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If you have a vagina, you need to read this!
As a society, we are becoming better at talking about vaginal health, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to understanding our vaginas. In this blog, you will find out more about the vagina and the bacteria that live there, as well as learning how to protect the delicate vaginal microbiome and keep your vagina healthy.
In this article, we look at:
If you’re short on time, you may wish to skip to the key take-aways:
The vaginal flora, also known as the vaginal microbiome, is the collective term for the colonies of bacteria that live inside the vagina. A healthy, balanced vaginal flora is incredibly important for intimate health. Just like the gut, the vagina is home to billions of bacteria and other microorganisms; some good, some bad, and some ‘neutral’.
The types of bacteria found in the vaginal microflora will vary from individual to individual, but a healthy vaginal microbiome is made up mostly by a genus of bacteria called Lactobacillus. In fact, it is estimated that at least 95% of the average vaginal flora should be made up from the Lactobacillus genera of bacteria. The following species of probiotic bacteria from the Lactobacillus genus are all typically present in the vagina: Lactobacillus reuteri, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus crispatus, Lactobacillus gasseri, Lactobacillus iners and Lactobacillus jensenii. Transgender men with vaginas undergoing hormone therapy will continue to have Lactobacillus present in the vaginal microbiome, though this is less likely to be the predominant genus and there is likely to be a greater microbial diversity in the trans vagina1. Research into the trans microbiome is still in its infancy, however, and the vast majority of clinical trials have been conducted in cis women.
Not all the strains (types) within each of these genera and species of bacteria will be resident in the vagina. Some strains may prefer to live in the gut. Bacteria are classified according to their genus, species, and strain. Strains within each species may have very different properties, and therefore ‘live’ or colonise different areas of the body. Read more about the importance of strains in this article: Are all strains of bacteria the same?
For example, we know that some strains of Lactobacillus reuteri and Lactobacillus rhamnosus prefer to live in the gut, whereas the Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1®, Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14® and Lactobacillus paracasei F-19® strains prefer to live in the vagina. These, and the other strains of probiotic bacteria in the vaginal flora, work very hard to protect you against vaginal infection.
Health professionals can read more about the Lactobacillus genus over on the Probiotics Database, along with the studies on these strains: Lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1® and Lactobacillus reuteri RC-14®.
Having mentioned that the vaginal flora, or more specifically the ‘friendly' or ‘good’ vaginal bacteria help to prevent against vaginal infection, let’s take a look at how they actually do that.
Lactobacilli are called Lactobacilli because they produce lactic acid. This function is what keeps the vagina's pH balance at a slightly acidic level and prevents the growth of yeast, bad bacteria and other pathogenic organisms which prefer a more alkaline environment. Fun fact: the pH balance of a healthy vagina is around 4.5, which is the same as wine, tomatoes, and beer!
In addition to lactic acid, Lactobacilli also produce hydrogen peroxide and other substances which inhibit the growth of unfavourable or ‘pathogenic’ strains of bacteria and yeast. Anything that upsets the delicate balance of the vaginal microbiome gives pathogens a chance to overgrow and cause intimate health infections.
Bad bacteria can grow in the vaginal flora for many reasons. Sexual intercourse, high-sugar diets, the use of perfumed body wash products, antibiotics and even stress are known as potential triggers - read on to find out more about these triggers below. If the vaginal microbiome is disrupted and vaginal pH levels exceed 4.5, it becomes the ideal breeding ground for infections such as:
Your vagina contains more bacteria than anywhere else in your body, after the bowel. Everyone’s vaginal microbiome is different. As we progress through various life stages - from birth to puberty, our reproductive years and possible pregnancy, menopause and beyond - hormonal shifts occur. Each of these hormonal shifts presents certain challenges to the vaginal microbiome, which can disrupt the harmonious balance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina.
At birth, our vaginas are sterile. Shortly after or during birth, the baby's vaginal microbiome starts to populate when they take on bacteria from their mother, typically from the Bifidobacteria genus. During early childhood, the vaginal pH is neutral or only slightly alkaline. From this point up until mid-childhood, there is a decrease in populations of Lactobacillus and pre-pubescent individuals, have lower populations of Lactobacillus species in proportion to the other species.
Top tip for parents: vaginal infections can arise in pre-pubescent children, often due to highly scented bath products. Encourage your little ones to wipe themselves from front to back when going to the loo. Also don’t use perfumed soaps, especially directly into the vaginal area.
The teenage years are a challenging time for young people with their bodies changing as they enter puberty. There are also big changes in the vaginal microbiome at this time. Ever-increasing levels of oestrogen result in high levels of glycogen to be present in the vaginal lining. The Lactobacillus family of bacteria ferment glycogen resulting in the production of lactic acid. This helps to protect the vagina at this challenging time.
Once we have transitioned through puberty we reach reproductive years. Sexual activity may follow and with it and the chance of pregnancy. During pregnancy, the vaginal flora shifts and becomes even more dominant in Lactobacilli. It is thought that this increased dominance of Lactobacilli is to safeguard against infection which can be triggered at this vulnerable time, due to the hormonal shifts. Read more about pregnancy and the vaginal microflora.
Those who have monthly menses may find that they are more prone to vaginal infections just before or around the time of their period. Again, this is triggered by hormonal shifts at this time.
The cessation of monthly periods is only one change that occurs at menopause. Due to a drop in sex hormones, especially oestrogen, people with vaginas may start to suffer from vaginal dryness or atrophy. A reduction in vaginal glycogen leads to a reduction in protective Lactobacilli, so post-menopausal individuals are at increased risk of vaginal infections and UTIs, such as cystitis.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at some of the triggers for vaginal infections and how they disrupt the populations of good vaginal bacteria.
Our periods can be a monthly challenge for the vagina. The hormonal fluctuations and onset of the menstrual cycle can disrupt the balance of the vaginal flora, sometimes acting as a trigger for infections like BV. It is common for the vaginal microbiome to be disrupted during the first week of the menstrual cycle. However, it’s not clear whether this is due to the menstrual flow itself or hormonal changes2.
Bacteria levels change during menstrual flow: the pH rises and Lactobacillus bacteria decrease. At the same time, there is an increase in numbers of other bacteria normally present in the vaginal microbiome too. When our menstrual flow stops, pH decreases again and the numbers of Lactobacilli increase. This reinstates the usual balance and is consistent from cycle to cycle.
The benefits of a healthy sex life are far-reaching, from lowering blood pressure, supporting brain, immune & heart health, reducing stress and increasing sleep quality to improving our self-esteem and deepening the bond with our partner.
However, it's important to consider that unprotected sex may result in the introduction of new micro-organisms into the vagina which could result in an immune response against the bacteria, causing inflammation3.
When the Lactobacillus population of bacteria is disrupted, these less desirable bacteria take over and leave us vulnerable to infections.
The use of sexual lubricants during sex can also be problematic for the vaginal flora. Some ingredients used in these products may increase the likelihood of intimate health infections. Particular ‘nasties’ to look out for (and avoid) include: any flavourings or scents (as these often contain sugar which promotes yeast infections, such as thrush), glycerine and glycerol (as both can damage and dehydrate the vaginal epithelia).
Some lubricants also contain spermicides, to immobilise sperm and prevent pregnancy, however these ingredients may also increase the likelihood of vaginal infections. One particular spermicide, Nonoxynol-9 (N-9) has been proven in clinical trials4 to damage vaginal tissue and increase the transmission of STIs, including HIV.
Try to use a natural lubricant instead, and check the pH value of the product. Products should have a similar pH to the vagina itself, of around 3.8-4.5. There are plenty of good natural options on the market now.
It is also a good idea to use protection, particularly with new sexual partners.
However, having plenty of good bacteria in the vaginal flora can help create a healthy defence against sexually transmitted infections5, such as chlamydia.
Good hygiene is key for intimate health. However, some often feel the need to wash their intimate area using highly perfumed bath and shower products. Harsh soaps can disrupt our balance of vaginal flora. In fact, the vagina is designed to keep itself clean with the help of natural secretions (discharge), so vaginal health doesn’t require the use of strong products. Warm water and some optional unscented soap are recommended for cleaning your vulva effectively – the vagina is self-cleaning so internal douching shouldn’t be necessary.
How do you know you're doing it right? A healthy vagina should not smell offensive but may have a natural odour.
Other practices like depilation or intimate piercings may contribute to the modification of the delicate vaginal microbial balance6. It is important to take proper care of the affected area during the healing period, which is around 1-2 days for hair removal and up to a year for piercings, though this depends largely on the specific piercing site. Your piercing or waxing professional will be able to offer you detailed instructions on the necessary aftercare to help avoid infection.
During pregnancy, there is a significant decrease in overall microbial diversity, but there's a marked enrichment of the Lactobacillus species7. This is thought to possibly help protect against infections during pregnancy.
Our vaginal flora increases massively with amounts of Bifidobacterium, too. Both Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium crowd out other bacteria species, preventing harmful bacteria from going up into the womb where they could infect the amniotic fluid, placenta and baby.
During birth, the first bacteria to arrive in the baby’s gut come from our vaginal microbiome helping to protect against harmful bacteria taking hold. This sets up our babies' own microbiomes.
If you're interested in finding out more about this fascinating topic, take a look at the articles below:
You may not realise it, but stress can also disrupt the microbiome, both in the gut and the vagina8. The "fight-or-flight" response that we experience when under stress may be harmful to the vaginal flora, especially if the stress persists on a long-term basis.
Here's the science bit: prolonged exposure to stressful situations can stimulate the production of cortisol, which will affect levels of glycogen in the vagina, and consequently the populations of Lactobacilli which like to ferment it. A reduction in levels of Lactobacilli can increase the risk of vaginal infections.
Healthcare professionals may wish to read more about stress in our blog: Could probiotics help with stress and anxiety?
Antibiotics are often used to treat vaginal infections. Unfortunately, this medication can kill off good as well as bad bacteria. This leaves you even more vulnerable to future infections once the course of treatment is over.
It can be helpful to take probiotics during and after a course of medication. This helps to protect the body’s precious good bacteria. Antibiotics can allow bad bacteria to overgrow in the gut, and these pathogens may travel to the vaginal flora and cause infections.
It's commonly suggested that you take probiotics if you're someone that suffers from persistent vaginal infections and who has had lots of antibiotics. Look for strains which have been tested alongside antibiotics when choosing which probiotics to take.
When the reproductive phase is over, you will approach and go through menopause. This changes the vaginal microbiome once again.
The vagina is particularly vulnerable to infection at this time, as decreased oestrogen and therefore less glycogen results in fewer populations of Lactobacilli (the good bacteria). With less lactic acid being produced, the vaginal pH increases. Such changes in the vaginal microbiome may result in vaginal dryness, lowered sexual health and various other symptoms.
Some find it helpful to take targeted probiotics for intimate health, to help keep the vaginal microbiome healthy and well supported.
Sexual activity can be helpful during and after menopause, too, to help maintain vaginal length and elasticity, support blood flow to the area and keep the muscles toned.
To read more about the best probiotic strains for supporting vaginal health you might like to read our blog: Which is the best probiotic supplement for women?
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