Can these supplements reduce your vaginal infection risk? Two ob-gyns gave us the facts.
If the only thing you know about probiotics is that they live in yogurt, well, you’re not wrong. But there’s so much more they do—and they could help you deal with a vagina that’s out of whack.
But first, a scientific refresher: We’re conditioned to think that bacteria = bad, but that’s not always the case, especially when it comes to your vagina. Your lady bits are actually teeming with bacteria, and that shouldn’t necessarily gross you out.
“The vaginal microbiome or microenvironment is a dynamic ecosystem of mostly bacteria but also some fungi and even viruses,” says Anuja Vyas, MD, ob-gyn and the vulvovaginal health director at Houston Methodist Hospital. Some of the common bacteria include Streptococcus, Staphylococcus, and Gardnerella, but the main one—which typically makes up more than 70% of the bacteria down below—comes from the genus Lactobacillus. This bacteria produces lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide in the vagina, allowing for an acidic environment, Dr. Vyas explains.
All that bacteria lives in harmony to maintain the vagina’s acidic pH levels, says Anthony Agrios, MD, ob-gyn and clinical professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Central Florida School of Medicine. Keeping your vagina at an acidic pH is especially important because “it protects women against sexually transmitted pathogens and opportunistic infections” that thrive in a more neutral pH, says Dr. Vyas.
It’s tough to throw off your vagina’s pH, but if that delicate balance skews off-kilter, "it can lead to symptoms like vaginal discharge, burning, itching, a sensation of pressure, vaginal and vulvar swelling," says Dr. Vyas, and also make you more susceptible to urinary tract infections, bacterial infections like bacterial vaginosis, fungal infections, and sexually transmitted diseases. Some antibiotics, hormonal contraceptives, douches, and even semen can also mess with your vaginal bacteria levels.
That’s where probiotics come in. Probiotics are good-for-you microorganisms that “generally contain a variety of bacteria that promote a stable internal environment,” says Dr. Agrios. “If for some reason the vagina is depleted of certain normal bacteria, a probiotic may help to re-introduce those species to replenish the colonies.” Studies back up their efficacy, too.
There are many probiotics brands for women out there available at drugstores and Amazon. But your best bet is to find one that has a high amount of Lactobacilli. “This is the single most important bacteria for maintaining vaginal pH,” says Dr. Agrios. “Most probiotic formulas contain many bacteria, because all of them are natural constituents of the gut and vagina, and the minor components may also provide some help in restoring the vaginal environment.”
Most women don’t need any preventive treatment to maintain vaginal health, says Dr. Vyas. Your vagina is like a self-cleaning oven that can self-correct an out-of-balance pH most of the time. But if you suffer from recurrent yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis, taking a probiotic regularly could help ward off these annoying and unpleasant conditions.
“Both yeast and BV thrive in an alkaline environment with few Lactobacilli,” says Dr. Agrios. “Providing an extra source of Lactobacilli may help to prevent the invading yeast from thriving or the noxious bacteria from multiplying.” And if you’re on an antibiotic for a different infection, taking a probiotic might prevent a disturbance in the natural vaginal flora, he adds.
If you think you could benefit from a probiotic, check with your MD first, then take it as a supplement, advises Dr. Agrios. True, probiotics are naturally found in certain foods. But a supplement is going to replenish the healthy bacteria faster than food will, he says.
When it comes to probiotics in food, it's yogurt that could potentially help with vaginal health. “The most natural form of probiotic is yogurt with active cultures,” says Dr. Agrios, thanks to its hefty amount of lactobacilli. “Although most bacteria don’t survive passage through the stomach, over time enough will get through to provide a source of vaginal support.”
But please, do not put yogurt on a tampon and insert it into your vagina. The sugar content in most store-bought yogurts would actually stimulate abnormal bacterial growth and yeast.