Watch What You Put There!: The Vaginal Flora
Flora, our Friends
When we say flora, most of us get vivid images of wildflowers, ferns, and towering trees traversing the countryside. Really, flora is any kind of naturally occurring plant life. So how’s this for a plot twist? Your vagina has its very own system of flora. No, there aren’t roses and pathos adorning the inside of your vaginal canal, but there is a complex system of microorganisms that together create the vaginal microbiome.
That’s right, within our vaginas live a plethora of organisms that play a large role in our overall health. While most of these organisms are of bacterial variety, we are also home to fungi and viruses as well. Don’t freak out now, these lovely organisms are our friends! It’s no secret that in this symbiotic world, our bodies are home to many “foreign” organisms, that usually help us just as much as we help them. That’s what friends are for after all.
So what exactly they’re doing in there? A whole lot, that’s for sure. You may be familiar with the term “Lactobacilli” from the probiotic bottle in your fridge. Well, this gut-friendly microbe is naturally occurring within the vaginal canal. When it comes to your vaginal health, Lactobacilli bacteria help to regulate pH levels by producing hydrogen peroxide and lactic acid, keeping the vagina at a healthy, acidic range.
These bacterial buddies help to fight off potential offenders, so that our vaginas stay happy and balanced. But what happens if an imbalance does occur? What other forms of vaginal flora are inhabiting our goodies? Certain flora have the potential to become a pathogen because of their ability to cause a disturbance to natural function, or because they outnumber good bacteria.
Many of the vaginal issues we see are due to this imbalance of flora. An overgrowth of candida can potentially lead to a very uncomfortable yeast infection. Another common microbe we see is G. vaginalis. While not all women who carry it show symptoms, for some it can create an extremely uncomfortable disorder called bacterial vaginosis, or BV.
The Forest Within Us
If we compare the vaginal flora in our bodies to that of a forest, we see the mirroring of cutting down trees and destroying ecosystems, with how women’s bodies have been treated by society. With the amount of things that move in and out of the vaginal canal, it’s almost like a bulldozer plowing through a forest.
Between menstrual sanitation products, tight clothes, sex, and childbirth- it’s only natural that our fragile flora may get a little out of sorts. There’s no need to worry though, our bodies are resilient, and there are steps you can take to maintain a healthy system of vaginal flora. Starting with staying in tune with your body, and watching for signs of imbalances like irregular discharge, itching, and irritation.
Keeping Your Flora Friends Happy
So now that we’ve gotten acquainted with the incredible ecosystem within us, we can talk about how to maintain it. Much like how your diet helps the flora in your gut maintain a healthy overall digestive and immune system, it also has a significant impact on your vaginal health.
A diet full of whole foods, with minimal processed products and sugars can have a dramatic impact on any vaginal imbalances you may have.
Along with diet, you may consider taking an oral probiotic. One of the most common being something we’ve already gotten familiar with- Lactobacillus. It’s especially important to take these if you have ever been on antibiotics for any reason, as they disrupt the natural bacteria in our bodies.
What about things we put into our vaginas? Many menstrual products like conventional tampons and pads come with a slew of problems.
From toxic chemicals and bleaches to their “ultra-absorbent” powers, tampons can wreak havoc on the natural state of the vagina. With the amount of tampons a woman would have to use in her menstrual lifetime, you can bet that it would have a significant impact on the delicate balance of her flora. An incredible, and environmentally friendly, alternative is a menstrual cup.
Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve already made the switch. If not, it’s time to hop on the train.
Other things that go into our bodies? Sex toys for one. While we here at Intimina are huge advocates for self-pleasure, make sure you’re following the instructions for proper care of your toys. Good hygiene equals a happy vagina.
How about sex? A foreign person’s bacteria, while they may not be foreign to you, can potentially cause an imbalance in your flora. Just like with your toys, keeping good hygiene and safe sex practices, like separating vaginal from anal play, will help keep everyone happy. Oh and don’t forget the age old adage: “Always pee after sex!”
When buying condoms, lubes, and soaps that may go near your vagina, make sure to look out for ones free of toxins and parabens. There are a growing number of companies that are producing genital friendly goods, so that you can enjoy your sex life, worry-free.
It’s pretty mind-blowing to see the similarities between the world around us and the world within us. When we give ourselves a chance to do so, it gives us that much more gratitude for all the hard work these fantastic flora do to keep us, and our vaginas, happy and balanced.
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.