Our body has a plethora of communal microorganisms that may play an vital role in our immunological, hormonal and metabolic homeostasis thus, having a powerful effect on our health and wellbeing. We are hearing and reading more and more about the world of microbiomes that live and thrive along with us from our ducts to guts and lashes to toenails.
Research began to surface over 30 years ago when clinical studies were investigating the species of bacteria and microbes in the female vagina other than yeast. In 2009, investigators were interested in the connection between strains of the Lactobacillus species “a friendly bacteria” and a decreased prevalence of gonorrhea, bacterial vaginosis (BV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection in women. They were able to identify L. crispatus and L. jensenii as the two predominant vaginal lactobacilli found colonizing in women of reproductive age who appeared less susceptible to certain infections. This indicated that women with these species may have the advantage in the maintenance of a normal vaginal microflora and the prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STI’s). From there, it does get a bit more technical, however this began an exciting path to further research efforts and understanding of how we may better treat or even protect the vagina from infections or even STD’s.
Study mentioned is credited to May A. D. Antonio, Stephen E. Hawes, Sharon L. Hillier, The Identification of Vaginal Lactobacillus Species and the Demographic and Microbiologic Characteristics of Women Colonized by These Species, The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Volume 180, Issue 6, December 1999, Pages 1950–1956,
The Vaginal Microbiome~ So how does it work?
Lactobacillus has been shown to produce lactic acid and maintain certain levels of pH in the vagina. This may be a key protective attribute of our vaginal ecosystem. When our vaginal pH leans more towards the acidic side (below or equal to 4.5), it helps to discourage other bacteria, viruses and yeast from flourishing. When a woman is healthy, her vaginal flora is more likely to be healthy. Anything that disrupts the pH or microbiome can increase a woman’s susceptibility of infection or even overgrowth of good bacteria, yeast and other microbes.
Unfortunately, there are many things in our daily lives that can cause an imbalance in our normal flora or microbiome. And, not all of the 80+ species of Lactobacillus that exist as of present are friendly. There is still so much to discover and learn about in this area of science and medicine.
What can throw off our biome balance?
Antibiotic use, pregnancy and menopause can all influence a change in the composition of our microbiome, as well as sexual activity, lubricants, and semen. Similar to how antibiotics kills off our good gut bacteria, it can do the same in the vagina. This can cause changes in vaginal discharge that may lead to itching, irritation and odor and downright awful vulvar and vaginal discomfort or even pain.
Interestingly, semen tends to lean to the alkaline side of the pH scale of about 7.1 to 8 (pH of water is 7). This is said to help protect the sperm in its travels. After intercourse with vaginal ejaculation, the pH of the vagina can be increased for hours after sex. Several rounds of vaginal intercourse can keep the pH in the vagina raised for even longer durations! Lubrication can alter the biome balance, too.
How do we keep the biome in balance?
There has been a huge shift in the industry of probiotics with all the research evolving, including thousands of options for supplements. Now, we even have a better understanding of prebiotics (maybe a topic for another blog) and their benefits to our gut and possibly vaginal health. Although, we don’t fully understand the link that exists between the microbes that lives in our gut and those that live in a vagina, there certainly is a link between the two. Here is some tidbits about how to minimize abrupt changes to your vagina’s balance of flora and protect your own microbiome.
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