The Ultimate Guide to Vaginal Infections
Vaginal infections are an unwelcome common occurrence among women. Infections such as yeast infections, urinary tract infections and bacterial vaginosis can limit a woman’s day-to-day activities, affect her sex life and even impact her future vaginal microbiome.
Vaginal Health 101
The vagina is slightly acidic and has a pH between 3.8 and 4.5. This acidity is created by lactobacillus bacteria – as they ‘eat’ glycogen, they produce hydrogen peroxide. Lactobacillus isn’t the only strain of bacteria in the vagina, candida, E. coli and gardnerella are also present and are considered part of the normal flora. These ‘bad’ bacteria are kept in line by the lactobacillus if the vaginal pH is maintained.
When the vaginal pH becomes less acidic, this can result in dysbiosis and may lead to an increased growth in the above bacteria and ultimately a vaginal infection.
Vaginal dysbiosis can be a result of hormonal changes (like menopause and pregnancy) or be due to changes in lifestyle such as antibiotic usage, a new sexual partner, an increase in sexual frequency, oral sex, using spermicide or diaphragms, or even our periods!
Commonly experienced by 40-75% of sexually active women, yeast infections are something left to be desired. Yeast infection symptoms include itching, pain or burning – alone or with urination, redness or swelling of the vulva, or increased discharge (white or with a yellow tinge). However, there can be an overgrowth of candida with no signs or symptoms. Vaginal pH is typically normal in these cases.
Urinary Tract Infections
You may have experienced more than one UTI in your life, and that’s because recurrence is incredibly common. E. coli is the most common cause of UTIs but other bacteria can be implicated as well. UTI symptoms include itching, burning or pain with urination, swelling and redness of the vulva, and potentially watery discharge. Vaginal pH is typically normal in these cases.
Bacterial vaginosis is the most common cause of vaginal signs and symptoms. In fact, vaginal pH kits are now sold in pharmacies to determine if your infection is a yeast infection (normal pH) or a BV infection (higher pH, usually 5 and above). Bacterial vaginosis symptoms include an unpleasant ‘fishy-smelling’ discharge, and the discharge may be off-white and thin. You may specifically notice this discharge after sex. Also, vaginal tissue usually remains normal – no redness or swelling of the vulva.
BV can be quite a serious condition, especially if you’re hoping to become pregnant down the road. It can increase your risk of STD transmissions, pelvic inflammatory disease – which can specifically interfere with fertility. If you’re pregnant it may increase risk of premature rupture of the membranes, premature birth, and postpartum endometritis.
How to Treat
Many women run to their doctor or pharmacy as soon as they feel a tinge of pain. That’s completely normal – no one is asking you to be a hero and suffer vaginal pain! These conventional products (antifungals, antibacterials) are targeted to kill the pathogen (yay!) but will also wipe out all the good bacteria (lactobacillis). If you’re not reintroducing good bacteria back into the vaginal ecosystem then you’re back at square one. (And just a side note, some of these over-the-counter products are filled with parabens – which we know can cause unwanted hormonal effects!)
The first step is simple and sets the stage for the whole process – we want to stop the ‘bad’ bacteria from continuously exerting their effects. If you’ve had infections in the past, then you’re likely no stranger to antibiotics and antifungals. These therapies not only kill the bad stuff, but the good stuff too. If Lactobacilli are killed, then this will ultimately affect the pH of the vaginal canal and not allow it to get to its optimal range.
To stop the production of bad bacteria, I recommend garlic – nature’s own antifungal. Cranberry can also be used in UTIs to prevent e.coli from sticking to our cells. Moreover, avoiding sugar (especially in some fruits, dairy and bread) as well as alcohol can prevent yeast from thriving.
This step is important no matter if you’ve used herbs or antibiotics/antifungals. The pH of the vaginal canal needs to be reestablished, and that means re-introducing Lactobacilli back into the environment.
So before you run to the grocery store and buy your weight in probiotic yogurt or kombucha, you need to make sure you have the specific strain of probiotics. In this case, Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14 have been extensively researched and shown to be incredibly helpful for urogenital conditions. Many studies have shown benefit of using pharmaceuticals in conjunction with probiotics, so no worries if you still want to take a med but also want a natural approach.
Lastly, everyone needs to eat – bacteria included. Prebiotics act as food to healthy bacteria and can help further their growth and bring the vaginal ecosystem back into balance. No food means that probiotics are likely to leave the system at a faster rate and may decrease the beneficial effects that you’re looking for.
When women are experiencing chronic infections, it’s a sign that their immune system isn’t up to snuff. My herbal fix? Adding in immune stimulants to promote immune function, urinary antiseptics to help prevent the growth of the unwanted bacteria, urinary demulcents to help soothe urinary tract membranes, and diuretics to increase urinary output (which will hopefully flush the bad stuff out).
Moreover, avoiding known triggers is imperative! Ensuring your diet is full of whole foods – not just sugar-based meals. Wearing cotton underwear to help airflow, voiding after sex, and even switching up your menstrual products will help promote a healthy vaginal and microbial environment.
To determine how long you should be taking your probiotics for, which herbs are specific for your individual symptoms, and to trouble-shoot other issues associated with an infection book an appointment with me or your closest Naturopathic Doctor! I want to help you say bye to those recurring infections and say hello to freedom!
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