Vaginal health is a (pH) balancing act

When we call out sick from work with a cold, we tell our friends and co-workers. But when we have a vaginal infection that is setting us on fire, it’s not something we post on Instagram or Facebook.   

You’ve probably heard about the importance of a healthy gut microbiome — the “good flora” or bacteria that help with proper digestion. But there are other microbiomes in your body, and one of the most important is in your vagina. The good flora help prevent infections from yeast and harmful microorganisms by keeping up a slightly acidic environment. In turn, a healthy vagina helps support the urinary tract and reduces the risk of painful and burning urinary tract infections (UTIs).

What is pH and why does it matter?

pH, the amount of acidity in the vagina (also called alkalinity), is measured on a scale from 1 to 14. One is the most acidic, and 14 the most alkaline (or “basic”). pH levels vary throughout your body: stomach acid ranges from 1.5 to 3.5, while blood is slightly alkaline —7.35 to 7.45. The good vaginal flora, mostly species of Lactobacillus, help maintain ideal acidity, between 3.8 and 4.5, and harmful bacteria at bay. This level can fluctuate due to such factors as having your period, taking antibiotics, being pregnant or having sex (semen is more alkaline).

As women reach menopausal age, their vaginal pH levels may rise, becoming less acidic and making them more susceptible to vaginal and urinary tract infections. But it can be difficult to distinguish between UTIs, yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis (BV), and other pH imbalances, so it's important to educate yourself on the differences, and visit your OB/GYN when you're feeling off.

FOR THE RECORD

Yeast infections, UTIs and BV are not considered sexually transmitted infections (STIs). People who aren’t sexually active can get them. However, intercourse might be the cause or reason why they reoccur.

Your vagina is an amazing, mostly self-cleaning organ— but it's also sensitive to external elements. What can you do to keep your vaginal pH in an ideal range?

  • Avoid douches. Douching actually raises the pH in your vagina. To keep the vagina clean, washing the exterior with water and a mild soap is all that’s needed. If you notice an unpleasant smell, unusual discharge or burning/itching discomfort, see your OB/GYN.
  • Go cotton. Cotton underwear allows air movement to your vagina, reducing moisture buildup — a prime environment for “bad” bacteria and yeast. If you’re prone to yeast infections, change out of sweaty workout clothes or wet swimsuits as soon as possible. Bringing along an extra pair of underwear to change into during the day can counter dampness or noticeable discharge.
  • Use a condom—and don’t use petroleum jelly. Condoms do more than protect you from STIs; they prevent alkaline semen from disrupting your vaginal pH levels. However, using an oil-based lubricant like petroleum jelly or baby oil can cause the latex in condoms to break down, setting you up for infection. Look for a non-irritating, water-based lubricant instead. A recent study found that when Gardnerella vaginalis, a bacteria living in your vagina, finds its way into your urinary tract during intercourse, it can trigger the growth of dormant coli in your bladder, and E. coli in the bladder can lead to UTIs.
  • Take probiotics. 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. Taking a probiotic regularly could help ward off annoying and unpleasant infections. Both yeast and BV thrive in an alkaline environment with few Lactobacilli so providing an extra source may help prevent the yeast from multiplying.

Understanding vaginal balance empowers women to keep their bodies in best health. Open the lines of communication with your OB/GYN to discuss this issue.

 

Sources:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gastric_acid
  2. https://www.webmd.com/diet/a-z/alkaline-diets
  3. “Everything You Need to Know About Maintaining Your Vaginal pH Balance,” https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/vaginal-ph-balance
  4. “What Is a Douche and Is Douching Safe?” https://www.healthline.com/health/womens-health/what-is-a-douche
  5. “Women’s Health Week: Yeast Infections, Bacterial Vaginosis And The Importance Of Letting Your Vagina Breathe” https://madamenoire.com/1025140/womens-health-week-letting-vagina-breathe/
  6. “8 Rules for a Healthy Vagina” https://www.everydayhealth.com/womens-health-pictures/hygiene-rules-for-a-healthy-vagina.aspx
  7. “Vaginal bacteria can trigger recurrent UTIs, study shows” https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170330142309.htm
  8. “Microbes and You: Normal Flora” https://www.scq.ubc.ca/microbes-and-you-normal-flora/
  9. https://www.healthline.com/health/healthy-sex/sex-vaginal-infection
  10. https://www.health.com/sexual-health/probiotics-vaginal-health