Vaginal health, a topic often considered taboo or uncomfortable to discuss, is incredibly important for overall well-being. This self-cleaning organ is getting more attention from researchers, helping us to better understand how the vagina functions and what areas need to be optimized for vaginal andoverall health.
Let’s take a deeper dive into little-known facts and recent discoveries:
- The Vaginal Microbiome.
Unlike the gut, which houses millions of different bacterial families, the vagina is home to mostly Lactobacillus sp.1 This species produces lactic acid, which contributes to optimal vaginal pH of 3.5-4.5.1 Because no body (or vagina ) is exactly the same, scientists have confirmed that there are 5 vaginal community states.2 Namely, communities I, II, III, and V are optimal community states for reproductive and sexual health, while community IV has a more diverse bacteria, and less Lactobacillus species, contributing to higher pH and increasing the risk of bacterial vaginosis.1,2
- Hormones and Vaginal Microbiome.1
The vaginal microbiome is in a constant state of flux - menses and the presence of semen are two occasions when the vaginal microbiome can change along with its pH. With the help of hormones, a resilient vagina will balance itself out. Estrogen, present during reproductive years, helps Lactobacillus thrive. That's why when estrogen dips during menopause, the vagina goes through changes, like becoming drier, and vaginal skin can become thinner and increased susceptibility to infections.
- Vaginal Discharge Is Normal.
It can start a year or two before puberty and can continue even after menopause. It consists of bacteria and dead skin cells that flake off the vaginal walls and are mixed with mucous and fluid.1 This discharge fluctuates throughout the cycle as estrogen plays a major role in its characteristics. When estrogen is low (like in the beginning of the cycle) discharge is mostly thick and sticky. When estrogen levels increase (like during ovulation) discharge becomes clearer, watery, and even stretchy, which makes it optimal when trying to conceive.
- Vulva Is the First Line of Defense.
The vulva is the outer part of the vagina and is the first line of defense against infections. Moisture, sweating, periods and hormonal changes can influence the vulva and the bacteria it houses, making this area of the vagina most susceptible to infections, itchiness, and odours.1 The skin here is different from the skin found in the rest of the body, so naturally, extra care needs to be taken.
- Ethnicity Can Predict PH.
We know that Lactobacillus sp. is responsible for maintaining an ideal pH environment, along with other factors like using soaps, detergents, douching products and lubricants. Vaginal pH can also be influenced by ethnicity. Many studies indicate that women of African descent have less Lactobacillus sp and therefore a higher pH, making them 2.9 times more likely to be diagnosed with bacterial vaginosis.1
To maintain proper vaginal pH, it’s important to:1
- Avoid using harsh products like soap, shower gel, scrubs, bubble bath, deodorant, baby wipes, or douches on the vulva or in the vagina.
- Use a hypoallergenic liquid wash with pH 4.2 to 5.6.
- Chen, Y., Bruning, E., Rubino, J., & Eder, S. E. (2017). Role of female intimate hygiene in vulvovaginal health: Global hygiene practices and product usage. Women's health (London, England), 13(3), 58–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745505717731011
- De Seta F, Campisciano G, Zanotta N, Ricci G and Comar M (2019) The Vaginal Community State Types Microbiome-Immune Network as Key Factor for Bacterial Vaginosis and Aerobic Vaginitis. Front. Microbiol. 10:2451. doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2019.02451