Your vaginal health is a huge part of your well-being. Most of the time as women, it is taken for granted. However, when something comes up, that’s when we realize how important having a healthy vagina can be. Vaginal health impacts not only our physical health when you are physically uncomfortable but also our mental health in how confident we feel interacting with our partners or even getting into a bathing suit. We are emotionally attached to the state of our vagina (reasonably so!). Let’s explore what vaginal health is and what we can do about it.
What is a Healthy Vagina?
Having a healthy vagina is what all women want, but what exactly helps it stay healthy? Here’s a secret, your vagina, the internal part of the female genitalia, was made to be self cleaning which is what keeps it healthy most of the time. When your vagina is healthy, it looks like;
- No noticeable sensation (you only feel it when you have direct stimulation).
- No noticeable odour, yes the vaginal canal has an odour, but it should be minimal and just smell like your regular vaginal scent.
- Minimal discharge, you need some to keep your vaginal tissue moist, and then of course a sticky discharge around ovulation.
- A vaginal pH that is between 3.5-4.5. Depending on your ethnicity this does vary slightly. Make sure you know what your normal should be.
And that’s it! A healthy vagina is one that takes care of itself, and we only notice it when we want to.
Factors That Can Affect Vaginal Health
The vagina is a muscular canal which extends from the vulva to the cervix.
There are several factors which can affect vaginal health. These include:
- Sexual Intercourse: Unprotected sex may result in disease or infection. Forceful sex could cause vaginal trauma or injury to the pelvic area.
- Health Conditions: Pelvic inflammation and endometriosis are conditions which can result in painful sexual intercourse if left untreated.
- Medication: Use of antibiotics may increase the risk of a yeast infection.
- Birth Control: The use of barrier methods of contraception, such as condoms can cause irritation. This is especially true for those with a latex allergy, but there are other possible causes.
- Pregnancy and Childbirth: Many people experience increases in vaginal discharge during pregnancy. Vaginal deliveries can cause a decrease in muscle tone.
- Hormones: Changes in hormone levels can have an impact on the vagina. For example, loss of estrogen can cause the vaginal lining to thin, resulting in painful sex.
How To Determine Your Vaginal Health
There are multiple ways to determine your vaginal health; and most women only seriously consider how healthy their vagina is once it becomes a problem. Don’t forget, the vagina is the internal female genitalia whereas your vulva is the external female genitalia.
Things to watch out for when it comes to your vagina:
- Unusual Discharge: this can be thin, thick, watery, white, yellow, or green. Take note of what type of discharge you are having, how often it comes and if it is related to anything else (consider timing like around your period, sexual activity, use of toys, etc)
- Unusual Odour: This can range from sour smell, to “fishy” or like lake water. Again, take note of when it’s occurring
- Change in Sensation: Do you experience pain? Do you experience itching or burning? Does your vaginal tissue feel dry, like sand paper or sticky?
- Change in Appearance: Do you notice any skin changes like dryness, redness, bumps or swelling?
Once you’ve taken note of what is happening within your vagina and on your vulva, you will be better able to speak to your Naturopath or other health care provider about it. The more you are able to tell them, the better they will be able to assess your vaginal health.
From there, tests can be ordered to determine the status of your vaginal health. The top testings that we recommend to patients are below:
- Vaginal pH
- Vaginal swabs for yeast and bacteria
- Vaginal microbiome profiling for trickier cases or for those who really want to know the composition of their vaginal microbiome.
- Pelvic floor assessments
Other vaginal tests that are routine and should be done according to public health guidelines are:
- PAP testing (every 3 years after becoming sexually active or age 21 until the age of 70)
Common Vaginal Health Problems & Symptoms
Vaginitis is the general term for inflammation and associated irritation of the vulva and vagina before you actually know what is going on. When you are trying to figure out what is wrong, these are the most common vaginal infections that we as women come across:
- The overgrowth of unwanted bacteria that disrupt the normal vaginal flora.
- Bacterial vaginosis can feel like itching, pain with intercourse and pain with urination.
- This can look like an abnormal vaginal discharge with a thin consistency that’s white or grey.
- BV can smell like an unpleasant odour often referred to as “fishy”.
- The overgrowth of yeast in the vaginal canal. This is a fungal infection and is also known as vaginal candidiasis.
- A yeast infection can feel like itching or burning of the vagina or vulva along with pain with intercourse.
- Yeast infections can look like thick white vaginal discharge which is sometimes referred to as cottage-cheese in texture.
- Yeast infections can also present without discharge.
- With a yeast infection, there won’t usually have a smell.
- An infection of the trichomonas vaginalis parasite. It is considered an STI (sexually transmitted infection).
- A lot of the time it is asymptomatic meaning you won’t know you are carrying it.
- Trichomoniasis can feel like discomfort with intercourse and pain with urination. As well as inflammatory signs like burning, soreness, and itching.
- Trichomoniasis can look like redness of the vulva and a change in vaginal discharge; there is no specific discharge type to look for.
- Trichomoniasis infections can smell like an unpleasant odour, most often “fishy” or musty.
- Overgrowth of the good bacteria, lactobacilli, which are normally protective.
- It presents like a yeast infection, however the traditional treatments are not working.
- Cytolytic Vaginosis can feel like irritation or pain.
- Cytolytic Vaginosis can look like increased vaginal discharge that is white or yellow.
- Cytolytic Vaginosis doesn’t usually have a smell.
Vaginal Sex and Sexually Transmitted Infections
One of the things to watch out for are sexually transmitted diseases and this is why it’s important to have regular STI testing when you have new partners as well as when any new vaginal symptoms come up.
Bad Vaginal Health Habits You May Have
Proper hygiene is not always as simple as you think. Although having the right vaginal hygiene is helpful, it does not prevent all vaginal issues. Simply being said, there are other risk factors that can cause issues within the vaginal tract so it is nothing to be embarrassed about.
Read the list below and see what habits you have, and which ones you stay away from.
- Wiping back to front after using the toilet.
- Using special washes, soaps or perfumes on your vulva and in your vagina.
- Not peeing after sex.
- Not properly washing your sex toys after each use
- Wearing non-cotton underwear, and/or always wearing underwear and never giving your vagina the chance to breathe.
- Engaging in intercourse with multiple partners without the use of barrier protection. Multiple partners is great if that’s what you like, mixing all of their microbiomes with yours can be taxing on your microbiome’s ability to maintain balance.
Improving Your Vaginal Health
Why is it important to improve vaginal health?
Optimizing your vaginal health allows you to take a preventative and proactive approach to your health – and AVOID potential future problems. Having a healthy vagina reduces your risk of future infections, irritation and pain.
How Is the Vagina Important?
The vagina is an important part of a person’s body – it plays an integral role in our genitourinary health and reproductive tract health.
What Makes Your Vagina Healthy?
A healthy microbiome is essential to a healthy vagina. Ample amount of lactobacilli bacteria keep the vaginal pH optimal. A robust immune system is necessary for your vagina in order to fight infections.
Foods That Improve Vaginal Health
Eating whole foods with a variety of colour is the best way to support your immune system and to provide the nutrients you need to stay healthy. To keep your vagina stay healthy focus on reducing processed foods and limiting high sugar intake. Put a big focus on eating vegetables and fruits, high quality protein and healthy fats. Make sure to add in probiotic foods that support your microbiome such as yogurts, sauerkraut, kefir, tempeh, kimchi and kombucha. Support these healthy bacteria with prebiotic rich foods such as artichoke, asparagus, chicory, cocoa, dandelion greens, greens, garlic, berries and bananas.
What we’ve learned so far in this article is that your vagina knows how to take care of itself! Please remember that. Although walking into a drugstore or pharmacy can make you think you need to use vaginal cleaning products or perfumes (there are shelves full)- you do not need these products! This marketing teaches women that their vaginas and vulvas aren’t clean to begin with or that it’s something that needs to be cleaned regularly to stay that way. This is the one place in the body we will say “forget the soap”. Also say no to douches, oils, foams and perfumes. Your vagina is healthiest when left alone and you take care of your overall health which in turn takes care of your vaginal health.
How to Wash Your Vulva and Vagina
Just wash your vulva (this is the exterior part) with water or mild soap or whichever soap you use on the rest of your body. Do not put any soap or other cleaning products into the vaginal canal. This disrupts your vaginal flora and can be the cause of a vaginal infection.
Maintaining good health and a good immune system is the best way to care for your vulva and vagina.
General supplements that help you do this are:
- Probiotics which ensure a healthy microbiome, displace bad bacteria and keep the vaginal tract self-cleaning.
- Vitamin D is a large component of your immune health. Ensuring a healthy immune response is ready when needed will help you be better equipped to fight off any infection that may come up.
- Omega 3’s are a good source of healthy fats. Getting a good dose of these into your daily diet helps with healthy hormone production and this ensures you have a good amount of estrogen for vaginal lubrication.
- If you are worried about missing nutrients or do not eat a varied diet, a Multi-vitamin is always a good idea to fill in any of the gaps.
How Does Sex Affect Your Vaginal Health
Sex can be wonderful and great. It can also impact your vaginal health to the point you may be cautious to engage in any sexual activity at all. Sex can affect your vaginal health in a number of ways
- Sex plays a part in your microbiome make-up in how it is altered when another person’s microbiome is introduced (you both have your own unique bacterial composition).
- Sex can raise your vaginal pH temporarily (semen has a basic pH which differs from the acidic vaginal environment).
- Sex can lead to micro-tearing of the vaginal tissue depending on the amount of lubrication present.
When your vagina is affected by sex, it is usually more susceptible and not as healthy as it could be to begin with. Being aware of how sexual activity can affect your vagina is important so that you know what is being affected in the first place – and then you can get the appropriate support to get your vagina health and back on track.
As women we are very tied to our vaginal health as it can affect every aspect of our well-being. It is not something you should ever be embarrassed about or wait to seek help. It is very common for vaginal issues to occur. When this happens speaking to your Naturopath is a great way to get your vaginal health back on track quickly and get you feeling like you again. Whether it be tweaking some lifestyle factors, helping you clear an infection, repopulating your vaginal microbiome or even supporting your hormones to ensure proper lubrication- your Naturopath is there to help you identify what is happening and put steps in place to treat it.