What Is Vaginal Flora? An OB-GYN Explains
Lately, it seems like everyone is talking about gut bacteria and, moreover, linking it to a person's general wellbeing. We hear about things like "micro biomes" and the importance of probiotics and of eating fermented foods like kimchi and kefir. But did you know that these very same issues are relevant to your vagine? It's true! "Vaginal flora" is a thing... but what is vaginal flora?
Romper spoke to Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, MD, an OB-GYN and clinical professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology, and Reproductive Sciences at the Yale University School of Medicine, to learn more about this natural phenomenon and how it relates to the health of our fanciest bits.
While vaginal flora sounds dainty and cute, it actually refers to the assorted bacteria that reside in your most intimate of places. Don't freak out! Like the "gut bacteria" we're constantly hearing about, certain bacteria in the vagina is not only good, but essential. "The vaginal flora, or micro biome, is quite important," Dr. Minkin tells Romper. "There are billions of bacteria in the vagina — many good, some bad. There are also normally some yeast there as well. The 'good guys' are varieties of lactobacilli, which make [lactic] acid and tend to suppress the overgrowth of the bad guys."
It's important for the vagina to maintain a pH of about four. For those of us who haven't taken a science class for a while — or didn't do super well in them (read: me) — the pH scale measures the acidity or alkalinity of water soluble substances. A pH measure of 4 is pretty neutral, but leaning slightly acidic. If that pH level, however, goes askew, you'll know — a vagina lacking adequate lactobacilli (and therefore sufficient acid to kill off bad bacteria and yeast) can wind up with a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis.
Though I doubt anyone is going to be sticking a pH indicator strip up there to check (and, like, don't), it's never bad to know what's going on, or supposed to be going on, in our bodies from a scientific perspective.
Now there are proactive things you can do to help maintain proper vaginal pH (and therefore healthy vaginal flora). A healthy diet, breathable underwear (cotton, not synthetic fibers, and try to avoid tight undies or thongs), and practicing safe sex to keep germs away are all beneficial. "Another possibility is to take the oral probiotic ProB, which contains probiotics which are similar in make up to the good bacterial flora, and will help [maintain] a good lactobacilli environment to the vagina," Dr. Minkin tells me.
Unfortunately, sometimes, vaginal pH and the micro biome between your legs is beyond your control.
"Sometimes [lactobacilli] are killed off by taking antibiotics for example," Dr. Minkin explains. Hormones can also be the culprit. "The pH [in the vagina] can be raised by something as simple as having your period, which can imbalance things temporarily." She also points to vaginal dryness, resulting from lower than typical estrogen levels (due, perhaps, to menopause, childbirth, or breastfeeding), as sometimes leading to a loss of the "good guy" bacteria. "Estrogen keeps the vaginal lining cells nice and plump with glycogen that lactobacilli love, so less estrogen leads to less glycogen which leads to less lactobacilli," she tells me. As a result, so-called bad bacteria and yeast are able to proliferate, which is bad news for us (and our vaginas).
But what's a person to do? Antibiotics are sometimes necessary when treating other ailments or infections. Periods, for the most part, happen whether we want them to or not. And, believe me, if my breastfeeding/postpartum self could have controlled her estrogen levels she would have.
So what can we do when our vaginal flora is out of wack? Dr. Minkin had a few suggestions. "To simply restore a good acid pH, you can use a product like RepHresh, which will help keep the vagina acidic and discourage the growth of nastier bacteria and yeast. ... And if vaginal dryness is a problem, Replens is a helpful over-the-counter vaginal moisturizer, which can be used in the postpartum state or menopausal state to maintain a healthier, moister [vaginal] environment," she says.
And, of course, regular appointments with your gynecologist are always beneficial, especially if you suspect you have some sort of infection.