We hear about probiotics a lot, especially in terms of gut health. But they also crop up in conversations on vaginal health. Are these the same types of probiotics? Can we get them from eating yogurt? What exactly do they do? We spoke to a few OB-GYNs to get the lowdown on vaginal probiotics.
What are they?
To put it simply, vaginal probiotics are “good” bacteria that are essential for a healthy vagina, Dr. Mache Seibel, an OB-GYN, tells SheKnows. And although we may associate bacteria will illness, there are several types that are actually essential for bodily function, Dr. Lauren Streicher, and OB-GYN and medical director of the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause and associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University, tells SheKnows.
"All areas of the body are populated by bacteria, which function to help you break down food, aid your immune system and supplement your health in important ways," she explains. "Infection with a pathogenic bacteria or overgrowth of a nonpathogenic bacteria can be problematic and increase the risk of unpleasant symptoms or infection. Probiotics can help keep your body balanced and prevent many medical conditions, which is why the number of probiotics for digestive health has boomed over the last few years and science is only beginning to understand the complex relationship our bodies have with beneficial bacteria in other parts of the body.
When do we need them?
A healthy vagina has a balanced pH, but things like yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis and taking antibiotics can throw it out of whack, Seibel explains, noting that probiotics can help restore a healthy bacterial balance. He adds that taking vaginal probiotics does not present any risks — so for most people with recurring yeast infections, it's a good place to start treatment.
How do you get them?
Let's start by clarifying that not all probiotics are created equal.
"Many products on the market claim to contain probiotics, lactobacillus and/or acidophilus," Streicher explains. "Some products contain probiotic strains that are designed to promote digestive [health], immunity or other health benefits but are not specific to vaginal health."
As a result, it's important to understand the features of these products so you know whether what you are taking is actually beneficial to your overall vaginal health, she notes. Specifically, vaginal probiotics provide probiotic lactobacillus that works with your body to balance vaginal yeast and bacteria, Streicher says. In order to increase effectiveness, a probiotic should contain both live active cultures and a strain specific to the vagina, she notes.
Probiotics can be taken either via oral supplements (available over the counter from pharmacies) or vaginally, Seibel explains. This, however, does not include yogurt-dipped tampons or applying yogurt topically inside your vagina, Dr. Mary Jane Minkin, an OB-GYN and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University, tells SheKnows. While she says that some people report this method working, it's really not a good idea.
"The problem is that the strains of lactobacilli in yogurt aren't exactly the same ones that hang around the vagina, which is why that approach may not work," she explains.
Why is a balanced vagina important?
Everyday occurrences like taking oral antibiotics, the menstrual cycle, sexual activity, exercise and swimming can upset the natural balance of yeast and bacteria that live in the vagina — as can hormonal changes like pregnancy and menopause, Streicher explains. She adds that most people who have bacterial vaginosis do not experience any symptoms, which can potentially lead to serious issues like infertility.
"Optimum vaginal health occurs when there is a healthy balance of lactobacillus, yeast and other bacteria," she says.
So, if you've been experiencing vaginal health problems, you may want to speak to your doctor about taking some oral vaginal probiotic supplements — and skip the yogurt-dipped tampons.