The modern-day woman has a lot of things to juggle. Between taking names at work and balancing friendships, family, and romantic relationships, the last thing we need to be worried about is our vaginal health. What you may not know is that while you’re balancing your outer life, there is a lot going on inside your body in order to make sure that you stay healthy.
We try our best to eat well, exercise, sleep, and supplement. But sometimes, no matter what we do, we feel it – we start getting itchy, irritated, or simply unbalanced down there. Common vaginal conditions like bacterial vaginosis (BV), yeast infections, urinary tract infections (UTIs), or trichomoniasis (a sexually transmitted infection) can really disrupt our everyday lives, not to mention make us feel just straight up not sexy at all.
But what can a vaginal probiotic do for us? Well, for one thing, it can work with the healthy bacteria we already have inside our vaginas to ensure that they stay strong enough to fight off any bad bacteria that might try to take their place. Just like it’s important for us to take a probiotic for our gut to keep our gut healthy, it’s also important for us to take a probiotic for women’s health. Feminine health probiotics not only help the healthy bacteria thrive, but also keep our vaginal pH balanced in order to create the optimal environment for healthy bacteria to thrive. Consider this article a primer for everything you’ve ever wondered about probiotics for women’s pH balance.
You may have heard the term “probiotics” thrown around a lot. But if you’re out of the loop with vitamins and supplements, then you may not know exactly why they’re important.
Most commonly, we talk about probiotics in conjunction with our gut and digestive health. Probiotics are living organisms that can improve our health when we consume them. Essentially, by ingesting either supplements of bacteria (the most common are Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium) or certain types of yeast, we optimize our gut environment to make sure it stays balanced, healthy, and functioning as well as possible.
However, you don’t have to just take a supplement. Probiotics are also found naturally in fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, and kimchi. These beneficial bacteria keep our digestion working effectively.
Just like digestive probiotics can ensure that we maintain a healthy balance within our gut, probiotics for women’s pH balance can ensure that our vaginal microbiome stays healthy, balanced, and flourishing with the right type of beneficial bacteria. The science on the differences between the gut microbiome and vaginal microbiome is in its early days, but it’s becoming clear that both the gut and the vagina have their own unique probiotic needs.
Here’s the difference:
The gut microbiome helps us break down and digest the food we eat. Recent science has discovered more than 2,000 new strains of healthy gut bacteria to add to the already trillions that exist there. While it’s important to eat a healthy diet of gut-friendly foods such as anything fermented (like tempeh, kimchi, or sauerkraut) or high-fiber foods, like broccoli and dark green vegetables, studies show that taking a probiotic can help even more in digestion and overall gut health.
Meanwhile, female probiotics specifically ensure that the unique vaginal microbiome is taken care of and remains balanced. While research on the vaginal microbiome’s singular needs is still developing, the early science is showing that taking a feminine health probiotic on a regular basis may help regulate the vaginal ecosystem, allowing healthy vaginal bacteria to thrive.
The vaginal microbiome contains many strains of the Lactobacillus beneficial bacteria. Some of the most common strains include Lactobacillus crispatus, Lactobacillus gasseri, and Lactobacillus jensenii. These all fall under the Lactobacillus umbrella.
Unfortunately, many women don’t have the good types of lactobacillus in their vaginas. Dr. Richard Cone, a biophysicist at Johns Hopkins University, says that many women (more than 25%) don’t have lactobacillus in their vaginal microbiome, but their microbiome is instead characterized by other types of bacteria that may make them more likely to get thrown out of balance.
How does this happen? According to Jacques Ravel, professor and associate director for genomics at the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, we get a lot of our good or bad vaginal bacteria from our mothers. While it’s not necessarily from our genetics, if a daughter is born by vaginal birth to a mother who has healthy vaginal bacteria, she’s more likely to develop that healthy vaginal bacteria when she herself goes through puberty. While it’s less likely that babies born via C-section or to mothers without good bacteria may be less likely to later develop healthy pH-balancing bacteria, it’s not totally unlikely to happen. Ravel says more studies need to be done to really confirm this.
So what can you do? Taking supplements for vaginal health can help in promoting the growth of the variety of lactobacilli needed to support a healthy vaginal microbiome. These types of lactobacillus — like L. crispatus, L. gasseri, L. jensenii, L. rhamnosus, and L. reuteri — can help produce the beneficial lactic acid needed for a healthy vaginal microbiome.
In the same way that it’s important to support your digestion and overall health by looking after your gut bacteria, women’s pills for pH balance can balance your overall vaginal pH, but also promote the growth and maintenance of beneficial lactobacilli in your vaginal microbiome. A quality daily probiotic for vaginal health can help, along with maintaining healthy habits, like eating a healthy diet, peeing after sex, drinking water, and avoiding practices like douching, which can disrupt the delicate balance of vaginal flora.
In scientific studies, pH stands for “potential hydrogen.” We use the pH scale to measure the acidity or basicity (also called alkalinity) of substances based on the concentration of hydrogen ions. The scale revolves around a pH level of 7, which is considered neither acidic nor alkaline. A higher pH (up to 14) indicates alkalinity, while a lower pH indicates acidity.
You can use the pH scale to measure a variety of substances, including certain substances in our bodies. Complex mechanisms in our bodies are constantly hard at work maintaining careful pH balances of all the systems that keep us alive. Maintaining these balances between bases and acids within our bodies enables us to stay healthy and feel good overall.
The vaginal environment is a delicate ecosystem that thrives at the fairly acidic pH level of 3.8 to 4.5. Some of the things that can negatively affect vaginal pH include sperm, menstrual blood, bacterial vaginosis, douching, menopause, UTIs, and taking antibiotics. The problem is that most of these common ailments in women elevate the naturally acidic vaginal pH to a point where the good bacteria have a hard time thriving, but that the bad bacteria love. Looking at these common contributors of elevated vaginal pH can seem alarming since they’re things that most women have experienced before.
Women often think that they should use specialty douching products in order to stay fresh down there. Unfortunately, water (with a pH of 7) is likely to affect the vaginal pH. In addition, fragrances and perfumes that are often added to douching products are likely to irritate the vagina. In general, the vagina is self cleaning, so douching is not recommended.
Common medications like birth control pills, antihistamines, or antibiotic courses can alter the vaginal pH and, in the case of antibiotics, can kill off all of the bacteria inside the vagina, both good and bad, leaving a vaginal ecosystem that is all out of whack.
On a monthly basis, women’s periods can cause the normally low vaginal pH to rise higher due to the alkaline nature of menstrual blood. The pH of period blood is 7.4, which is much higher than vaginal pH. In particular, during a long or heavy period, the vagina is at a higher risk of getting imbalanced.
Other hormonal changes in the body, like menopause and pregnancy, can also affect vaginal pH, making women experiencing this more prone to vaginal pH imbalance.
Sperm’s pH of 7.1 to 8.0 is much higher than that of a healthy vagina. Having unprotected sex can elevate the vaginal pH, making one more likely to become imbalanced. The imbalance that can happen during sex can thus make the vagina much less acidic than it needs to be.
Often characterized by a fishy odor, a grayish or yellowish discharge, and itchiness or irritation while urinating, BV can throw women’s pH balance off, as well as make them more susceptible to other STIs if left untreated.
Other common ailments that affect women’s vaginal pH include urinary tract infections (UTIs) and yeast infections. UTIs occur when bacteria enter the urine stream and then travel up to the urethra, thus causing those uncomfortable symptoms like a frequent need to urinate and burning while urinating.
Yeast infections happen when there’s an overgrowth of yeast in the vagina. Common characteristics include burning after urination and discharge that looks and feels like cottage cheese.
Bacterial vaginosis, UTIs, and yeast infections are all treated with either anti-fungal (in the case of yeast) or antibiotic courses. Vaginal infections account for millions of doctors’ visits a year for many women.
For women who are prone to these types of infections, it can turn into a vicious cycle, wherein a woman gets diagnosed with one of these infections and receives medication which kills off all bacteria in the vagina (even the good ones), which then leaves her vaginal ecosystem out of balance – ripe for another infection. This cycle can leave many women feeling defunct and like they have to figure out how to fix the problem themselves, often making things worse. While some nutritionists may recommend diets lower in sugar to inhibit the overgrowth of yeast and bacteria, the science is showing that it may be a good idea to look for supplements for vaginal health with a healthy probiotic strain as a way to support the growth of good bacteria and the maintenance of an acidic vaginal environment.
We know by now that a vaginal microbiome chock full of lactobacillus bacteria results in a healthy vaginal ecosystem. However, new research is showing that a specific type of lactobacillus may be the key to maintaining optimal vaginal health.
While a mix of various types of lactobacilli is necessary to promote a healthy vaginal microbiome, the strain Lactobacillus crispatus is especially interesting for its ability to produce two types of the beneficial lactic acid required for an acidic vaginal ecosystem, and its ability to strengthen vaginal mucus, which also helps defend against pathogens.
The evidence shows that taking a probiotic for pH balance can be beneficial to your overall vaginal health. But how should you administer a vaginal probiotic? Do you take a pill for pH balance, or insert a probiotic vaginally? Do you need a special pill, or can you just use yogurt as a probiotic? What strains of lactobacilli should you look for?
At this point, we know that it’s a good idea to look for the best probiotic for vaginal health, but it can get pretty confusing when we begin looking on the shelves. Currently, there are two ways to take probiotics for women’s pH balance: oral or suppository. Oral probiotics are those you take by mouth, while suppository probiotics are those that one inserts vaginally. Both forms of vaginal probiotics are capable of populating the vagina with the right type of bacteria.
Can you insert probiotics? There’s a popular home remedy for yeast infections floating around the internet that suggests that a cure for yeast is to insert applicators of yogurt into the vagina. The thinking behind this is that because yogurt often contains live cultures like Lactobacillus acidophilus, the bacteria in yogurt can help fight the overgrowth of yeast in the vagina. Unfortunately, this is not the best probiotic for women.
Why might it be ineffective to put yogurt inside the vagina for a yeast infection? While doctors recommend eating certain types of organic and natural yogurts as a source of active probiotics beneficial for gut bacteria, they warn that most store-bought yogurts have large amounts of added sugar that would only contribute to the overgrowth of yeast that is characteristic of a yeast infection.
What about all the different brands of vaginal probiotics out there? How do you know what to look for? Just because a company may say that a product contains lactobacilli, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right type for maintaining optimal vaginal health. The best feminine health probiotic contains a variety of lactobacillus. Look for those with strains including L. crispatus, L. gasseri, L. jensenii, L. rhamnosus, and L. reuteri.
It’s important to find the right probiotic for women’s pH balance, especially if your vaginal health is more delicate because of hormonal changes, antibiotics, or previous infections. Finding the best probiotic for women’s health might take a little research, but in the long run your healthy, pH-balanced vagina will thank you!