Good vaginal health is an under-appreciated part of overall female well-being.
by Claire Sykes
You try to eat well, exercise, cut stress and get more sleep. But chances are you don’t think about vaginal health—until itching and discomfort force you to pay attention.
Some woes, such as yeast infections, are fairly common, but if they recur frequently can be a sign of larger problems. That’s why maintaining a healthy vagina is crucial.
Microbes in Balance
The vagina needs a pH of between 3.5 and 4.5 (on the acidic side) to help the helpful bacteria that live there keep harmful microbes from infecting your reproductive organs. Normal vaginal mucus assists in this task. Fluctuating with your menstrual cycle, arousal state and hormonal changes, it can tell you a lot about your vaginal health.
Normal discharge is clear or cloudy-white, with a slightly sweet scent. But when pH rises—from menstrual blood, some drugs, improper diet and hygiene, pregnancy or menopause—you’ll notice a difference in consistency, color, amount and smell. These signs can also point to problems.
The most common reason for abnormal discharge is bacterial vaginosis (BV), an infection with a fishy-smelling, white or gray and watery or foamy discharge.
Trichomoniasis, a sexually transmitted infection (STI), causes a malodorous green, yellow or gray discharge and itching. Another STI, human papillomavirus (HPV), carries a risk of cervical cancer; yet another, Chlamydia, may prolong HPV infection. Both can lead to abnormal bleeding and other symptoms—or none at all. Genital herpes, which may cause abnormal bumps or blisters, can also affect the vagina. If you suspect you have any of these conditions, a visit to your healthcare provider is in order.
When normally residing fungi, generally Candida albicans, become overabundant, a yeast infection can hit. You’ll suspect it if you have cottage-cheese-like discharge, pain, itching and burning or redness. Four or more yeast infections in a year indicate the presence of recurrent vulvovaginal candidiasis, which is more common in people with diabetes or weak immunity.
Some vaginal difficulties aren’t microbial in nature. For example, in older women painful intercourse is “usually caused by lower estrogen levels associated with aging. This decrease makes the vaginal walls thin, dry and less resilient,” says Elizabeth Korza, ND, of Berkeley Naturopathic Medical Group, in Berkeley, California.
Avoiding the Itch
The road to a healthy vagina begins with getting to know yours, Korza suggests. “Every day for a couple of months, track your discharge’s amount, consistency and odor. This way you’ll know what’s normal or not for you.” At home and during your annual pelvic exam and Pap smear, use a mirror to familiarize yourself with your own anatomy.
“There’s a stigma, but of course you can look at your vagina. It’s yours!” says Korza.
Tami Lynn Kent, MSPT, holistic healthcare provider and author of Wild Feminine (Atria Books/Beyond Words), says, “When you connect to your vagina, you bring awareness to that part of your body.” Are you sitting too much? “That creates energy stagnation. Moving gets the blood flowing and circulates the hormones.”
While you’re up, have a glass of water. “The biggest thing is to stay hydrated, especially if you’re perimenopausal, so also don’t drink lots of caffeinated beverages,” says Dawn Ley, ND, of Full Circle Natural Medicine, in Madison, Wisconsin. “What you eat and your gastrointestinal tract influence vaginal health. The two ecosystems are intertwined.” Eat a balanced diet of fresh produce, whole grains and protein. Ley also urges consumption of healthful omega-3 oils, found in salmon and ground flax seeds. To encourage friendly bacteria to flourish, enjoy plain acidophilus yogurt, and/or take a high-quality probiotic recommended by your practitioner.
Avoid vaginal irritation by wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing (washed in mild soap without sulfates) and frequently changing tampons (organic, preferably). Use condoms to help deter STIs and a water- or silicone-based lubricant for dryness. After intercourse urinate, says Korza, “to reduce the risk of bladder infection. So you don’t accidentally pick up any bacteria from your rectum, wipe front to back.”
Forget douching. “It can dislodge the good bacteria, too,” says Ley. Instead, she suggests doing alternating warm-then-cool sitz baths with an infusion of calendula, thyme, usnea and marshmallow “to cleanse and increase blood flow to your reproductive tissues.”
Garlic, citrus seed extract and tea tree oil are natural agents that fight bacteria and fungi; tea tree works well as a personal wash when combined with complementary ingredients such as aloe, honeysuckle and limonene. For internal use, garlic can be used with acidophilus and the antifungal herb pau d’arco. One way to help fight candida is to undergo a cleanse; in addition to eating a low-carb diet and drinking plenty of fresh water, a supplement regimen that includes organic goldenseal, cranberry, Gymnema sylvestre, oregano, cinnamon and clove may be helpful.
A healthy vagina is vital to overall well-being. “It’s your creative center,” says Kent. “There’s potency there for how you desire, create and seek pleasure—and a lot of power for how you choose to live your life.”