Bacteria can be found pretty much everywhere. In fact, there's about two to six pounds of bacteria in your body right now, according to the National Institutes of Health. While too much bad bacteria in the body can lead to infections, not all bacteria is bad for you. That's especially true when it comes to your vaginal health.
"Bacteria plays a vital role in vaginal health," Dr. Allison Hill, Los Angeles-based OB/GYN and Florajen chief medical correspondent, tells Bustle. "The predominant organism in the genital tract is Lactobacillus. This bacteria is crucial for maintaining vaginal pH balance and for creating a protective barrier against 'bad' bacteria."
Balance is key here. Both good and bad bacteria is needed in order to be considered healthy. As Dr. Jessica Shepherd, OB/GYN and Poise expert, tells Bustle, "It’s not a matter of good vs. bad, it’s any bacteria that's overgrown." According to Shepherd, the vagina has a very delicate pH balance. So when there's any type of bacteria overgrowth, you're more likely to experience issues such as yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis. Symptoms include abnormally strong odors, changes in discharge, and irritations.
Being aware of what's going on in your body and what it needs to stay healthy can help you make changes. So here are some things doctors want you to know about good and bad vaginal bacteria.
1. It's Normal To Have A Small Amount Of Yeast In Your Vagina
When you think of yeast in the vaginal area, it's automatically assumed to be a bad thing. But according to Hill, "Yeast is a normal inhabitant of the vagina. It lives in harmony with many other bacteria, including the dominant organism Lactobacillus." Sex, antibiotics, pregnancy, and a weakened immune system are all things that can change your vaginal chemistry and throw it off balance.
2. Too Much Yeast And Other Bacteria Will Lead To Infections
Naturally, too much yeast can lead to symptoms of a yeast infection. According to Hill, the most common symptoms are itching, discharge and burning. But when too many other "bad bacteria" grow, the result is Bacterial Vaginosis (BV). "This infection is associated with discharge and a fishy odor," she says. Mayo Clinic also notes that with BV, you may notice symptoms like painful urination, and vaginal itching. It's important to see your doctor if any of these signs crop up.
3. Probiotics Can Help You Stay Balanced
If your balance is off, you can do something about it. According to Hill, you can replenish the amount of good bacteria by taking probiotics as they typically contain strains of good bacteria to help balance out the bad. "Taking a probiotic [made for people with vaginas], specifically helps maintain and restore the natural balance of vaginal flora," she says.
4. The Products You Use And The Clothes You Wear Can Promote Bacteria Growth
You can also be mindful of the products you're using and the clothes you're wearing in order to maintain a healthy pH balance. As Shepherd says, "Avoid sitting around in sweaty workout clothes and wet bathing suits because that can promote vaginal bacterial overgrowth." Heavily scented soaps that contain sulfates can throw your balance out of whack, as well as any other feminine products that contain artificial fragrances.
5. Your Period Can Put You Off Balance
Yeast infections are super common, and most people with vaginas will experience it at least once in their lifetime. One of the biggest reasons for this is your menstrual cycle. "Your pH can dramatically shift in balance right before and right after your period, increasing your chances of bacterial and yeast infections," Shepherd says. Avoiding foods that aren't rich in nutrients and taking a probiotics can help you avoid getting an infection around your period.
6. The Food You Eat Can Impact The Growth Of Bacteria
The food you eat can impact vaginal bacteria overgrowth. According to Shepherd, you want to go for a low inflammatory diet that's rich in whole foods like beans and legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains. You also want to limit white sugar and processed foods as much as possible.
7. Staying Hydrated Is Important
Staying hydrated in general is super important. As a 2016 Monash University study found, there's no "right" amount of water you should be aiming to drink each day. The amount of water you need to drink a day really depends on your body and your lifestyle. According to Shepherd, getting enough water will "help to flush out anything in your system that isn't contributing to a good vaginal flora."
When it comes to your vaginal health, it's not about eliminating bad bacteria altogether. It's all about maintaining a balance between the good and the bad. Eating nutritious foods, getting enough water, and avoiding certain care products can help your vagina stay in good shape.