Your Vaginal Microbiome: What It Is and What it Might be Telling You

Vaginal health. It’s a topic many women love to avoid talking about. But listen up because your vaginal microbiome — and the billions of microbes that live there — might have something important to tell you about your reproductive (and overall) health.

Say Hello to Your Vaginal Flora

Not familiar with your vaginal microbiome? Let’s start with some basics:

The vaginal microbiome is a vast and complex community of microbes made up of bacteria, viruses, and fungi — not unlike the microbiomes in your gut and your mouth. These microbes do a lot more than just hang out in the vagina. In fact, they’re the good guys! They play a protective role in keeping pathogens from the outside world away from your reproductive system and urinary tract. 

But that’s not all. These beneficial microbes also play a role in determining your fertility, sexual health, and even pregnancy outcomes. So it’s worth learning how to nurture this wondrous ecosystem of friendly female flora.

When it Comes to Bacteria, Lactobacillus is Best

Of all the microbial communities in the human body, the vaginal microbiome is unique in some important ways. First, while diversity is key to microbiomes such as those in your gut and mouth, the vaginal microbiome seems to flourish when it has fewer bacterial species overall.1

Second, one type of bacteria, in particular, is thought to be crucial to vaginal health: lactobacilli. That’s because species in the Lactobacillus family produce lactic acid, which helps keep the environment in the vagina acidic — and inhospitable to harmful bacteria. As a result, lactobacilli tend to dominate the vaginal microbiome, accounting for 70% of resident species in healthy women.2

That said, not all vaginal microbiomes contain the same mix of beneficial bacteria species. Genetics, hormones, and lifestyle factors can all influence the vaginal microbiome. And just like in the gut and oral microbiomes, imbalances happen. 

Yikes! When bad Microbes Invade

Stress, sexual activity, menses, menopause, strong soaps and douches, even things like sitting around for too long in a wet bathing suit — can upset the microbial balance in the vagina, raising the pH and opening the door to opportunistic microbes. The resulting dysbiosis often shows up as bacterial vaginosis (BV), candidiasis (yeast infections), and urinary tract infections (UTIs).

BV and candidiasis are incredibly common, affecting a majority of women at some point in life. In fact, BV is the most commonly reported vaginal infection globally among women of childbearing age. 

And while BV often comes with uncomfortable symptoms such as itching, burning, and discharge, it can also sometimes have no noticeable symptoms. Left untreated, though, BV can lead to serious complications — like STDs, endometriosis, infertility, cervical infections, and even miscarriage and pre-term births.

This is where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Nurturing a balanced vaginal microbiome — and ensuring a healthy vaginal pH — is the best way to avoid the microbial bad guys.

How to Nurture a Healthy Vaginal Microbiome

As with most things in life, it’s all about balance. Follow these simple lifestyle tips to help keep your vaginal flora happy, healthy, and in balance.

  1. Stay away from harsh chemicals. Douches, cleansers, and feminine hygiene products made with fragrances and hard-to-pronounce chemicals can do you far more harm than good. Avoid these, and remember — less is more when it comes to personal products for the vagina
  2. Take a break from antibiotics. While antibiotics are sometimes necessary to treat infections, they can also disrupt the vaginal microbiome. If you need antibiotics, talk to your healthcare provider about strategies to minimize their impact on your vaginal flora. And consider supplementing with probiotics and prebiotics to help restore your microbial balance.
  3. Use protection. Condoms (external and internal) and dental dams reduce the transmission of bodily fluids during sex. That means they not only protect against STDs, they help maintain a balanced vaginal microbiome and reduce the risk of bacterial infections.
  4. Go natural. Wear cotton underwear and consider ditching thong underwear, which can translocate bacteria from the rectum to the vagina. Also, consider switching to organic cotton pads and tampons to reduce your exposure to unwanted chemicals.
  5. See your OB-GYN regularly. It may sound obvious, but routine gynecological exams can help catch dysbiosis early, so you can treat infections promptly and prevent any further problems down the road.

Pay Attention to Your Female Flora

Understanding and nurturing your vaginal microbiome isn’t just about comfort; it’s about taking care of your reproductive and overall health. By recognizing the importance of maintaining a low vaginal pH and balanced microbiome, you can proactively prevent common infections —and frequently recurring infections — like BV and UTIs. 

Avoiding harsh chemicals, choosing natural products, and using condoms can also make a big difference when it comes to nurturing a healthy vaginal microbiome. So, listen to your body and pay attention to your female flora — because a healthy vaginal microbiome means a healthier you.