From yeast infections to STIs, there’s a lot of info out there about how certain microbes can hurt our vaginal health. Growing up, some of us were taught that vaginas are inherently “dirty” and that we need to “clean” our vaginas with harsh soaps or douches.
But the truth is just the opposite! Rather than harsh vaginal washes or flower-scented tampons—which can actually cause far more harm than good—we get protection against infection from the millions of bacteria that make up our vaginal microbiomes. That’s right: bacteria are one of the keys to vaginal health.
Not all bacteria are created equal, however. The vaginal microbiome is unique, complex, and made up of numerous species. One of these species that is consistently associated with good vaginal health is Lactobacillus.
Lactobacillus is a microbiome superstar (a “vagina hero”, if you will) that protects against STIs and may help reduce the risk of preterm birth. Here’s what you need to know to harness the power of this friendly bacterium.
How Lactobacillus Helps Keep you Healthy
Everyone’s vaginal microbiome is different, and a the vaginal microbiome changes throughout life, including during menstruation and pregnancy. Scientists have identified several primary types of bacteria which can dominate the vaginal microbiome. Lactobacillus species like L. crispatus and L. gasseri, for example, can contribute to optimal vaginal health, giving you extra protection against infection.
Lactobacillus bacteria feed on glycogen found in vaginal mucus and, in exchange, emit lactic acid and, in the case of some species, hydrogen peroxide. While acid in the vagina may sound alarming, it actually helps keep the vagina at its ideal pH level of between 3.8 and 4.5, which is moderately acidic. A pH level above 4.5 creates an ideal environment for unhealthy bacteria to grow. Lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide also kill harmful bacteria and viruses that can lead to infections. These powerful bacteria may help prevent yeast infections, preterm delivery, and even HIV—a pretty big job description for a microscopic organism.
What if I Don’t Have Enough Lactobacillus?
Everyone’s vaginal microbiome is different. Seemingly unrelated factors like smoking and even race have been shown to correlate with vaginal microbiome type. Unfortunately, having a vaginal microbiome lower in Lactobacillus could with risks.
One major risk of not having enough Lactobacillus is bacterial vaginosis (BV). BV is characterized by a vaginal microbiome low in Lactobacillus and high in bacterial diversity. While it doesn’t always have symptoms, BV can have some pretty serious effects, such as an increased risk of pregnancy complications, pelvic inflammatory disease, and even an increased vulnerability to STIs. Besides this, pregnant women with lower concentrations of Lactobacillus in their vaginal microbiome have a higher risk of preterm delivery. If you’re expecting, it could be a good idea to track the state of your vaginal microbiome over time.
How do you know if you need more Lactobacillus in your vaginal microbiome? A white, skim milk-like discharge and a fishy smell are common symptoms of bacterial vaginosis. If you experience any of these, it’s time to talk to your doctor. There’s a catch, though: BV can also be asymptomatic. A simple test like SmartJane can help determine your levels of Lactobacillus, even if you aren’t exhibiting any symptoms.
How can I encourage Lactobacillus to thrive in my vaginal microbiome?
The microbiome is incredibly complex, and scientists have just begun investigating how to harness the amazing powers of Lactobacillus. There are some steps you can take today, however, to encourage a healthy, Lactobacillus-rich vaginal microbiome.
Get to know your vaginal microbiome: Your microbiome is as unique as you are. SmartJane can help you learn whether your vaginal microbiome naturally has a lot of Lactobacillus (if so, congrats!) or whether yours levels are on the low side. Taking an active role in your own vaginal health is an important component of a healthy lifestyle.
Maintain a healthy lifestyle: What your mom (and the doctor) says is true: a healthy diet, taking your vitamins, and practicing safe sex are always good for you. And they’re good for your vaginal microbiome, too. The one piece of advice from your mom’s generation that you should leave behind: douching. Douching disturbs your vaginal microbiome and actually increases your risk of BV.
Probiotics—and, sometimes, antibiotics: While researchers have yet to find a surefire way to encourage Lactobacillus growth in the vaginal microbiome, several studies have found that supplements or foods like yogurt, containing Lactobacillus, can encourage its growth. In addition, researchers have found that those with BV who take probiotics as well as antibiotics have higher cure rates.
While talking openly about vaginal health used to be taboo, we think the incredible powers of the vaginal microbiome are something to celebrate! Remember: bacteria isn’t necessarily the enemy. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the super-powerful Lactobacillus’ role in keeping our vaginas happy and healthy.
Your vaginal microbiome is unique. uBiome’s SmartJane test can help you and your healthcare provider understand your Lactobacillus levels and alert you to potential harmful conditions that may develop in the absence of Lactobacillus, like BV.