Want Better Vaginal Health? Try Eating Fermented Foods

You’ve heard of the gut biome. You’ve maybe even heard of your skin’s microbiome. But did you know your vagina has a microbiome of its very own as well?

By Alicia Bittle4 min read
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Women these days are bombarded with products designed to “fix” their vaginas. Products designed to make it smell good, make it smell less, make it not smell at all. Products designed to fix its pH, to wash it from the inside out, to only wash it on the outside, and to destroy fungal overgrowth. Products to put in it, on it, around it, and over it. And if that weren't bad enough, procedures to slice, dice, and inject it in order to make it visually more “desirable.” 

Yes, these days it seems as if Big Business thinks quite a lot more about our vagina than we ourselves do, yet, it has offered no effective preventative health measures for the issues that actually matter to the modern woman. All we want is a healthy vagina, but these days, what does that even mean? How did women manage to keep themselves clean before the era of daily showers and antibacterial soap? Well, just as with most things in life, the answer actually lies within.

Vaginal Flora

Though healthy vaginas don’t typically smell like flowers, they shouldn’t really stink either. And while it might seem strange to think about your vagina’s particular bouquet, it’s actually a very good way of determining its overall health as the bacteria and yeasts present (or lacking) are what determine the majority of its aroma. Other things that may temporarily influence its smell are where we are in our cycle (increases in estrogen during ovulation cause our mucous membranes to secrete glycogen which can make the vagina of an ovulating woman smell sweeter), our diet (eating processed foods can cause a temporary stench), and our health (fungal and bacterial overgrowth can also cause the vagina to stink). But again, even these factors are influenced and modulated by bacteria.

To put it into perspective, the microorganisms on and within your body outnumber your own cells by 39-50 trillion to 30 trillion, making us, in all actuality, only about 43% human. Though most of these foreigners are beneficial, some, like streptococcus, gardnerella, and candida, can wreak havoc in a body if left to proliferate unchecked. But what causes this? While Big Pharma tells us it’s all due to an imbalanced pH and Big Business tells us to buy a special vaginal wash (but don’t douche anymore because that’s too extreme) to fix it, the reality is that these washes actually end up killing almost all vaginal bacteria, including the beneficial ones. So in order to not get a future infection, you have to continue using the special feminine wash because if you do stop, there's no police force left in your vagina to keep all the baddies at bay. That is, unless…you import some colonists. 

The microorganisms on and within your body outnumber your own cells by 39-50 trillion to 30 trillion.

Eat Fermented Foods for Better Vaginal Health

Fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, cheese, yogurt, kefir, and kombucha can contain as many as 1 million to 1 trillion live microbes per gram. This is made all the more impressive given the fact that in kombucha alone, there are possibly 200 or more different species of bacteria and yeasts present. But why does that matter? Well, because these bacteria and yeasts are the beneficial kind. Not only are they responsible for the maintenance of your immune system, mental health, metabolism, and digestion, but specific species are also responsible for secreting proteins and hydrogen peroxide that acidify the pH of your vagina. All of these mechanisms work together to kill and prevent the colonization of bad bacteria, yeasts, viruses, and cancer cells, and promote healthy ovulation and implantation. 

Take Lactobacillus, for example. It thrives on glycogen. And when does a woman’s body secrete the most glycogen? During ovulation. So during ovulation, not only do you smell sweeter, but your Lactobacillus colonies grow stronger than ever. Why is this important? Because Lactobacillus, in addition to secreting hydrogen peroxide and acidifying the vagina (as well as the uterus, which facilitates successful embryo implantation), secretes anti-inflammatory substances which also help with successful baby implantation. 

Next, let’s zoom in and look at Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Not only does it help prevent cavities and yeast infections, but it’s been shown to directly prevent Group B Streptococcus bacteria colonization in the vagina and on the perineum.

If you’ve ever been pregnant before, you may remember the dreaded GBS swab appointment endured during your third trimester. It’s important this test is done, as GBS infection, though harmless to the mother, can cause preterm birth and all sorts of illnesses in her baby. However, the unfortunate fact is that even though GBS colonization is completely preventable (and treatable), if you test positive, your conventional OB will tell you the only treatment is IV antibiotics before/during the early stages of labor. This is problematic for multiple reasons, but the most concerning issue is the fact that these antibiotics wipe out both a mother’s and her baby’s microbiome. 

And this is a huge issue, as antibiotic usage is actually linked to many severe health conditions such as cancer, chronic ear infections, asthma, severe allergic reactions, ADHD, celiac disease, heart disease, nerve damage, obesity, C. Diff, necrotizing enterocolitis (a condition that primarily effects premature babies in which bad bacteria can destroy their colon, causing systemic infection and death), heart attack, stroke, yeast infections, tendon injuries, fatal heart arrhythmias, suicide, and heart valve damage. By hooking a mother up to IV antibiotics during the early stages of labor, we’re destroying the baby’s ability to recover from this assault through wiping out any chance of bacterial “seeding” as the newborn passes through the vaginal canal, and eliminating the transfer of beneficial bacteria in the breast milk.   

The absolutely terrifying thing here, is that for many of these conditions, we’re not talking about chronic antibiotic exposure. No, we’re talking about a one time exposure to antibiotics and you’re predisposed to some of these conditions for the next several years, sometimes even life. 

The damage that antibiotics do to the human biome and therefore, overall health, is devastating. So why, then, is conventional medicine’s only recommendation for GBS colonization, a nuclear dose of antibiotics right before the baby is born? Why not just prevent GBS colonization altogether?

My midwives wanted to put me on a probiotic pill during my second trimester to help make sure I didn’t test positive for GBS in my third trimester. When I declined, telling them that I made and consumed my own ferments, they wanted to make sure my particular ferments contained Lactobacillus rhamnosus. A quick google search in their office showed me that, fortunately, most fermented foods do. Additionally, fermented foods also colonize the human body far better than any pill ever could. This is due to the fact that fermented foods not only carry a higher number of bacteria per ounce and contain more species than a pill could hope to achieve, but also the fermented food that houses the bacteria protects it as it undergoes digestion. This protection allows the bacteria to not only colonize the gut (which supplements have a hard time doing), but to survive all the way to excretion and then colonize other parts of the body from there. 

Lastly, the Mayo Clinic lists a “natural lack of lactobacilli” as a risk factor for bacterial vaginosis, a bacterial overgrowth that can cause pain, swelling, and itching of the vagina as well as preterm birth. But in its “prevention” section for the disease, consuming fermented foods or a supplement with beneficial lactobacilli isn’t listed! Lactobacilli are some of the most common bacteria species present in fermented foods. There honestly isn’t one that doesn't have any lactobacilli present. So, if you’d like better advice than to simply “minimize vaginal irritation” in order to keep your vagina happy and healthy, just go pick up some refreshing kombucha from your local grocery store, or better yet, make your own and drink it daily. One serving of fermented food every day is really all you need to reap the amazing health benefits bacteria have to offer.

Closing Thoughts

It’s thought that our bodies have been evolving with fermented foods since the Neolithic period (about 12,000 years ago). Only recently (since the food revolutions of the 1950s and ‘70s) have we gotten rid of fermented foods from our diets. Consequently, since then, we’ve also seen an uptick in severe health issues.

Unfortunately, a direct link between this severe shift in diet and chronic illness may never be established. But fortunately for us, we are endowed with common sense and the ability to draw conclusions of our own. We’ve seen what happens when we destroy our microbiome, and scientists are studying today the explosion of benefits that occur when we intentionally build it up. 

The bacteria present in fermented foods work symbiotically with the human body, and we literally can’t survive without them. Their presence outnumbers our own cells, therefore their importance to our health can’t be stressed enough. Luckily for us, these foods are becoming more mainstream, available for consumption in the public market, and incredibly easy to make at home. These were the staples of our ancestors' diets. It’s time we re-adopt them and make our health whole, once again.  

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