They’re not just good for your gut, they can also help put a stop to repeat episodes of thrush and bacterial vaginosis too. Here’s why these 'friendly' bacteria play a valuable role in keeping your vaginal flora happy and healthy
Probiotics have long been hailed for their benefits for brain and bowel . However, there’s another part of the body that can also take advantage of top-ups of these ‘friendly’ strains of bacteria too - following in the footsteps of 'down there' skincare , vagina-focused supplements are now a thing and, if you were surprised to hear that, yes, we have to say that we were too.
The category centres around the vagina’s delicate balance of flora which, when out of whack (thanks to anything from antibiotics to perfumed soaps), can make things extremely uncomfortable down south. This flora plays a pivotal role in preserving the acidic environment needed for it to operate at optimal functionality. “The composition of the vaginal flora is very important when it comes to maintaining the pH of the vagina,” explains consultant gynaecologist at London Gynaecology , Mrs Pradnya Pisal. “When the pH changes, the wrong kind of bacteria proliferate, and this usually leads to infection and troublesome symptoms.”
These imbalances can result in conditions such as thrush and bacterial vaginosis (BV). In the first instance, creams and antibiotics are the best forms of treatment. However afterwards, these conditions have a propensity to reoccur - this is where vaginal probiotics come in. “Following treatment, probiotics can help, in either vaginal or oral tablet forms, to support a good balance of bacteria,” says Harley Street gynaecologist, Tania Adib. “Women who have recurrent vaginal infections, and those on antibiotics, especially if taking long-term antibiotics for stubborn infections, would benefit from taking them the most.”
How they work
They’re usually characterised by their inclusion of strains that naturally occur in the vagina and are hardy enough to survive the trip through the digestive system to get from gut to genitals in one piece. They most commonly include members from the lactobacillus family (the most dominant type of bacteria in the vagina).
One such example is Optibac’s For Women probiotic, (14 capsules for £9.99), which contains lactobacillus rhamnosus GR-1 and lactobacillus reuteri RC-14. It can be used as a booster to antibiotics for treating BV. “These strains are unique in that they have been proven to reach the intimate flora and they colonise primarily in the vaginal tract,” says registered nutritionist Naomi Osun. Once at their end destination, they help restore its acidic environment by producing hydrogen peroxide as well as other substances that reduce the population of pathogenic microorganisms.
“The strains are proven to colonise in the vagina after a week of treatment, so we’d recommend taking this product for at least seven days or until symptom-free, taking two capsules a day during an active infection,” recommends Naomi. “It’s safe to take on a long-term basis when symptom-free (one capsule a day is often fine for this) and it can also be taken during a course of antibiotics, but we’d recommend taking it 1-2 hours away from antibiotic medication.”
For those on antibiotics (which can cause flora imbalances), Optibac’s For Those on Antibiotics , (10 capsules for £5.99), has been created with your needs in mind. “It contains two strains - lactobacillus rhamnosus rosell-11 and lactobacillus acidophilus rosell-52,” Naomi tells us. “These strains have been shown to help preserve the vaginal microbiome during antibiotic treatment, reducing the risk of dysbiosis that could lead to thrush commonly experienced by those taking antibiotic medication.”
One study showed that individuals who were given probiotics containing these strains alongside a course of antibiotics had 90 per cent of their vaginal flora preserved and no incidence of diarrhoea either (another fun antibiotic side-effect). “We recommend taking them all through the course of antibiotics, and there is no need to take this probiotic at a different time of the day from the antibiotic,” advises Naomi.
Not all vaginal probiotics are designed to be taken orally though. Some, such as Canesten’s Canesflor Probiotics for Vaginal Use , (£15.99 for 10 capsules), require a more, ahem, direct approach (we just winced too). Tania has some valuable tips though: “The best way to take the probiotics is at night when you are lying in bed just before you go to sleep. If you have trouble inserting the capsule then you can moisten it slightly. Make sure you insert it as deeply as you can so it works best.”
It contains the strain, lactobacillus plantarum P 17630, chosen for its ability to adhere to vaginal mucosa and create a protective barrier over the vaginal walls to prevent recurrences of thrush and BV. It’s designed to be taken once a day for six days followed by one capsule per week for four weeks.
Who shouldn’t take them
A wide array of people can take these types of supplements, but those with pre-existing medical conditions should exercise caution and consult their GP first. “There is some evidence that women with underlying health problems can be more susceptible to develop an infection as a result of taking probiotics,” says Tania. “These may need to be treated with antibiotics, so it’s best to avoid them in these circumstances.”
Mrs Pisal also advises that those who are immunocompromised (due to infection or when receiving organ transplants or prosthetic valves), have had heart valve surgery and those receiving cancer treatments steer clear too.
The other things you can do to keep your vaginal flora in check
Diet and lifestyle play pivotal roles in preventing the occurrence and recurrence of infections. “Avoid harsh cleansers or soaps, tight fitting and synthetic clothing and consume a wide variety of fresh vegetables while avoiding sugar and processed foods,” advises Laura Southern, nutritional therapist at London Gynaecology. Upping your water intake will also help keep things well hydrated down there while prebiotic foods such as garlic, onions, oats, lentils and leeks and probiotic-rich foods such as kefir, yoghurt, kombucha and kimchi can help too.
Also take steps to keep stress levels down and eat immune system-boosting foods to help further support your more intimately positioned microbiome. “One of the key factors that affects your vaginal health is your immunity,” says Tania. “Our immune system supports our bodies to maintain a good balance of bacteria and prevents bad bacteria from taking hold. However, if your immune system is run down, which may commonly be down to stress, or a virus, you are more likely to get a vaginal infection.”
Read more: What your vaginal discharge is trying to tell you