We couldn’t help but wonder, what were the links between gut and vaginal health?
This post has been created with the wonderful @umamimami__, otherwise known as Tamara!
This one might seem like an obscure question, but bear with us. Having only come to the surface more recently in sexual health, this topic was one certainly unbeknownst to us. One immediate similarity that came to mind however is that both have bacteria that manage the environments to keep them healthy. So maybe this question isn’t so bizarre after all? Interestingly (but unfortunately), people with IBS may already be very aware of the relationship between gut and sexual health; – it can result in higher rates of erectile dysfunction, and anxiety around sex can bring on IBS symptoms.
Essentially both the gut and the vagina are environments that undergo a balancing act of good and bad bacteria. As one may (or may not!) imagine, when too much of the bad bacteria is present there can be negative consequences. The healthier the vaginal environment, the lower the risk of STIs (sexually transmitted infections), gynaecological cancer and positive birth outcomes (Cassano, 2020). This environment consists of lots of the good stuff – lactobilli produce lactic acid that makes the vagina more acidic, similar to that of wine’s acidity – that protects against infections like thrush or bacterial vaginosis (BV) (ibid). Curiously, thrush and BV can get lumped with STIs, as they might have similar symptoms – such as a burning sensation when you pee, or irregular smelling or consistency of discharge. But perhaps getting aggravated by good old PIV (penis and vagina) sex, thrush and BV have another likely culprit – the gut.
Understandably, many attribute vaginal hygiene products and sex as the no.1 suspects. Often containing perfumes, these are marketed in a noticeable way to women, who may be socialised to feel more ‘dirty’ or shameful towards their genitals. These products, along with unprotected sex, etc. can throw off the vagina’s natural pH by making the vagina more alkaline, which in turn allows the bad bacteria to flourish. This can lead to infections. It is important to differentiate between the vagina (internal) and the vulva (everything external) – both of which do not need washing with anything other than warm water.
Our friend lactobilli can also be found in the gut, where the same thing can happen – lower levels of lactobilli means that more bad bacteria can gather there. If the gut is off-balance, with lower lactobilli and bad bacteria runs rife, emerging studies have found that this can impact the bacteria in the vagina, given the closeness of the anus and the vagina (Cassano, 2020). Presence of E Coli in the gut is thought to be one of the main causes of a urinary tract infection (UTI).
Having BV, for many vagina-owners, can be a result of having penetrative sex, although this is not the only way. This infection is extremely common and 1 in 3 vagina owners will get it at some point in their lifetime. Many experience bouts of BV during their period (blood can throw off the vagina’s pH), after using perfumed hygiene products or for seemingly no reason at all. It is not fully understood yet the ways in which diet and our gut health impact our chances of getting BV however some studies have found that they are indeed linked.
We know that the largest impact on our gut health is our diet. It has been observed that the consumption of certain foods may consequently increase or decrease our likelihood of getting BV. There was a significantly lower risk of severe BV in women with high intakes of folate, vitamin E, and calcium.
Similarly, for many people who get thrush – known as candida albicans – it is often recommended to cut out yeasty/sugary foods that are literally considered to feed the infection. This bacteria is in the body already, and can grow more extensively. These foods might be some of the most glorious – beers, bread, ice-cream etc. Some suggest consuming probiotics – which can help to keep the gut healthy. There are now even proviotics, which are more directly marketed for the vagina. Probiotics can often be costly and not accessible to everyone so why not try foods that are naturally rich in probiotics like yoghurt, fermented vegetables, miso, kombucha etc.
Additionally, if you’re feeling shitty (no pun intended) from gut issues, it’s also thought to impact sex, as some hormones are produced in the gut such as serotonin which regulates our moods and can control and make blood flow better (which is very essential for erections in the penis or clitoris). This area is essentially severely under-researched, but nonetheless fascinating! There is much more to be done in the overall research around how our gut acts as a microcosm of our overall health.
Cassano, L. (2020). Can Gut Health Affect Vaginal Infections Like Thrush And BV? Women’s Health Webpage. (Accessed online: https://yourdaye.com/vitals/womens-health/link-between-your-bowels-and-vaginal-microbiome 29/11/2020)