the abnormal odor disappears. Additionally, some individuals may tolerate slightly lower levels of lactobacilli and crispatus better than others.  

When a vagina lacks crispatus, its ability to repair itself diminishes. As a result, the vaginal wall may absorb xenoestrogens more readily, which are chemicals known to disrupt the body’s hormonal balance. This increases the likelihood of estrogen dominance, which can lead to conditions like PMS or endometriosis, and can, in turn cause fertility issues, much like a domino-effect. You can find out more about how these chemicals disrupt hormone balance is this article from the Volksrant. 

In short: it is far too simplistic to claim that, for example, a tampon containing plastic directly leads to infertility. However, it’s valuable to understand that if you already have an imbalance in your vaginal microbiome, and resulting in a less acidic vaginal environment, you’re more vulnerable. Whether a vagina with lower levels of crispatus develops a fungal infection in one person and not in another is influenced not only by genetic and biological factors but also by environmental factors. Stress, for example, is one environmental factor that plays a role, although our understanding of its impact is still limited. 

Lots of Nuts, Little Meat

The Isala study revealed that certain daily habits indeed influence the vaginal microbiome. For example, consuming sugary (including alcoholic) drinks and eating meat appear to lead to a slight decrease in crispatus. Eating meat is also associated with an increase in Prevotella bacteria. Conversely, incorporating plenty of nuts and vegetables into your diet seems to have a positive correlation: it causes a (limited) increase in crispatus bacteria and other lactic acid bacteria.  

Penetrative sex can also affect the vaginal microbiome. At Isala, researchers saw that people who had engaged in penetrative sex had a more diverse array of bacteria in the 24 hours following intercourse. The vagina becomes less acidic due to semen – similar to the effect of blood – which can lead to an increase in bacterial growth. While this might initially seem positive, it’s important to remember that the vagina needs proper acidity to help fight infections and inflammation. When the ecosystem becomes less acidic, harmful bacteria can grow more rapidly. At Isala, it’s still uncertain whether the presence of these bacteria is detrimental. Therefore, using a condom can’t hurt – especially if you frequently experience bladder infections or fungal issues. If you have a diverse microbiome but lack crispatus, you’re more vulnerable, so taking extra steps to protect yourself might be wise.  

Research has shown that it can be helpful for people who often suffer from bacterial vaginosis to take a crispatus probiotic after antibiotics. As antibiotics can also eradicate many beneficial bacteria, these probiotics can reduce the likelihood of a relapse. However, it’s important to note that this does not necessarily mean that a probiotic should be taken all the time.  

Domino Effect

Menstrual products can indeed also influence the vaginal microbiome. As you can probably expect, if you use menstrual pads with added perfumes, this can in turn impact your own vaginal ecosystem too. So, as mentioned before, while this may not directly lead to an unhealthy vagina, it has the potential to disrupt the balance of the ecosystem.  

The Belgian Isala study revealed more fascinating findings about menstrual products. Vaginas whose owners wore a menstrual cup had higher numbers of crispatus in their microbiome. On the other hand, those who used menstrual pads or panty liners had a more diverse microbiome, with higher levels of Bifidobacterium, Lactobacillus gasseri, Streptococcus, and Anaerococcus, but with lower levels of crispatus. The study did not find clear effects associated with tampons or menstrual underwear, nor did it observe significant effects related to different materials of underwear. However, these aspects will be further investigated in future research. 

You can imagine that a menstrual product is a breeding ground for bacteria, so it is recommended that pads, tampons, and panty liners (and I expect period underwear as well), should not be worn for more than eight hours. As we read earlier, some bacteria are very fond of the iron in your blood. If you bleed for long periods, your vaginal environment can become less acidic, and provide an opportunity for harmful bacteria to thrive. I find it quite distressing: those who already have so much on their plate, through prolonged bleeding for example, now have even more to worry about. It’s truly a domino effect.  

Again: the vagina is a self-cleaning ecosystem. However, certain symptoms can alert us to an imbalance. If you frequently experience foul odours, it’s important to pay attention to potential causes. For example, you might notice these fluctuations after certain sexual activities or after a night of drinking.  

10% off on your next order?

Get a 10% discount on your next Yoni order when you sign up for our vulvalicious newsletter.
Sounds peachy right?

Drop your email address below and receive a discount code in your mailbox instantly.

Terms apply.