You may not realise it, but your vagina is home to huge populations of microorganisms. Before you shriek in surprise or horror, know that these tiny organisms are actually vital for the health of your vagina and your health overall, and it’s important to get the balance right.
There are many different types of microorganisms that are found in the vagina, but the main types are generally called ‘good bacteria’ or ‘bad bacteria’. Healthy vaginas are rich in good bacteria and these friendly microorganisms help to protect you from infections and keep the populations of bad bacteria in check.
An imbalance or overgrowth of bad bacteria and other unfriendly microorganisms in the vagina can cause symptoms such as vaginal discharge, redness and itch. They can make you more prone to the common conditions of vaginal candidiasis (thrush), which is an overgrowth of a particular microorganism (a fungus called Candida albicans), bacterial vaginosis or vulval irritation. It’s important to note that not all vulval irritation is due to an imbalance of vaginal bacteria. Find out about other causes of vulval irritation.
There are many factors that can upset the balance of bacteria, influencing whether the good or bad populations stay or go. So what can you do to sway the scales in the right direction?
The right introductions
Your vaginal bacteria is closely connected to the bacteria in your digestive system, and what you eat and digest can affect the health and populations of bacteria in both your gut and your vagina. Live cultured yoghurt and other fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut and kefir, contain good bacteria as an ingredient. Eating these foods regularly can help to maintain healthy populations of good bacteria, introducing the right types to your digestive system and your vagina.
Some women who have thrush, bacterial vaginosis or vulval irritation may benefit from taking a probiotic supplement. Probiotics can be taken orally as a capsule and contain good bacteria in much higher quantities than what you would get from fermented foods alone.
If you’re experiencing these common symptoms or conditions, it’s recommended that you see a health practitioner with experience in this area. There are many kinds of probiotic supplements available and research has found that only specific types of bacteria are effective.
Feeding your new friends
After introducing the good bacteria to your body, it’s important to keep them happy. Good bacteria is more likely to thrive when you eat a diet that’s rich in wholefoods such as vegetables, fruit, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds.
They particularly love a certain type of fibre that is found in foods such as:
- garlic, onions, leeks and spring onions
- asparagus, artichokes and beetroot
- broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, watercress and kale
- legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and red kidney beans.
These foods are known as prebiotic foods – they actually feed the good bacteria, fuelling them to live, grow and flourish.
The Jean Hailes Kitchen has a new recipe that is based on prebiotic foods and foods that nourish and restore a healthy balance of good bacteria: Aduki bean salad with red rice and roast vegetables. Watch the video of naturopath Sandra Villella explaining how these ingredients benefit your bacteria populations and see her put it all together.
Making the connections
Just as there are foods and factors that help healthy vaginal bacteria, there are foods and factors that can damage the good populations, resulting in an overgrowth of the bad kind of bacteria. A poor diet, one that is low in fibre and high in processed and packaged foods, can alter your digestive bacteria as well as your vaginal bacteria. High sugar foods, soft drinks, too much alcohol and too many refined carbohydrates in your diet (such as white breads, biscuits, pasta, etc.) can help the bad bacteria to grow and flourish in place of the good.
The connection between your diet, digestive system and vaginal bacteria is another reminder that you are what you eat – and when you eat a healthy balanced diet of wholefoods, your body is better able to maintain the delicate balance, for not only your vaginal health, but your health overall.
There are lots of other helpful tips and ways to maintain good vaginal health. Find them on the Jean Hailes Vulva and vaginal irritation webpage.
Published with the permission of Jean Hailes for Women’s Health.