Balancing the Vaginal Microbiome
Our body is full of bacteria and they share their available space in harmony as long as they’re nicely balanced. You may have heard of the good and the bad bacteria, but truth is, they’re all beneficial for our body and even necessary for optimal functioning. Bacteria help maintain a healthy body by assisting in digestion, absorption, and assimilation of nutrients, strengthening the immune system and influencing our nervous system and mood. It is when some bacteria get out of balance and multiply so rapidly that they crowd out some of the other guys that problems start to arise. Mostly, the bad bacteria grow out of proportion when we can’t digest our food properly. Their job is to clean up the undigested leftovers. But at the same time, they use the undigested food as fuel and multiply. The best protection against overgrowth of the “bad guys” is to optimize our digestion.
And then there is yeast, another normal resident inside our bodies. You have probably heard of yeast infections or candidiasis. This happens when the yeast grows out of proportion and crowd out the bacteria. Most often this happens when we take antibiotics because they kill off the “good” and the “bad” bacteria. It is advisable to always take probiotics if you need antibiotic treatment to avoid an imbalance of your microbiome.
The microbiome is not only present in our digestive tract, but our vagina has its own microbiome with its own delicate balance as well. The main bacteria present in the vagina are part of the Lactobacillus species. Their presence causes a slightly acidic environment which protects the vagina against infections. The body does a pretty great job at keeping bacteria in balance on its own, however, our daily actions can have an impact on the microbiome of our GI tract as well as our vagina. When the vaginal microbiome is out of balance, symptoms such as yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis often occur. We may also be more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) when there is dysbiosis (=imbalance) of the vagina.
What Disrupts our Vaginal Microbiome?
- Hormonal changes (pregnancy, menopause)
- Health conditions that affect hormonal balance (adrenal fatigue, thyroid disorders)
- The Birth Control Pill
- Unprotected sex
- Overuse of cleansing agents and antibacterial soaps as well as douching
- High sugar diet
- Malfunctioning digestive system
Signs and Symptoms of Vaginal Dysbiosis
- White or unusual discharge
- Vaginal itching and redness
- Pain or dryness during intercourse
- Pain in lower abdomen
- Unusual or unpleasant odor
Candida Yeast Infections and Bacterial Vaginosis
Candida can exist throughout the digestive tract as well as in the vagina. When candida yeast takes over, it causes a range of health issues including recurrent yeast infections. Treatment for candida can take time and involves removing all sugar from the diet and following a treatment plan to remove bad bacteria and replace it with friendly probiotic bacteria. And of course, optimizing digestive function is key to prevent its return.
Note: If you have tried home remedies and herbs suggested below and are still experiencing symptoms, it is important to visit a doctor to rule out any other more serious conditions such as STIs and pelvic diseases.
Alkalize your Diet - If your diet is too acidic - meaning high in sugars and refined carbs and low in vegetables and fruit - chances are you are creating a good environment for yeast to overgrow and vaginal infections might keep coming back. To keep them away long-term, it is important to evaluate your diet and choose healthier foods that not only nourish the good bacteria but also your beautiful self.
Fruits and Vegetables: berries, apples, oranges, pineapple, kale, sweet potato, broccoli, spinach, carrots, cauliflower, and Brussel sprouts.
Note: Limit your fruit intake to a minimum or cut it out completely temporarily while eradicating a fungal overgrowth as it feeds the yeast.
Nuts and Seeds: pumpkin seeds, almonds, cashews, brazil nuts, sunflower seeds.
Lean Meat and Fish: organic chicken, turkey, and lean beef, wild salmon, and anchovies.
Complex Carbohydrates (when not on a candida cleanse): whole grains such as oats, quinoa, and amaranth, sweet potato, and sprouted bread.
Fermented Foods: yogurt, kefir, natto, miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha.
Note: Some people with a yeast overgrowth cannot tolerate fermented foods as many of them are made from yeast organisms. Observe your symptoms and do not use them if they make them worse. You can try them again at a later stage.
Foods to avoid
Sugar! – Sugar feeds bad bacteria and yeast, allowing them to thrive and grow. When working to remove candida from the body, it is important to remove all sugar from the diet.
Try: Reducing sweets, including excessive amounts of fruits when you are trying to rebalance your microbiome.
Processed Carbohydrates – They are just another form of sugar. They have little nutrient benefit to the body, cause insulin levels to spike and continue to feed the unhealthy bacteria and yeast.
Try: Replacing refined carbohydrates such as white bread or crackers with whole grain sprouted breads and seed crackers.
Elderberry: Helps to cleanse the liver, is an antiviral and can also help with inflammation
Try: Making or taking an elderberry tea or syrup
Dandelion Root: Helps to cleanse the liver, supports gallbladder function and detoxifies the whole body
Try: Dandelion root tea daily
Tea Tree Oil: Antimicrobial and antibacterial, useful in helping to clear vaginal infections
Try: Mixing a few drops of tea tree oil into coconut oil and applying to the vagina once or twice daily
*note: this should only be administered in cases of infection for 2-3 days.
Garlic: Potent antibacterial and antifungal
Try: Adding garlic to your favorite dishes.
Pau D’arco: Useful in the treatment and prevention of vaginal yeast infections due to its antifungal properties. It is also anti-inflammatory.
Try: Taking Pau D’arco capsules or making a tea from its bark to drink.
Probiotics: Just like the bacteria in your gut, the bacteria in your vagina can also use a boost sometimes. Supporting the bacteria in your gut helps to strengthen your immune system, reducing the risk of vaginal dysbiosis.
Try: Probiotic rich foods listed above, as well as a daily probiotic supplement. 10-50 billion per day.
Vitamin C: Potent antioxidant and immune support to help treat and prevent infection
Try: Supplementing 1000-4000mg of vitamin C daily
Apple Cider Vinegar: Has antibacterial properties and the acidity is good for the acidic environment of the vagina.
Try: Mixing 1 tbsp. into a glass of water before meals to aid in digestion and promote good bacteria in the stomach. You may also take a warm bath with a 4-5 tbsps. of apple cider vinegar to balance vaginal ph.
Multivitamin: A broad-spectrum multi-vitamin can be useful in addressing any vitamin and mineral deficiencies which are leading the body to an imbalanced state.
Try: A high-quality multi-vitamin with minerals; follow recommendations (typically 2-3x daily).
Zinc: Helps to boost the immune system
Try: Foods rich in zinc such as almonds and pumpkin seeds or add a zinc supplement and follow recommendations on the package.
Alternative Therapies for Yeast Infections and Bacterial Vaginosis
Boric acid – A useful supplement in preventing yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis. Suppositories are available, and package instructions should be followed for proper use.
Plain probiotic yogurt – Applied directly on and inside of the vagina. Some suggest using an organic tampon soaked in yogurt.
Caprylic Acid - A saturated fatty acid that is naturally present in coconut oil and has strong yeast-fighting abilities. It is best taken in supplement form (1000-2000mg per day with meals) for maximum benefits.
Avoid tight fitting clothing and synthetic fabrics - When having an active yeast infection, tight fitting clothes and synthetic fabrics can create good breeding grounds for bacteria and yeast.
Try: Skipping the spandex and opt for cotton panties if you are in the midst of a yeast infection or susceptible to them.
Change out of sweaty workout clothes promptly – Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments.
Try: Changing promptly after a good workout session or hot yoga class.
Do not over cleanse your body – Our bodies were designed to keep our bacteria in perfect balance. By using harsh soaps and cleansers in our sensitive areas, we can actually further disrupt the balance and kill off the good bacteria necessary for a state of optimal health.
Try: Good old fashioned water and natural pH balanced soaps (like bronners) when necessary.
Relax – Yeast and bacterial infections can be uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing. Take time to relax and give yourself some love.
Try: A yoga class, meditation, a warm Epsom salt or baking soda bath or a cup of your favorite herbal tea.
Drink Plenty of Water – Water helps to cleanse the body of toxins and keeps mucus membranes healthy and moist.
Try: Aiming for at least 8 glasses of water each day and more when you have an active infection.
Sleep – Sleep is of great importance for healing and preventing infections.
Try: To get at least 8 hours of sleep each night.