For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I don’t think Sir Isaac Newton was talking about probiotics and the vaginal microbiome, but who really knows.
Unless you have been living under a rock, or, more importantly, have been taking time away from the internet, you have probably heard of probiotics. You may have some understanding that these mythical pills are full of powerful prokaryotic unicellular organisms otherwise known as bacteria. While bacteria in the time of the CoronaVirus may seem a bit taboo, don’t let its negative namesake scare you away. We know that like most things in life, with the good comes the bad, and balance is fundamental to well, balance — in life, gut health, and of course our vaginal microbiome.
What are probiotics?
Probiotics are essentially a supplement of live beneficial bacteria and yeast that already live in our body. This blend of bacteria interacts with our microbiome and is often our first line of defense to support this beneficial balancing act. The introduction of these microbes can cause numerous positive effects. They can help your body digest food, keep bad bacteria from getting out of control and making you sick, create vitamins, and even breakdown and absorb medications.
But how does that affect our vaginal health? Our vagina, much like our gut, is a microbiome that hosts indigenous bacterial communities that play a protective role in preventing potentially pathogenic organisms (bad bacteria) from causing disease or infection. This includes those responsible for symptomatic bacterial vaginosis, yeast infections, STI’s, and urinary tract infections.
“Vaginitis, or vaginal irritation, is one of the single most common complaints I see in the office every day,” states Dr. Mare Mbaye, a gynecologist in New York City. “It’s almost always due to some imbalance in the natural bacterial flora, but the cause of that imbalance can be anything from a change in hygiene practices or an actual infection.”
While the gut has a myriad of bacteria, Lactobacilli have long been thought to be the MVP of species. These microorganisms benefit the host by producing lactic acid as a fermentation product that lowers the vaginal pH to an acidic ~3.5–4.5, which is considered the ideal pH level where the bad bacteria don’t stand much of a chance of multiplying.
Making sure you have enough healthy bacteria is important since people with vaginas continually experience various kinds of pH altering chronic and acute disturbances caused by human behaviors, such as the use of antibiotics, hormonal contraceptives and other methods of birth control, sexual activity, vaginal lubricants, douching (please don’t do this), and so forth, in addition to many other intrinsic characteristics that are innate and adaptive to our own immunity and biological makeup.
If you don’t eat fermented food or cultured yogurt regularly, you may not be getting enough probiotics to keep your healthy bacteria thriving and your pH level balanced. A probiotic supplement is often useful in introducing more of the beneficial Lactobacilli species that can help protect against an overgrowth of harmful organisms, and, in turn, reduce your chances of experiencing symptoms related to vaginal pH imbalance (like itching, irritation, irregular discharge, or unfamiliar odors), bacterial vaginosis, or infection.
"Probiotics don't replace proper treatment of acute infections with medication, but they’re a great option for folks who want to try to prevent vaginitis in the future.”
— Dr Mbaye, OBGYN
“I recommend probiotics to all my patients, but especially to those who’ve had issues with vaginitis in the past or are currently dealing with it,” says Dr. Mbaye. “Probiotics don’t replace proper treatment of acute infections with medication, but they’re a great option for folks who want to try to prevent vaginitis in the future.”
Our bodies work synergistically, and when it comes to our health, every action or inaction can create an equal and opposite reaction. Maintaining a healthy vaginal microbiota is our first line of defense against vulvovaginal irritation and infection. When our bacteria are resilient, so are we.
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